Workplace Problem Solving: 7 Steps To Follow
Updated: Sep 4
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein
A January 2018 survey of business leaders by Harvard Business Review found they were very concerned about their people's problem-solving capability. It was reported as a bigger challenge than perennial tough ones like specialized recruitment, retention and employee engagement. Problem solving is what many people do for a living as well as in life, so you’d think we’d be pretty good at it, why is it such a concern for employers?
When we think of problem solving in terms of innovation, increasing productivity and strengthening workplace culture it makes sense that employers are interested in a problem solving skillset or mindset.
We now know that workplace cultures are about energized and engaged people coming together to solve difficult problems together, therefore a focus on problem solving capability is paramount to creating great workplaces.
Doing something better or faster, exceeding customer expectations, doing something in a more cost effective way; organizations are always solving problems by rethinking, reshaping and re-engineering…or they should be or someone else will in the marketplace.
There are plenty of obstacles to effective problem solving. McGill’s Corey Phelps in his June 2018 book Cracked it! How to solve big problems and sell solutions like top strategy consultants zeros in on one of our biggest problem-solving faux pas namely jumping to flawed solutions then seeking information to validate our premature diagnosis and even worse, ignoring evidence that conflicts with or challenges our quick fix.
He argues we frame problems too narrowly, don’t see the big picture and start solving symptoms by not getting to root causes. Add to that the absence of systems or approaches / unclear roles, team/interpersonal issues and problem solving suffers immensely.
Effective problem solving happens when there is a collective enthusiasm and curiosity for diagnostics. When people are pumped to answer the question “what’s really going on”.
Effective problem solving is a hiring issue. Aggressively screening applicants for their problem solving track record and getting them to demonstrate those skills through testing or simulations and then attentively reference checking on that capability is huge.
Problem solving protocols, processes and approaches that are sometimes process specific or profession specific are in use in lots of organizations. The Manufacturing sector uses a suite of Lean tools (Root Cause Analysis, Bottleneck Analysis, Kaizen etc.). Formalizing the use of such tools and championing ongoing training is how some groups are upping their game in problem solving.
I’m a fan of the following 7-step approach, I especially like how it incorporates people’s interests and adds some rigor to the backend of the process:
1. ID the problem - Differentiating symptoms from root causes.
2. Understand people’s interests – Who is interested or affected and why.
3. ID Options - The brain loves 2 options…pushing for a viable 3rd option is hard work but often pays off.
4. Evaluate Options - Systematically, methodically using an easy numerical rating scheme (i.e. on a scale of 1 to 5). Scoring makes for great debate.
5. Select an Option.
6. Document – People forget, problem solving is hard work, capture the decision for clarity.
7. Contingencies, monitoring & evaluation - Love the idea of building in contingencies at the get go. Doing the What if it doesn’t work thinking at the onset can be so beneficial down the line.
There is always the age-old wisdom from the author John Geirach which speaks to getting the proper perspective before tackling an issue…please do not confuse this with burying one’s head in the sand.
“The solution to any problem – work, love, money, whatever – is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
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