The Problem Solving Process

The context of problem solving

When problem solving stumbles, the most frequent cause is not in the problem solving effort itself, but rather in the critical steps that lead up to the problem solving. This section outlines those key activities:

The identification of what issues are to be considered as "problems" to solve.
Exploring and finally deciding on how to think about the problem.
Queuing up the organization to take on the problem: assigning responsibility, naming the team, allocating resources, setting the schedule, and naming key stakeholders.
The actual effort to solve the problem, understand its cause, design some corrective action, and implement the solution.

After observing hundreds of problem solving efforts in a wide variety of settings, the most commoon "problem solving discussion" is actualy a debate over proposed solutions. In these results-oriented, fast-paced times, rarely do people step back and ask the critical questions: "Is this the right problem to solve?", or "Are we thinking about this in the right way?"

The questions are doubly important in organizations, where problems abound and the pressure for solutions is urgent. While it may seem prudent to start talking about solutions right away, the danger is that time, talent, money, and energy is wasted pursuing the wrong problem, or seeking solutions within the wrong framework entirely.

  • How often do organizations hope that training will solve a problem, only to discover that the real issues were poor work process design, a sour culture, an executive team without credibility, or out-of-date product offerings?
  • How often do we decide that the solution is better communcation, so we raise the volume or frequency on messages that have already failed to convince?

And so the organization has grown weary and cynical about the problem just as we finally find the right approach!

Keep in mind that these steps look more demanding in their definition than they are in practice. When a team is fluent in their use, critical steps may happen in a single sentence. Don't assume every phase translates into a meeting or a deliverable or a project phase. They may be just a short conversation.