Problem Solving Basic Process

Life is a continuous exercise in creative problem solving.

Quote attributed to Michael Gelb

Solving problems is the focus of work for many people.  You might find yourself solving a problem for your customer/client or your company, helping somebody else solve a problem, or discovering new problems that need to be solved.  Problems can be gig or small, complex or simple.  No matter what flavor they are, finding a solution often improves organizational performance and moral.

I have fond that having a defined process is often helpful for solving problems.  It gives you a confidence boost, and when you get too caught up in the weeds it provides a lifeline to get refocused on the objective of finding a solution.

You can find any number of approaches to problem solving by doing a Google search on the subject.  But, here is the 7-step process that has served me well throughout my career.  I share it with you in hopes you’ll find it a useful tool to address any problems you need to solve.

Define the problem.

This requires a clear articulation of the problem you are trying to solve.  Where this step gets challenging is the tendency to describe the symptoms of a problem rather than the actual problem that needs resolution.  A good problem statement minimally 1) describes the gap between the current and desired level of performance and 2) provides an absolute or relative measurement to be used to indicate the problem has been solved.  It should be single-minded in scope and NOT prescribe (or bias) a solution.  Writing effective problem statements is a skill.  But, if you start with a poorly understood statement there is a good chance you will waste organizational resources solving the wrong problem.

Determine if a similar problem has been faced before.

Thee power of learning from case studies cannot be understated.  A problem might appear new to you, but has either been faced and solved somewhere else in the Organization or by a competitor.  Digging deep to understand if president exists not only helps with the efficiency of solving the problem; but, can also provide insights into potential pitfalls you will want to avoid.  This step can be tedious because it involves communication and research.  But, if done correctly it also provides a strong contextual background to be used when recommending your ultimate problem solution to Management.

Obtain all relevant information.

Try and gather as much quantitative information you can on both the problem and the impact it has on the Organization.  Talk to people inside your Company as well as outside experts.  Be certain to categorize the information as quantifiable fact versus learned opinion so you can think about it and represent it properly in the problem solving process.  Clarify any confusing or conflicting information you collect.  Make certain everybody involved in coming up with a solution understands the data the same way.

Examine possible solutions and weigh pros/cons.

There are a number of ways to do this.  Simply Google “options analysis in decision making” to get a feel for the different approaches you might consider.   No matter which model you select, it boils down to defining the key (Organizationally aligned) decision criteria and then assessing each option on that basis.  Classically NPV is often a consideration in selecting one option over another.  In my experience you rarely end up with a clearly obvious choice.  More often than not there are a couple possible solutions that meet the criteria.

Select the solution you plan to recommend and outline the reasons why.

If you have done a good job on the above steps, the information you need to outline the support for your solution choice will be readily available.  But, every possible solution carries risk.  I believe strongly that solution recommendations should overtly articulate what the Organizational risk of adopting the solution is.  Don’t try and sweep the risk under the rug.  Doing so is an injustice to those managers who may either be accountable for or required to assume that risk.


Too many problem solving exercises end with an approved solution but inadequate resourcing.  If you fail to act, the entire exercise is a colossal waste of time.

Measure results and adjust if necessary.

One of my favorite models is the P-D-C-A Cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) because it recognizes the need for monitoring change in order to ensure you get the results you expected.  Whenever you solve a problem, you should proactively measure the impact of your solution not only to make certain it is working, but also to identify if there are any unintended consequences that need addressing.  This will require you to take a more holistic look and go beyond the metric you selected in the problem statement.

I have no doubt you have heard much of the above before.  I am hoping that packaging it as a 7-step process will give you a handy reminder of what you already know about problem solving.  And, if any of the information is new to you then even better.

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