Problem solving like you mean it

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Serious problems demand serious attention. I remember sitting at a meeting years ago when an issue was raised that might affect my company’s operations in all of South America. It was a big deal and a thorny problem. That didn’t make much difference to one of the people at the table, though.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get this out of the way so that we can get back to the agenda.”

There are times when you can do that. There are times when you have a recipe that you can apply that will solve the problem in front of you. There are other times when you have guidelines about how to deal with a situation. But not all the time.

If it’s a problem you need to solve and you don’t know how to go about it, it’s time for some creative and serious problem-solving. Here are four ways to make that serious problem-solving more effective.

Describe Don’t Define

Good problem-solving starts with an accurate description of the situation. I didn’t say “starts with a definition of the problem.” If you start defining the problem, even to the extent of calling it an “accounting problem” or a “marketing problem” you define the range of solutions that you will consider. So, instead of defining the problem, describe the situation.

Use several ways to develop your description of the situation.

One of the challenges is to keep your description open until pieces start to fall into place without much help from you. You can do that if you use several different ways to describe the situation you want to change.

Get the story of the problem. I like to do that with a timeline that shows the first time we became aware of the situation and what happened since. As you add items to the timeline, you’ll spark memories of other incidents and their stories.

Make lists of what you know and what you need to investigate. As Donald Rumsfeld reminded us, though, we don’t know what we don’t know. As someone suggests an item for the “known” list, ask for proof. If there is no solid proof, add the item to a third list. Call it “Maybe” or “Presumed” or anything else you like, but verify the items on that list.

Ask the journalist’s basic questions. You know them: who, what, when, where, and why. Ask those questions and you’ll learn things about the situation that aren’t immediately obvious. If you can’t answer a question, don’t worry. Go with what you’ve got.

Refine your answers by comparing the situation you don’t like to one that’s acceptable. This builds on the journalist’s questions by comparing a situation you find acceptable to a situation you don’t.

Help Your Brains Do Their Thing

Schedule problem-solving meetings early, before people have used up their thinking and attention muscles on less important things. Eliminate distractions. One manager friend of mine has a rule that there will be no devices turned on in the room. To make that happen, people put their laptops and phones on a table at the back.

If a problem is serious, it should get more than one meeting. Do some work on the situation, then let things rest. Bring people back the next morning. You’ll find that several people had ideas during the interim that may prove helpful. That’s how our brains work. Some people solve problems logically, others wait for a flash of insight. Get the benefit of both.

Test Your Ideas

Follow this advice, attributed to Wernher von Braun: “One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.” Try out your solutions. This might involve prototyping, which is a short-term temporary situation that lets you test a concept.

When you come up with the best solution you can manage, implement it on a limited basis for a test period. Evaluate how things work. Adjust as necessary.

Bottom Line

You should give important problems serious attention. Describe the situation using several different methods. Help people use their brains to best advantage. Then test your potential solutions to discover how they work and how they should be modified.

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