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Phases of problem solving



A. define the problem;
B. be able to list the steps of problem solving; 
C. use the aqcuired knowledge in solving their own problems.

Time needed to review this content: 30 MIN

We use the word problem to describe a wide range of situations of different importance, from the irritation of discovering that the car battery is flat, to the life threatening failure of an aircraft engine in mid-air.

Problems can be defined broadly as situations in which we experience uncertainty or difficulty in achieving what we want, e.g.:
1. Stopping smoking is a problem when you decide you want to stop but cannot.
2. A computer malfunction is a problem if it prevents you completing work on time.
3. An excessive workload is a problem when it interferes with your ability to work effectively.
4. Poor communication is a problem when it reduces the efficiency of an organization.

Problems arise when an obstacle prevents us from reaching an objective, e.g. when a breakdown in a company's manufacturing plant (the obstacle) prevents it from fulfilling orders (the objective).
The problem solving process can be divided into different methods and the stages have been given various labels. This has been done to make it easier to understand it, but the way it is divided and the labels that are used are not important. To be a successful problem solver you need to understand what the stages involve and follow them methodically whenever you encounter a problem.
To be a successful problem solver you must go through these stages:

1. recognizing and defining the problem;
2. finding possible solutions;
3. choosing the best solution;
4. implementing the solution.

Problem solving requires two distinct types of mental skill: analytical and creative.

Analytical or logical thinking includes skills such as ordering, comparing, contrasting, evaluating and selecting.
It provides a logical framework for problem solving and helps to select the best alternative from those available by narrowing down the range of possibilities (a convergent process). Analytical thinking often predominates in solving closed problems, where the many possible causes have to be identified and analyzed to find the real cause.

Creative thinking is a divergent process, using the imagination to create a large range of ideas for solutions.
It requires us to look beyond the obvious, creating ideas which may, at first, seem unrealistic or have no logical connection with the problem. There is a large element of creative thinking in solving open problems.
Ever heard people say (or perhaps said yourself) things like:
• “I wish we hadn’t jumped to that solution so quickly.”
• “I think we may have solved the wrong problem.”
• “It was only at the end that I realized we had acted too quickly with too little information.”
• “The solution we went ahead with turned out to be impractical and too expensive.”

A structured process helps ensure you stay on track with what you need to do to solve a problem. The seven-step problem solving technique covers:

1. Find the Right Problems to Solve
Surprised to start with this step? Not many problem-solving processes include this step, yet it is absolutely crucial. Think how often we spend time and resources on problems which don’t necessarily demand such attention. Ask yourself “Is it the right problem to solve?”. This is also one of the most important stages in our seven-step problem solving technique. Why?
Well too often our approach to problem solving is reactive, we wait for the problems to arise. So firstly in our seven step problem solving process, we advocate taking a proactive approach, go and find problems to solve; important and valuable problems. The real starting point then for any problem solving process is to find the right problem to solve.

2. Define the Problem
It is very tempting to gloss over this step and move to analysis and solutions. However, like the first step, it is one of the secrets of effective problem solving and helps to differentiate our seven-step problem solving technique. Combining problems that are valuable to solve, with defining exactly what you are trying to solve, can dramatically improve the effectiveness of the problem solving process. The secret to defining the problem is really about attitude. Try to see every problem as an opportunity.
This is the crucial attitude which will then help you define the problem in a way that focuses on the potential and opportunity in the situation. Peter Drucker advocates that we should starve problems and start feeding opportunities. Perhaps because we don’t see the right problems to solve or the opportunity in solving them. Essentially Drucker suggests that we should move from focusing on the problem to focusing on the opportunity.

3. Analyze the Problem
Analysis is a process of discovery of the facts, finding out what you know about the situation. The problem solving activity question checklist leads you through a set of questions to identify the nature of the problem and to analyze what it is and what it is not.
One of the most important aspects of analyzing any situation is involving the right people. We suggest using Reg Revans approach of asking three questions:
• Who knows? – about the situation/opportunity, or who has the information we need to solve it/realize it;
• Who cares? – that something is done about it;
• Who can? – do something about the solution.

These questions are fundamental management tips. They help us to identify the people who need to come together, in order to take appropriate action to solve an issue or realize an opportunity.

4. Develop Possibilities
The previous steps have already revealed plenty of possibilities for solving the problem and realizing the opportunities. At this stage, it is important to give time and space for creative solutions. Placing a high value on the ideas of others is a crucial leadership concept and facilitator skill when generating ideas to solve problems.

We have already suggested that for effective problem solving you need to ensure that you find the right problems to solve and then ask yourself what opportunities are created by solving this problem. But how to focus on opportunities?

There is a tool with groups of questions to help you:
• focus collective attention on the situation;
• connect ideas and deeper insight;
• create forward momentum and move to action.

A rich range of possible solutions opens up opportunities. When you consider you have plenty of ideas with potential, it’s time to make a decision.

5 Select the Best Solution
The next phase in this seven-step problem solving technique is to consider the number of solutions found. It’s likely that more than one will be viable so how do you decide which solution to select? There will be constraints restricting what you may do, issues about whether solutions fit within what is currently done, and various stakeholders’ views to consider. Solutions therefore need to be evaluated. A powerful way to do this has been proposed by Peter Drucker. In our business-planning tool, “business goal setting“, we suggest using Druckers three criteria as a filter to select ideas to take forward. To screen your ideas apply the three filter tests:

1. Operational validity – Can you take action on this idea, or can you only talk about it? Can you really do something right away to bring about the kind of future you desire?

2. Economic validity – Will the idea produce economic result? What would be the early indicators that it was working?

3. Personal commitment – Do you really believe in the idea? Do you really want to be that kind of person, do that kind of work, and run that kind of business?

Take your time to answer these questions. You may well find that many of the other stages in our business goal-setting article can help with the problem solving process. Especially if the problem is of organizational significance and its solution could affect the direction the business or unit takes.

6. Implement
Implementation of the seven-step problem solving technique moves to a project implementation process. But before putting your decision into effect check that you have:
• carefully defined the problem, and the desired outcome;
• analyzed the problem at length;
• collected every available piece of information about it;
• explored all possible avenues, and  every conceivable option;
• chosen the best alternative after considerable deliberation.

To implement first make sure that you follow project management guidelines, particularly to be clear on the outcomes, ask yourself what will be different when you solve the problem and realize the opportunity. Secondly define what the objectives are; these should clearly demonstrate how you would get to the outcomes. Gaining clarity on these and acceptance from the various stakeholders is crucial for your success.
The implementation process can then effectively follow a project management model of:
• Define it;
• Design it;
• Do it – carry out activities to implement;
• Deliver it – test and ensure it has met the outcomes.

Make sure that the three “who’s” are with you!

7. Evaluate and Learn from the seven-step problem solving technique
Provided that you have done some things really well by applying this seven-step problem solving technique, it would be all too easy to forget about them while rushing to solve the next problem, or to implement the solution. You should evaluate at least two areas:
• How you carried out the seven-step problem solving process;
• The effectiveness of the solution you implemented. Did it deliver the outcomes you expected?

You should also ask what you are now able to do, or what you could do next, now that you have improved things by solving the problem. What further opportunities can you now realize that you were not able to before? Use your problem solving skills to ask, “Is it the right problem to solve?” Then ensure that any problem solving activity asks the question: “what opportunities are created by this problem?”
Why people fail to solve problems effectively?
Solving problems is a complex process and each of us is better at the skills required at some stages than others. Below is a list of some of the reasons why people fail to find effective solutions include
• not being methodical;
• lack of commitment to solving the problem;
• misinterpreting the problem;
• lack of knowledge of the techniques and processes involved in problem solving;
• inability to use the techniques effectively;
• using a method inappropriate to the particular problem;
• insufficient or inaccurate information;
• inability to combine analytical and creative thinking;
• failure to ensure effective implementation.


• A problem exists when an obstacle prevents you from reaching an objective.
• Problem solving can be divided into stages, which you must follow methodically if you want to be sure of finding an effective solution.
• Solving problems effectively requires a controlled mixture of analytical and creative thinking skills.

The success of a company can depend largely on the ability of its staff to solve problems effectively, both in their day-to-day work and through innovation. This applies not only to senior management, but to all levels in an organization.

It's not enough simply to teach effective problem solving techniques. The working environment has a very powerful influence on the individual's ability to solve problems effectively and it needs to be supportive and stimulating. To be truly effective in your work and to contribute to the success of your organization, you need to be aware of the influence of the working environment on problem solving.

This enables you to:
• recognize and overcome negative influences on your own problem solving, and;
• help to create an environment which will support others in their problem solving.

Possessing good problem solving skills does not make people automatically use them to the benefit of the organization. They need encouragement, support and guidance in applying them to the organization’s problems.


Creative problem-solving in the face of extreme limits
Navi Radjou describes an interesting problem solving concept that is the frugal innovation.  The Northern hemisphere typically solves problems following the principle of doing more using plenty, while the Southern hemisphere solves the problems following the principle of doing plenty using less under duress. It is a lecture laced with example and advice and may bring a new approach into our problem-solving practice.


16 Practical Tips for Solving Your Problems More Easily

1. Accept the problem. This is the one I try to do first when I run into a problem and I use it almost every time. When you accept that the problem already exists and stop resisting then you also stop putting more energy into the problem and “feeding it”. Now it just exists (well, more or less, you might still feel a bit down about it). And you can use the energy you previously fed the problem with – the energy that probably made the problem look bigger than it was – to find creative solutions to the challenge.

2. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that can happen? This is another one to do early on. You can easily to use your mind to enlarge problems all out of proportion. By asking this question, you can restore the problem to its original size. Also, realize that the worst-case scenario – if you actually define it – is perhaps not so pleasant but something you can handle it and solve it.

3. Gather some good knowledge. Information about your problem can often decrease that uncertain anxiety and fear we face when we are challenged with something. Knowledge wisps away the clouds of fear around a problem. And we often find that the problem might not be as bad as we thought.

4. Try to figure out possible problems along the way. This is something you can do before the problem even arises. Be prepared. When you research – as described in point # 3 – also try to find out what others in the same situation ran into, what challenges they faced. Ask people what they did. If you don’t have anyone to ask then books, forums and blogs are good resources for gathering the personal experience of people. Also, be on the lookout for local groups and organizations. Google it and see what you find. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you are sure to find something helpful.

5. Ask for help. You can ask people for advice on what to do and what they did in similar situations like yours. But you can also ask for more practical help. You don´t have to solve every problem on your own and sometimes it feels better to have someone by your side, even if it is just for emotional support.

6. Let go of the need to be right. Open your mind to a solution that may work and try it out instead of just making snap judgments based on little information and experience. The need to be right can make you disregard solutions that are just what you need for far too long.

7. Come up with more than one solution. You don´t know what will actually work before you try it. What may seem like a good solution in theory doesn´t always work in reality. So brainstorm and come up with more than one solution. If the first one does not work, try the next one.

8. Redefine failure. This is important both to handle fear of failure for the whole problem and to get you started in trying different solutions without too much hesitation. The definition of failure we are brought up with in society might not be the best and most useful to have. If you look at the most successful people you quickly notice that they have a different response to failure than the more common one. They don´t take failure or rejection too seriously. They know it´s not the end of the world if they fail. Instead they look at each failure and see the bright side of them: what they can learn from it and improve next time. They have an abundance-mentality. They know that if their first business-venture fails they are disappointed for a while but on the long run it is not a problem. They learn from it and then they try again. Redefine failure as feedback and as a natural part of a successful life.

9. Break down the problem into smaller pieces. Completing a task or solving a problem can seem overwhelming and impossible if you take it all in at once. To decrease anxiety and think more clearly try to break the problem down. Try to identify the different things and people it consists of. Then figure out one practical solution you can take for each of those pieces. Try those solutions. They may not solve the whole problem immediately. But they might solve a few pieces of it. And then you can keep trying other solutions for the rest of the pieces until there are none left.

10. Use the 80/20 rule. Use 80 percent of your time to find solutions and only 20 percent to complain, worry and moan. It might not always be easy but focusing your energy, time and thoughts in this way is much more beneficial to you and others than doing the opposite.

11. Use Parkinson’s Law. This law says that a task will expand in time and apparent complexity depending on the time you set aside for it. For instance, if you say to yourself that you´ll come up with a solution within a week then the problem will seem to grow more difficult and you´ll spend more and more time trying to come up with a solution. Combine this law with the 80/20 rule to find solutions quickly. Focus your time on finding solutions. Then just give yourself an hour (instead of the whole day) or the day (instead of the whole week) to solve the problem. This will force your mind to focus on solutions and action.

12. Find the lesson or opportunity within the problem. There is almost always a good side of a problem. Perhaps it alerts us to a great way to improve our business. Or it teaches us how our lives perhaps are not as bad as we thought. Finding this more positive part of the problem reduces its negative emotional impact and you may even start to see the situation as a great opportunity for you. When you are faced with a problem ask yourself: How can I use this? What is the good thing about this? What can I learn from this? What hidden opportunity can I find within this problem?

13. Actually talk about the problem and communicate clearly. Many problems arise because someone misinterpreted what someone else said. One way to make sure that you and everyone else have the same interpretation of for instance a project is to have people repeat back their view of the project and their part in it. See if your and their view matches. If a conflict arises then maybe you need to just talk it out, let go of a bit of steam, emotion and tension instead of everyone bottling it up. After that the discussion may be less emotionally charged. And it becomes easier to communicate clearly and reach a good solution for everyone involved.

14. Create fewer problems. A lot of our problems are created by ourselves. You save yourself a lot of trouble by being proactive, thinking before you speak and trying to avoid creating or complicating problems more than necessary. One way to decrease problems is to follow – as much as you can – Dale Carnegie´s wise words: “Never criticize, complain or condemn”. Many problems are somehow connected to relationships with other people so a good way to create less problems is to improve your social skills. Check out Do You Make These 10 Mistakes in a Conversation? and 5 Mistakes That Can Make You Look Dumb for some tips in that area. And go to your local library and borrow a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

15. Use the power of words to your advantage. Our minds respond more than one may think to what words that are used to describe something. A problem is a negatively charged word. To make the problem easier to handle, use the more neutral or positive word challenge instead. This may sound like some empty and in reality just useless advice. But, personally, I have found that making this small change has some impact on how negatively/positively I look at a situation.

16. Keep your motivation up. It´s easy to be discouraged, especially if you fear failure and your first and second solution to a problem did not work. You might feel like just giving up. Then it´s time to give yourself a boost of motivation. Try a few of the techniques described in 25 Simple Ways to Motivate Yourself and 5 More Ways to Motivate Yourself. Changing your mental state to a brighter, more positive and more motivated one can make all the difference in the world. It will keep you going. Even if just a few minutes earlier you felt that all hope was gone.


The solution of a problem always starts by the proper identification of the problem. It is more efficient to do the right thing slowly (badly), than to do the wrong thing quickly (well). Recognition/identification is followed by analysis, based on which an option tree may be created, which contains all the possible options. Then, we only have to choose the best one using some kind of decision-making mechanism or model.
Finally, it is important to appreciate the success of the solution we chose and take notes of whatever we learned from this problem-solving method and about its future uses as well.



Use the 7 steps of problem solving in the solution of one of your personal problems, then in one of your business/organizational problems as well!
Pay attention on the steps or stages, which you are best at, and to the ones you are not so good at. Your strengths and weaknesses should be the basis of your problem solving development process!

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