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How to Solve a Problem

This article will help you define what a problem is, and give you some steps to follow to help you work through the process of solving it.

What is a Problem?

A problem, in simple terms, is anything that is blocking your progress toward a goal.  Any job at any level in the company exists so that certain goals can be accomplished.  Therefore, with any job you are likely to meet up with problems i.e. obstacles blocking your progress toward a goal.

The term ‘problem’ can also be used when we are trying to achieve some task, though in many cases ‘design’ or ‘task achieving’ are more appropriate.

When the course of action towards the desired objective is not easy or routine, then we say we have a ‘problem’.

What is Problem-Solving?

Problem-solving is simply the process of overcoming the obstacles we face.  The traditional method for problem-solving is to find the cause of the problem and then to seek to remove that cause. Finding the cause may involve identifying several possible causes and then checking them one by one.

With all problems, we run through a list of possibilities before making a decision.

Often when we solve a problem on our own, we are not aware of the sequence of steps as it is all done in our minds.  However, if you have a complex problem to overcome or when you need to explain how you reached your conclusion to someone else, a more conscious process needs to be followed.

We will often face problems that we cannot solve alone and will need to rely on the support of others.  Groups are often more effective than individual problem solvers as there will be a greater number of ideas generated and we can learn from others as we work together.

Sometimes there is no simple ‘solution’ to the problem.  In such cases, the cause cannot be eliminated, and other strategies must be adopted.

When we cannot solve a problem by removing the cause, then we have to design a way forward – even if the cause stays in place. We either act to prevent, or we respond.  Before trying to resolve any problem, however, it is necessary to have a very clear understanding of what the real problem is.

Steps in Defining a Problem

Define the current situation

The first step to take in generating problem-solving ideas is to have a clear understanding of where you are now.

When you are defining your present situation, use as many different devices as you can (put each one on a separate card or sheet).  You could use the following headings, for example:

  • Background
  • Need
  • Time parameters
  • Financial situation
  • Resources available
  • Resources not available

Define the goal and make it measurable

What are you trying to achieve?  Where are you trying to go?  How will you know you have made it? Objectives should be:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Results-oriented

Time bound

It helps greatly to VISUALISE the goal, to picture in your minds-eye the best possible solution.

Identify the gaps

Now you know where you are and where you want to go, the next step is to identify the gaps between your present position and your desired one.

Identify the CORE problem you are trying to solve

Many people waste a great deal of time trying to generate solutions to problems, only to find they have been chasing the wrong problem.  Use a process of elimination to identify the right problem.  Make a list of potential problems, then analyse the results.

Identify the users/beneficiaries

Another step that should be carried out early in your analysis of the problem or challenge is to clearly identify to whom you should be speaking.

Do some research

There are so many sources of information out there – these include:

  • The internet
  • Directories
  • Reference books
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Other people

Hold a focus group

This is where you get groups of people together in a controlled environment and conduct an in-depth enquiry into your challenge.  This process is expensive, but if it is done properly, it is worthwhile. The secret is to have the right people in the group and have it run by an experienced facilitator who really understands what you want to achieve.

Do a ‘SWOT’ analysis

Make a heading for each word and start to identify appropriate items in each category, ideally with a group of people.  Let the items come up at random, allocating them where they belong.

Write a description of the task

The act of writing a clear description of a task may help to clarify the points that need to be made and can often bring a fresh understanding of the problem.  The discipline of laying out the key aspects in a logical order will help to identify gaps.  Even if you are writing it just for yourself or your team, avoid using jargon and do not assume much prior knowledge.  You may find it useful to have a basic format to follow when creating such a document.  You do not have to be rigid about it, but you may find the following layout useful.

An overview of the problem and the solution proposed or needed in no more than one or two paragraphs;-

  • Situation
    The core facts of where we are now
  • Background
    Any relevant information that supports the situation such as competitive, legislative, economic, historic problems
  • Audiences
    Who will be impacted by the results or at whom the result is aimed
  • Objectives
    What you are trying to achieve
  • Strategy
    By what means are you trying to achieve it
  • Tactics
    Examples of solutions
  • Discussions
    A brief review of the pros and cons of different courses of action.  Look at rejected approaches and why they were rejected.

Conclusion

Once you have worked through the steps in this post, you should have a greater understanding of the problem you are facing, and hopefully, a better idea of the action you need to take to solve it.

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