You've got 99 problems - here's how to solve them
No workplace is problem-free. The landscape of the modern working world changes so rapidly that it can be hard to keep up. When a challenge crops up, it can stop you and your entire team in your tracks. What you do next matters, more than you might imagine.
Learning the top problem-solving techniques is the answer. These methods can help you to identify what the problem is, look at it from every angle, and come up with some solutions. In the following guide, we'll look at four methods and tips on how to apply each of them.
The best problem-solving techniques to try
When a problem rears its ugly head, you need to take speedy action. If no clear-cut solution springs to mind, you are going to have to dig deeper into the issue. Here are some of the most effective problem-solving techniques out there and how to use them.
The Problem Tree
If you're having trouble understanding your problem - and what exactly has caused it - the Problem Tree is the answer. This is one of the best problem-solving approaches if you want to break down the issue and tackle it in a clear way. Rather than trying to tackle everything at once, you create separate sections or chunks to deal with in the right order.
Before you get started, you'll need a small focus group. That could be your team or your department, for example. Gather them together and then follow these steps:
Step 1: Define the problem (or the“trunk”)
The first part of this problem-solving approach is defining the problem. What is it that you're trying to solve here? Make sure that every member of the team is well-versed on the issue. You should open with a brief discussion on what the matter is and why it needs to be overcome. In doing so, you will map out what the “focal problem” is here. If you're using a whiteboard, write the problem in the centre and make it the trunk of your tree.
Step 2: Identify the cause (or the “roots”)
Next up, you need to look at what is causing the problem - i.e. what is the “root” cause here. Chances are, there are many different factors at play. Each one can become a root and you can write it below the trunk. The more causes you have, the better. It's important that you fully understand what contributing factors have led to this issue arising.
Step 3: Look at the consequences (or the “branches”)
Why is the problem a problem? What negative consequences has it caused for the business? The next step in the process is dealing with the branches of the tree. Above the trunk, map out all of the consequences that the problem has caused. Try to be as specific as possible. You need to cover all of the issues that have come up as a result of the “focal problem.” That way, you'll have a better chance of dealing with each of them.
Step 4: Discuss the problem tree
While you're busy drawing a tree, you will naturally start to discuss the problem. You should have a separate board at the ready during this process. That way, should any member of the group have an idea that you can use, you can note it down quickly. Once you've finished your tree, you should open up to a larger discussion. You can cover:
Whether the tree diagram is an accurate representation of the problem
Which consequences are the most pressing, and what you can do about them
Which of the causes can you address? Which ones are out of your control?
Are any of the consequences getting worse and, if so, how?
What are some of the approaches you can use to overcome the problem?
What actions can you take in both the long- and short-term to tackle it?
The Problem Tree approach allows your group to visualise the challenge and see the effect that it has had on the business. This can be a useful strategy if you're struggling to get your head around the problem and the impact that it's ultimately having on the business.
When you're deep in a problem, it's easy to lose perspective. As the old expression says, “you can't see the wood for the trees.” The more you think and, indeed, talk about the problem, the more negative you feel. You might start to believe that there is no hope. There's no way you can solve the problem if you believe that it's not possible to do so.
That's where Flip It comes into play. The problem-solving method is popular with students, but you can also use it in the workplace. Rather than focusing on the negatives that the problem has brought up, you can “flip” the narrative and look for the opportunities. You can do this in a small group, or with a couple of colleagues. Here's what you need to do.
Step 1: Share your fears and concerns
To get started, you will need a flipboard, some sticky notes, and some pens. You should have already discussed what the problem is. At the bottom left of the sheet, write the word “Fear.” Give each of the team members a bunch of sticky notes and ask them to consider what concerns they have relating to the central problem. You will need to give them around 10 minutes to truly think about this question and write down their fears on the notes.
Step 2: Collect and discuss
Next up, you should collect all of the sticky notes and put them in the “Fear” section of the board. You can then open up the discussion to the group. You may want to ask specific members of the team to elaborate on their fears and concerns. For example, you can ask them what has caused them to feel that way and whether they think that their fear is valid. Aim to spark real conversations at this point and allow people to air their concerns.
Step 3: Flip the fears to hopes
At the top-left of the board, write the word “Hope”. Tell the team to look at each of the fears and concerns they've contributed and consider the way that they can turn them into hopes. For example, “I'm worried that we will lose clients” may become “I hope that we can gain new clients.” Give the team around 10-15 minutes to write down their hopes on sticky notes. Each hope should directly correlate with the fears already on the board.
Step 4: Discuss and vote on the hopes
Collect all of the hope notes from the team and stick them below the word “Hope”. You should open up a discussion on the hopes and how the group thinks that they can achieve each of them. After this point, you need to ask the group to vote on which of the hopes they think they can achieve. They can do this by taking a pen and placing a dot on each of the hopes on the board. This helps you to visualise the actions that you can take next.
Step 5: Identify your following actions
The final step is deciding what to do next. To do this, move to another flipboard paper and write “Traction” on it. Move the hopes that got the most votes to this sheet. You can then ask the team to come up with actions to help them achieve these hopes. Write down each of the problem-solving approaches and discuss it in detail. By the end of the process, you should have a list of actions that you can decide whether to take forward to the next stage.
The World Cafe Method
The two problem-solving techniques we've covered above work for small groups. But what if you want a wider discussion? That can be tough. However, the World Cafe method allows you to get everyone's opinion and take it into consideration. While you can alter it to align with your problem and the size of your group, here are the core steps to start.
Step 1: Set up your cafe
First things first, you need to prepare your cafe. That means creating an intimate environment that mimics the look and feel of a cafe. Separate the space into small tables where groups of around five people can “break-out” and speak about the issue candidly. When you've done that, give each table some coloured pens, a ream of paper, and a “talking stick.” You can go one step further and create the look of a cafe by adding tablecloths and flowers - although this is not necessary!
Step 2: Introduce the problem
Next up, you should invite the teams into the space and welcome them. You need to outline the problem and how the event will work. Offer clear instructions at this point, so that the team members understand what the method is all about. Once you've done that, you should separate the group into five-person teams and have them set up on each of the tables. These will work as the smaller discussion groups during the process.
Step 3: Kick off the discussions
The problem-solving approach will consist of three (or more!) 20-minute conversations. For each round, you should present a core question. That could be “What do you think has led to this problem?” or “What factors can we control in this issue?” The same question can be used for more than one round, if needed. Then set a timer and allow the groups to speak openly and honestly about the question. They should take notes during each round.
Step 4: Switch up the groups
At the end of each round, the groups are mixed up. You might have members of each table move to a new table or rotate. This approach means that team members get to discuss the problem with a wide range of different people in the room. You can have a “table host” that stays on the same table for the entire problem-solving activity.
Step 5: Harvest your ideas
After each round and at the end of the activity, it is time to harvest the ideas. Ask the tables to share some of the ideas that they've pinpointed during the discussion. You might want to write these down on a whiteboard or record them in some other way. Some people find that it's beneficial to display the ideas as a visual graphic, for example. Ask the group to talk about the ideas that have come up and decide on which to take forward.
The SWOT Analysis
When we talk about effective problem-solving techniques, it would be a sin to overlook the classic approach. Yes, the SWOT Analysis is the reigning queen of approaches and for good reason. It's likely that you've used this particular method at some point in your career. However, if you're looking for a refresher, you've come to the right place.
You can write a SWOT Analysis alone or work as part of a team to get it right. Let's go over the basic steps you need to follow when using this problem-solving method.
Step 1: Create your SWOT Matrix
A SWOT matrix is far less cool than it sounds. In reality, this is a two-by-two grid that includes the following sections: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. You should draw it out on a piece of paper, leaving plenty of room for bullet points. If you're working as part of a group, you can draw this out on a flipboard or whiteboard.
Step 2: Identify your business strengths
Bullet-point the strengths that the business already has under its belt. Keep in mind that you are not doing a generic SWOT Analysis here. The points that you highlight should pertain directly to the problem at hand. Consider what the company already does well. Unlike other problem-solving methods, this one focuses on the positive points first.
Step 2: Write down your weaknesses
Here's where you get to the meat of the problem. What weaknesses in the business have allowed this challenge to arise? What holes need filling? What are the chinks in your company armour? Why has this problem come up in the first place? As you did before, you need to bullet-point each of these weaknesses in the accompanying box.
Step 3: Consider the opportunities
Every problem can also present opportunities. Think about what new doors this problem has opened for you. For example, if your company is falling behind technologically, it may offer the opportunity to upskill and catch up. List these positives as bullet-points in the box.
Step 4: List the possible threats
What threats has the problem brought up for the business? Is the company likely to lose work? Will sales start to fall? Could a similar business slide in and take its place? Bullet-point all of the possible threats that the business could be facing as a direct result of the problem. Be as specific as you can about these concerns and their likelihood.
Step 5: Open up the discussion
The main point of a SWOT Analysis is to open up a clear discussion. When you've completed your matrix, it's time to talk about it. Invite your group - or a new group - to discuss the SWOT analysis results and look for plausible outcomes. How can you deal with the threats? Should you be chasing after the pinpointed opportunities? You can use the bullet-points as a guide to help you better understand the problem and situation.
Quick tips when using problem-solving techniques
Now that we've covered some of the main problem-solving techniques, let's talk about how you can use them. Whichever method you choose to use to overcome your challenge, there are some common tips that will help. Here's a breakdown of the main ones:
- Be clear on the problem. Avoid combining multiple problems and trying to tackle them all at once. That will get you nowhere fast. Instead, make sure that you are 100% sure what the challenge is before using any problem-solving techniques.
- Invite everyone to join. When you're using problem-solving methods, the more voices you have, the better. Ask your wider team to join the discussion. You can use one of the approaches above to guide a constructive conversation.
- State the obvious. Sometimes, people don't talk about obvious solutions… but they should. No matter how straightforward your idea is, it may not have crossed everyone's minds. When you have something you want to say, go ahead and say it.
Overcoming problems isn't always the easiest feat. However, with these problem-solving techniques you can make the process smoother than ever. No matter what you and your team are up against, these methods will help you to zoom out and see the bigger picture.
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