Problem Solving Strategies

Problem-solving is a process—an ongoing activity in which we take what we know to discover what we don’t know. It involves overcoming obstacles by generating hypo-theses, testing those predictions, and arriving at satisfactory solutions. Problem solving presupposes that people take responsibility for their own learning and can take personal action to solve problems, resolve conflicts, discuss alternatives, and focus on thinking as a vital element.

Here is a five-stage model that most people can easily memorize and put into action and which has direct applications to many areas of the career as well as everyday life:

Understand the problem

It’s important that you understand the nature of a problem and its related goals. Encourage students to frame a problem in their own words.

Describe any barriers 

Students need to be aware of any barriers or constraints that may be preventing them from achieving their goal. In short, what is creating the problem? Encouraging students to verbalize these impediments is always an important step.

Identify various solutions

After the nature and parameters of a problem are understood, students will need to select one or more appropriate strategies to help resolve the problem. Students need to understand that they have many strategies available to them and that no single strategy will work for all problems.

Try out a solution

When working through a strategy or combination of strategies, it will be important for students to …

  • Keep accurate and up-to-date records of their thoughts, proceedings, and procedures. Recording the data collected, the predictions made, and the strategies used is an important part of the problem solving process.
  • Try to work through a selected strategy or combination of strategies until it becomes evident that it’s not working, it needs to be modified, or it is yielding inappropriate data. As students become more proficient problem-solvers, they should feel comfortable rejecting potential strategies at any time during their quest for solutions.
  • Monitor with great care the steps undertaken as part of a solution. Although it might be a natural tendency for students to “rush” through a strategy to arrive at a quick answer, encourage them to carefully assess and monitor their progress.
  • Feel comfortable putting a problem aside for a period of time and tackling it at a later time. For example, scientists rarely come up with a solution the first time they approach a problem. Students should also feel comfortable letting a problem rest for a while and returning to it later.

Evaluate the results

It’s vitally important that students have multiple opportunities to assess their own problem-solving skills and the solutions they generate from using those skills. Frequently, students are overly dependent upon teachers to evaluate their performance in the classroom. The process of self-assessment is not easy, however. It involves risk-taking, self-assurance, and a certain level of independence. But it can be effectively promoted by asking students questions such as “How do you feel about your progress so far?” “Are you satisfied with the results you obtained?” and “Why do you believe this is an appropriate response to the problem?”

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1. Maintain a positive attitude, since startup problems are normal.

If you feel angry or exhibit a negative attitude to the team about problems, you will jeopardize the potential success of your startup. Successful problem-solving is often more a state of mind than any particular skill or process.

Related: 6 Remarkably Simple Steps to Becoming a Real Problem-Solver

2. Remember that learning requires listening more than talking.

The first challenge for many aspiring entrepreneurs is to put aside their passionate advocacy long enough to acknowledge an existing problem. That means practicing non-defensive listening to key advisors, team members and customers. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t see one.

3. Openly communicate about each problem and commit to fix it.

Entrepreneurs who solve problems well don’t hide them from their teams or make excuses and publicly take responsibility for a timely resolution. It’s smart to outline initial actions, but not so smart to promise any specific solution until you have had time to investigate the source.

4. Don’t hesitate to call in an experienced advisor or mentor to help.

Very few startup problems are unique. An experienced advisor, board member or investor has seen them all. You can save yourself countless hours of frustration and failed efforts by swallowing your pride, asking for help and following expert suggestions.

5. Follow a disciplined analysis before jumping to conclusions.

Make sure you have all the facts, as well as insights from relevant sources and outside experts. Don’t let your passions and emotions drive you to a quick judgment, and remember that there are always at least two sides to every question. Practice active listening to get all input.

Related: 5 Problems Business School Won’t Prepare You For

6. Track every problem.

Problems become crises when affected people hear nothing or sense that no attention is being paid to the issue. Thus a visible system is required for reporting to all relevant parties, which also keeps your focus on the problem until it is resolved.

7. Set deadlines and measure and pay for performance.

Remember the old adage that you get what you pay for. If everyone is incented to find new customers, there will be little focus on resolving problems with current ones. Make sure there are metrics for problem counts, resolution time and revenue impact.

8. Analyze issues to prevent similar problems.

Usually it pays to dig deeper on lost sales opportunities and negative customer reviews to resolve a deep-seated product deficiency or delivery channel issue. Make sure processes are updated, training is improved or priorities are communicated as required.

The best entrepreneurs understand that solving problems is what a business is all about. Of course, problem-solving is required for scaling and continued business growth. It never ends.

The road to success, just like life, is paved with obstacles and difficulties. All truly successful entrepreneurs had just as many problems as successes. Many of the entrepreneurs I talk to say it sometimes seems like they spend more time coming up with workarounds and repairing damage than growing their business. Even as companies grow, leaders are often prized for their grace under pressure. This is because the pressure doesn’t stop, even if you have a product that is making your company millions of dollars a month.

If you’re a business owner, it’s important to learn to solve problems, whether you’re a one-person operation or you have a large team. Scott Gatz, CEO of LGBTQ publisher Q.Digital, says problem solving can be daunting because entrepreneurs often don’t have the experience to know what to do when difficulties occur.

“The most important thing is to not let that paralyze you. There is always a way and there is almost never a perfect ‘right’ answer. Knowing that frees you to ask ‘dumb questions’ and come up with ‘crazy ideas.’ Inevitably one of those ideas might turn out to be the ‘right’ one after all.”

By looking at the techniques of successful entrepreneurs, business leaders can learn to better tackle their own challenges. Here’s some of the key skills that can help you solve problems effectively.

Professionalism at All Times

The best leaders never lose their cool, even when it seems as though there is every reason to panic. This is especially important once you begin to build a team. Your employees will look to you to set the example. When you’re calm, they’ll tend to remain calm, as well. Most importantly, by remaining professional no matter what happens, you’ll earn everyone’s respect, from your clients to your valued team members.

Big-Picture Thinking

A successful entrepreneur always keeps an eye on the big picture, running everything through the filter of how it will help achieve the business’s mission. It can be too easy to get caught up in the small things that come up each day, not thinking beyond the current crisis. It’s important for entrepreneurs to address issues and move on, instead of obsessing over the small things, says Scott Swanson, CEO of mobile marketing company Aki Technologies.

“With so little time, an entrepreneur must focus efforts on solving the 20% of issues that cause 80% of the problems and let the rest go. You cannot solve all the problems. There isn’t enough time.”

If you are stressing about the issue of the day, consider how it will impact your business long term. You may decide to adjust your approach to problems so that it furthers the future success of your business, rather than merely putting out fires and thinking short term.

Avoid Finger-Pointing

When a problem first emerges, it’s easy to get caught up in the blame game. You could waste hours trying to identify the team member who made an error that led to your current problem. However, your time will be much more productively spent working with your team to find a solution. Instead of berating your staff and delivering a blow to morale, going into problem-solving mode can make your workers feel as though they helped repair the damage, which will increase employee engagement.

Collect Data

Technology has given businesses the power to generate volumes of data on almost every aspect of their organization. It’s been particularly valuable as a way to identify customer behavior. Today’s effective problem solving means being able to gather as many facts as possible and putting those facts to use in coming up with a solution. Leaders who merely make guesses won’t rise above the competition, since other organizations will use data-based troubleshooting methods.

Be Positive

Dwelling on the negative will only bring down morale. Instead, be the type of leader who sees problems as “opportunities” and focus on the positive aspects of working through the issue. If you have a staff, bring groups of people in for a brainstorming session. An effective leader doesn’t just work through problems alone. If you see it as an opportunity to open the lines of communication and make your team a part of the solution, you’ll likely find that your entire business benefits as a result.

Monitoring Results

The best way to grow as a leader is to pay close attention to what results from any decisions that are made. This helps you move forward, equipped with the information you need to run your business in the future. When you know the cause of the problem and what resolved it, you’ll also be better able to come up with ways to prevent it repeating in the future.

Leadership means dealing with the day-to-day operations of a business, as well as working toward growing and adding new income. When you can gracefully deal with the challenges you face along the way, you’ll be more likely to boost your team morale, which usually translates into happier clients, and more revenue.

  1. Take the time to define the problem clearly. Many executives like to jump into solution mode immediately, even before they understand the issue. In some cases, a small problem can become a big one with inappropriate actions. In all cases, real clarity will expedite the path ahead.
  2. Pursue alternate paths on “facts of life” and opportunities. Remember, there are some things that you can do nothing about. They’re not problems; they are merely facts of life. Often, what appears to be a problem is actually an opportunity in disguise.

  3. Challenge the definition from all angles. Beware of any problem for which there is only one definition. The more ways you can define a problem, the more likely it is that you will find the best solution. For example, “sales are too low” may mean strong competitors, ineffective advertising, or a poor sales process.
  4. Iteratively question the cause of the problem. This is all about finding the root cause, rather than treating a symptom. If you don’t get to the root, the problem will likely recur, perhaps with different symptoms. Don’t waste time re-solving the same problem.
  5. Identify multiple possible solutions. The more possible solutions you develop, the more likely you will come up with the right one. The quality of the solution seems to be in direct proportion to the quantity of solutions considered in problem solving.
  6. Prioritize potential solutions. An acceptable solution, doable now, is usually superior to an excellent solution with higher complexity, longer timeframe, and higher cost. There is a rule that says that every large problem was once a small problem that could have been solved easily at that time.
  7. Make a decision. Select a solution, any solution, and then decide on a course of action. The longer you put off deciding on what to do, the higher the cost, and the larger the impact. Your objective should be to deal with 80% of all problems immediately. At the very least, set a specific deadline for making a decision and stick to it.
  8. Assign responsibility. Who exactly is going to carry out the solution or the different elements of the solution? Otherwise nothing will happen, and you have no recourse but to implement all solutions yourself.
  9. Set a measure for the solution. Otherwise you will have no way of knowing when and whether the problem was solved. Problem solutions in a complex system often have unintended side effects which can be worse than the original problem.

People who are good at problem solving are some of the most valuable and respected people in every area. In fact, success if often defined as “the ability to solve problems.” In many cultures, this is called “street smarts,” and it’s valued even more than “book smarts.” The best entrepreneurs have both.