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Six steps to solving a problem

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Business tips
Friday, May 03, 2013


05.03.13 Blog SixStepsPaula and her boss Sue were driving each other nuts. (As their coach I got to see it up close.)

Paula needed to hire more staff. Her “reasonable” proposal got “shot down” by Sue, who sent it back with a 500-word email containing 9 different questions.

“I look at her email,” Paula told me, “and I feel exhausted.”

Sue later tells me, “Paula hasn’t thought it through. Her proposal doesn’t solve our problem and it creates new ones.”

I ask them each if there’s a larger pattern here.

Oh, yes there is.

Sue, the detail-oriented boss, keeps getting “incomplete” ideas and proposals — from all of her staff. ”It’s like I have to do the thinking for them.”

Paula, the mid level manager, feels ‘pecked to death.’ She asks, “Where are all these criteria coming from? Every answer seems to generate more questions. It’s like Sue has some secret answer she really wants from me, so she’ll nitpick every other answer that isn’t the one she wants.”

What’s happening is, Sue isn’t delegating effectively, and Paula isn’t presenting solutions effectively.

I recommended they adopt a shared problem-solving framework. Good managers do this.

The Stages of Solving a Problem

I don’t know of any perfect method for solving every problem. However a shared “problem solving process” would at least avoid the friction between Sue (who’s still at Step 2) and Paula (who thinks she’s at Step 5).

Having a shared process means neither of you is racing ahead of the other and being dragged backward. Here are the steps I recommend:

  1. Write a Bad Problem Statement
  2. Write a Good Problem Statement
  3. Describe the Plan for Generating Solutions
  4. Propose the First Solution
  5. Propose Three Solutions and a Recommendation
  6. Write Down the Agreed Solution and the Steps to Implement It

Here’s how to do each.

Hint: every step involves creating some sort of output you can show your boss. So, if you’re a manager, use this process to delegate problem-solving — it keeps you in the loop while letting others do more of the work.

1. Bad Problem Statement

Write a badly defined problem statement (i.e. “We dislike undesirable condition C. How do we fix it?”)

Example: ”We don’t like the coffee.”

What makes it bad: it’s just a complaint. There’s often no clue what would work, only a partial identification of what doesn’t work. Can sound like whining. Usually omits boundary conditions. Why is this a good first step? Because anybody can do it. Most problems show up looking like this.

2. Good Problem Statement

A well-defined problem statement (i.e. “How can we best achieve desired state X, given constraints W, Q, and Z?”)

Manager hint: ask the complainer to follow this process and bring you a restated problem for Step 2 — and give them an out: “if this is too much trouble, maybe the problem isn’t a real problem.”

Example: “How can we get coffee that most people mostly like, while staying within budget, and without spending a lot of time on it?”

What makes it good: you’re stating the “positive opposite” of what you don’t like. You’re also acknowledging the constraints.

3. A Plan to Generate Solutions

A plan for coming up with answers that involves appropriate stakeholders.

Example: “As problem owner, I plan to involve Joe the coffee complainer, Fred the coffee buyer, Alice the budget person, and Jim-Bob the process guru. We’re going to figure out a way to empower complainers to fix things that need fixing in ‘ways that work’. I’ll ask the four of them to help me build some possible answers.”

The trick here is to keep the process short and sweet. You don’t need to turn everything into a new committee.

(Advanced tip: by now this issue should have an “owner” who is responsible for seeing it through to completion.)

4. One Solution

One answer and some remaining questions

Example: “We propose empowering coffee drinkers to set up their own system for obtaining coffee. They’ll be a self directed team, with the same coffee budget as today, and they’ll have to report to Alice. Anybody who complains about the coffee gets the option to join. Open questions — Do we know how to create a self directed team? Will they stay on budget? Will their solutions be accepted by others? Is this more trouble than it’s worth?”

Test: does my one solution fit the model, and meet the constraints, from step 2? If not, go back; if so, it’s OK to move forward.

5. Three Solutions and a Recommendation

Three possible answers and a recommendation

  1. The top three coffee complainers will rotate coffee buying responsibility and submit receipts to Alice (Recommended)
  2. The top three coffee complainers will chair a committee to solicit input from all coffee drinkers and hold a tasting and a vote
  3. The top three coffee complainers will create a process for coffee selection

If the issue is significant, create a Decision Brief at this point — a matrix of options and criteria. (The Manager-Tools podcast on Decision Briefs is excellent.)

6. Agreed Solution and a Plan

An agreed-upon answer and an implementation plan

Example: We select #1. Anybody who wants to join the coffee buying rotation may do so. Anyone who wants to drop out, can. Anybody who complains about the coffee after being informed of the buying process, is automatically added to the coffee buying rotation. If you have the energy to complain, you have the energy to go fix it. The coffee budget is unchanged. Expenditures will be reimbursed, with receipt, up to the stated budget; overages are the responsibility of the buyers.

Furthermore, we will add to our culture statement “if you care enough to complain, you must care enough to help fix it. If not, stop whining.”

Why This Works

Most of your people really do want to fix problems. It’s your job as a manager to give them a way forward. These six steps will keep them in sync with you, will let you check in appropriately, and will give them freedom to be creative and innovative in solving the problem while staying “in bounds.”

When Paula and Sue got together on this, they realized they were just at different steps.

Sue invited Paula to interview her to collect the criteria for Step 2. That gives Paula the confidence that her steps 3 and 4 will be in the right ballpark, and her work won’t be wasted or “pecked to death” the way they would be if she didn’t know what criteria Sue was going to use.

(Get a formatted PDF worksheet for this process – click here.)

Tom Cox is a Portland area consultant and executive coach. He helps leaders exceed their business aspirations.


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