‘Problem solving strategies that work’ is an extremely popular management search on Google, which is interesting for a variety of reasons. Does this indicate:
…Just how many leaders and managers there are with so many problems to solve that they seek advice from just about anyone who might be able to help?
…The fact that a high proportion of our leaders and managers are effectively untrained and have no professional grounding?
…That many leaders and managers either don’t have a mentor in their organisation or don’t feel able to seek advice from a peer or colleague?
Although there may be additional reasons which I haven’t mentioned, none of those possibilities are very encouraging.
Anyway, to the subject at hand. Problem solving.
An old colleague of mine used to say, “There’s no such thing as problem solving, only problem swapping”. This strikes me as a very good place to start.
1. No such thing as problem solving, only problem swapping
An excellent strategy to focus on is the fact that anything you do to fix a problem will almost certainly bring its own side effects. You just need to be clear on the balance of good and bad to be sure you’re making the best choice.
For example: A team-member is struggling with some aspects of their role, so you arrange to spend some time coaching them. Perfectly sensible, but now the potential downsides: their colleagues will need to cover their work while the team member is taking coaching from you. Some colleagues may feel displeased that this person is getting more time and attention from you than they are. Both easily managed with some careful communication before, during and after the coaching; an important thing to consider before you start. You don’t want to cause a bigger problem with the actions you take to fix a smaller one.
2. Only one question matters: Why?
Why is the problem occurring? Why, why, why?
It’s so easy to miss this step out and go straight into ‘solution mode’, throwing actions at the problem in the hope of making it go away. The most significant thing you can understand is why something is happening. Then you can plan the right intervention that will really fix it. This leads nicely onto the next point…
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3. Fix root causes, don’t just treat symptoms
As a focus for your asking of ‘why’, seek to find the root cause of the problem. I recall a friend of mine responding to his wife’s question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” with the reply of “no, it’s eating too much that makes you look fat”. Obviously, he’s dead now, but I think you can see what I mean. He was right really, regarding finding a root cause. You can buy bigger clothes or wear something more flattering, but that’s treating the symptom. You can only really solve the problem by removing the root cause of being too fat, which is consuming too much fuel for the level of energy you are expending. In problem solving, questioning ‘why’ can help you to get further back until you find the earliest cause you can address. Bringing it back to a work situation: mistakes made in a warehouse might cause a problem with stock levels, and you can arrange a stock-take to correct it, but why are the mistakes being made? Is it a lack of training? Time pressure? Incorrect information? Lack of care? These are the questions to which you need to find the answers to take the right combination of actions.
4. Plan, Do, Review, Learn
A synthesis of Kolb’s learning cycle and Deming’s PDCA; this is a cycle we would do well to follow in life as well as work. Whatever you do to achieve an outcome or solve a problem, you should first properly think it through – plan – and then implement your plan – do – but then, crucially – review – evaluate what happens so that you can understand what is working and what isn’t. Learn – what might you do to improve the plan for next time.
5. Every silver lining has a cloud, but the glass is always half full
So much of your ability to solve problems comes from your mindset and attitude. Yes, I’ve said that solutions bring their own problems – that’s the cloud – but you must always stay positive and work on the assumption that you can always make things better. The better things get, the harder it is to find improvements, but they are always there if you look hard enough and think deeply enough.
Making things better is a big part of our job as leaders and managers, so remember that a problem is really your friend, giving you clues about ways you can make things better and learn for the future.