5 Steps to Fixing the Problems with Your Problem Solving

Everyone thinks they’re a great problem solver.  I mean – who isn’t?  Give me a problem.  I solve it.

The problem is you might be working on the wrong problem.  Or you’ve missed the entire root cause.  Or the solutions you pursue aren’t the highest impact ideas to chase down.

Problem solving is actually pretty simple though.  All you have to do is follow five simple steps.  I promise if you’re rigorous about the problem solving method you use, you’ll improve your chances of solving the right problem, generate solutions that address the true root cause, and select the ideas to pursue that will have the greatest impact.

How do I know this method works?  I’ve personally used it for almost 15 years and we’ve been teaching our clients our Structured Problem Solving course for a long time.  And every time we teach it, participants in the program walk out with great new tools they immediately apply to solve the biggest problems they face.

So how can you become a better problem solver too?  Easy.

Step 1: Pin the Problem

You’ve got to clearly define the issue at hand.  Look at the problem not just from your perspective but from multiple perspectives.  What would your CEO say the problem is?  Your customers?  Your front line associates?  Your finance team?  You get the picture.  Problems look different to different people.

Also look at causality.  All of us have solved a symptom before rather than curing the real disease.  When you fix a symptom, the root problem doesn’t go away – it simply manifests as new symptoms.  Be sure to understand causality.  Once you’ve looked through different lenses and found root causes, you should have a clearly-defined problem.

Step 2: Identify the Issues

Building on causality, start breaking the problem down into sub-components.  For example – if you have a profit problem, that breaks down into revenue issues and cost issues.  On the revenue side, that breaks down further into price issues and volume issues.  Costs break down into fixed cost issues, variable cost issues, and semi-variable cost issues.  As you break the problem down and identify all the possible issues and problems you face, your chances of finding the true root cause go up.  This will also give structure to your problem solving so you can be deliberate in your investigation and analysis.

Step 3: Generate Hypotheses and Prioritize Proving Them

Once you’ve laid out all the issues, start thinking about ways you could solve each issue.  Note I did not say to actually solve the issues – just to identify possible solutions for each issue.  Those possible solutions become your hypotheses you’re going to prioritize, analyze, and evaluate.  This is the work of classic brainstorming.  For example, if you have a volume issue on the revenue side of things, you might generate ideas like enter new markets, launch a new product, increase sales efforts at key customers, and expand distribution channels.  All four of those ideas focus primarily on driving volume.  Those are your four initial hypotheses for that particular issue (volume).

Once you’ve constructed a full list of hypotheses that could solve all the issues you identified in Step 2, you need to prioritize your efforts.  There’s so much waste in our current problem solving methods because we go out and try to prove or disprove every hypothesis instead of focusing on the ones that could be the biggest.  Use the 80/20 method.  Do some rough calculations to see which idea might be the biggest.  The bottom line is don’t set out to prove or disprove every hypothesis.  Focus your efforts on the ones that could be the most meaningful.

Step 4: Conduct Your Analysis

You can stop twitching now – we finally get to open Excel.  But again, our analysis is a focused effort designed to prove or disprove our primary hypothesis (the one from Step 3 that we thought could have the biggest impact).  Center your analysis on proving or disproving that idea.  If you prove it’s a valuable solution, you’ll have some impact, pay your own salary to stick around to do some more problem solving, and then move on to the next most likely idea.  Ring the cash register, folks.  You may not find the biggest idea on the first shot but at least you’re making a contribution (unlike those folks who analyze everything but implement nothing).

Remember – you don’t need all the analysis.  You need the right analysis.  If you can focus your efforts on proving or disproving your primary hypothesis, you’ll be more efficient and get to answers quickly versus getting stuck in the muck of analysis paralysis.

Step 5: Advance Your Answer

Now that you’ve proven a hypothesized solution, you need to start selling that recommendation so it actually gets implemented.  Be sure you turn that hypothesis into a clearly worded recommendation.  Have the core analyses required to prove your case and not one bit more.  People aren’t impressed by your one million spreadsheets.  They’re impressed when you can pull out two or three core analyses that prove your case.

Once you know what that recommendation is, you should put it into a logical, clear storyline.  Help your audience understand what the problem is, why we need to solve it, and how your recommendation saves the day.

There you go!

Five easy steps for solving even the most complex problems.  Note that the method is about clarity, focus, simplicity, and elegance.  It’s not an Excel competition.  It’s about who can crack the biggest problems the fastest and also who can crack the most problems in the shortest period of time.  I know it seems simple but the discipline takes a long time to acquire (and by the way – call us if you’d like help with improving your problem solving skills – we’d be delighted to teach you more about the method).

So what are the biggest challenges you face in your problem solving?

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

P.S. For those of you who are too young to know who that is in the picture, it’s Vanilla Ice.  And if there’s a problem, yo – he’ll solve it.

5 Responses to “5 Steps to Fixing the Problems with Your Problem Solving”

  1. […] I read in interesting article today called ‘5 Steps to Fixing the Problems with Your Problem Solving‘.  […]

  2. James says:

    Why not keep things simple and use the common word ‘alternatives’ or ‘possible solutions’ instead of ‘hypothesis’ (since you are dealing here with a very simple problem scenario, why introduce a word that is more correctly associated with complex theoretical research scenarios with testing, data collection, and sophisticated analysis for which your simple methodology is grossly inadequate)

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Hi James. Thanks for your thoughts. I use hypothesis because it’s the correct word. Hypothesis (noun): a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. I don’t see anywhere in there a requirement on complexity or that it’s reserved for theoretical research. The method I’m proposing is the same used by industry-leading firms (McKinsey, Capital One, Bain, BCG, etc.). At those firms, they use the same method and they do conduct testing, data collection, and sophisticated analysis. In fact, some of the most complex and elegant testing of hypotheses I’ve encountered was done by my teams at Capital One (including the use of statisticians, SAS, and complex modeling techniques). Hypothesis is the correct word and the method isn’t grossly inadequate (although I concede that a 1,000 word blog post doesn’t do it the full justice it deserves). The method is the same regardless of the complexity of the problem and I’ve used this method to tackle problems ranging from extremely simple to exceedingly complex. I’m going to stick with hypothesis. Besides, it’s faster to type than your options – hypothesis is 10 letters, alternatives is 12 letters, and possible solutions is 17 letters plus one space.

      • James says:

        Thanks for clarification. I have no issue with 5 step methodology. It is fit for purpose and, as you point out, widely used. As you say, a ‘hypothesis’ is a possible ‘explanation’ (for the state of a system) based on (a set of) observations as a staring point for further investigation (research). That coincides with what I understand also. My objection was prompted because in Step 3 where you said “possible solutions become your hypotheses”, I automatically associated ‘hypothesis = explanation’. I suppose you mean ‘hypothesis’ is synonymous with saying ‘hypothetical solutions’ (not the kind of ‘hypothesis = explanation’ investigation that I was associating with when I read the word).

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