The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines a problem as “A doubtful or difficult matter requiring a solution” and “Something hard to understand or accomplish or deal with.”
The ability to find the right solutions to problems, both operational and strategic, is a core competence. But with the business world becoming obviously more complex, problem-solving is increasingly difficult. In this article, we present ten ideas for improving your problem-solving skills.
1. Identify the problem
One of the biggest challenges is getting people to admit that a problem even exists. There is a tendency for problems to be ignored or swept under the carpet. This is understandable; people may not want to admit failure or to be blamed when things go wrong. Yet it is important that problems should be identified and solved quickly in the interests of improved innovation and performance.
2. Understand the complexity
Problems tend to consist of a complex mix of psychological, interpersonal, intercultural and organizational factors. Communication problems may come from different beliefs about the right way to do things. There may be incompatibilities between company processes and the particular technologies. And people are often obstructive and confrontational as a result of unresolved psychological issues.
If we try to discuss solutions before understanding the problem properly, we are likely to offer quick but inappropriate solutions. We need to collect a lot of information by talking to people, observing the situation closely and creating opportunities for different viewpoints to be discussed.
Try and document a picture of the process depending on the problem. This may or may not be relevant, but we all know pictorial representations often help. Draw a simple diagram without worrying about technical conventions, specific constraints etc. A simple picture diagram can help visualise the most complex of problems in any area.
3. Deal with the people aspect
Most of the problems we face are at least partly people problems. Diverse personalities and behaviour can make collaboration difficult. Differences in competency can lead to poor quality or delays. Family problems can mean that people lose focus. Confidence and esteem issues can make it difficult for people to accept new responsibilities. There are two basic approaches to managing people problems: either we engage people or we sanction them.
The first approach can mean finding time to build relationships, offering support or providing training or coaching for people who are struggling in their role. The alternative approach means defining clear performance targets, taking disciplinary measures to deal with inappropriate attitudes or behaviour and discussing the prospect of someone losing their job if performance doesn’t improve.
The choice of strategy depends partly on beliefs about how to motivate performance and partly on the specific “problem individual” and the context.
4. Be careful about culture
When working internationally, it’s all too easy to think that problems are the result of cultural differences in attitudes and behaviour. While we shouldn’t deny that diversity can create challenges, neither should we be simplistic in our analysis. People are too complex to be explained by a national passport. We need to go beyond the label of “culture”, and to get to know individuals and to understand their personal perspectives and professional experiences, and how they like to do business.
5. Minimize the problem
A key problem in most organizations is internal communication. This is not surprising. People often have partly competing roles. They may also be situated across the globe, using a range of languages, operating in very different local markets and communicating mainly electronically. Instead of seeing communication difficulties as problems, we should really see them as a normal part of business, something that is nobody’s fault. But these difficulties require a certain level of professional maturity, if we are to anticipate and manage them successfully. One way of doing this is to minimize the problems, and remove the anxiety and emotional pressure, that can cause challenges to escalate into conflict.
6. Get advice early
People often decide not to share problems. They may not want to admit that they need help, and prefer to maintain the illusion of control and authority. More positively, people may not want to burden others with additional problems. Yet, talking issues through with others can help us to find creative solutions. Also, other people may feel honoured to be asked to give advice, which helps to build a sense of trust.
7. Discuss things in your team
Effective problem-solving often takes place in a team. The following three step model can be used for your situation and needs.
- Step 1: Create options. It is important to generate a range of creative ideas.
- Step 2: Decide on a solution. In the end, a solution must be agreed on and a decision made.
- Step 3: Confirm the next steps. People often agree on a solution but fail to implement it. This may be because of a lack of understanding about the agreed solution, or because of a lack of time and energy to do what has been agreed.
8. Manage the psychology
Our brains often do strange things that make it difficult for us to find the right solutions. We should try to recognize these psychological phenomena so that we can minimize their impact.
- We rely on past experience. This may be rational and effective in some situations, but all too often, it means that we apply solutions that are inappropriate. We need to keep an open mind, focus on the current problem and not be blinded by experience.
- We use false logic. Imagine tossing a coin 100 times and every time it lands on heads. What the probability that it will land on tails the next time? Our intuition may tell us that tails must now be highly likely, but the odds remain at 50 per cent each time. The lesson of this example is that we need to question our intuition and logic.
- We are highly emotional. We are often driven by powerful emotions, such as fear and anger. But even when others provoke negative emotions in us, we need to maintain a positive and objective approach. This helps to create a tolerant and inclusive working culture, in which we can solve problems faster and more creatively.
9. Think about time
Many of the problems of business life are the result of time pressure. This often means that people fail to listen to each other effectively and do their jobs too quickly, without sufficient preparation and analysis. This can lead to increased stress and poorer motivation, performance and health. We need to clarify the time needed for particular activities, the performance expectations and possible alternative scenarios.
10. Accept the reality
Problem-solving can be a messy business. Many problems can not be solved quickly and simply, if at all. This may create stress, a feeling of inefficiency and a corrosive atmosphere that undermines collaboration. But we do not have superhuman powers, and it is important to accept that certain problems can not be solved.
Organizations need effective leadership that creates an atmosphere of honesty and support, and that allows problems to be discussed and tackled innovatively. Most organizations are a long way from that situation. This means that you will need to play a constructive role yourself.
“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” -Steve Jobs