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The process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues
Guidelines to Problem Solving and Decision Maing
Much of what people do is solve problems and make decisions. Often,
they are under the gun, stressed and very short for time.
!onse"uently, when they encounter a new problem or decision they
must make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. #t$s
easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle of solving the same
problem over and over again.
%&ote that it might be more your nature to view a problem as an
opportunity. Therefore, you might substitute problem for
opportunity in the following guidelines.'
!" De#ine t$e %roblem
This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the
problem is. #nstead, seek to understand more about why you think
there$s a problem.
De#ine t$e %roblem& '(it$ in%ut #rom )oursel# and ot$ers*" +s
)oursel# and ot$ers, t$e #ollo(ing -uestions&
(hat can you see that causes you to think there$s a problem)
(here is it happening)
*ow is it happening)
(hen is it happening)
(ith whom is it happening) %*#&T+ ,on$t -ump to (ho is
causing the problem) (hen we$re stressed, blaming is often one of
our first reactions. To be an effective manager, you need to address
issues more than people.'
(hy is it happening)
(rite down a five.sentence description of the problem in terms
of The following should be happening, but isn$t ... or The
following is happening and should be+ ... /s much as possible, be
specific in your description, including what is happening, where,
how, with whom and why. %#t may be helpful at this point to use a
variety of research methods.
De#ining com%le. %roblems&
#f the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating
steps 0.1 until you have descriptions of several related problems.
Veri#)ing )our understanding o# t$e %roblems&
#t helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with
a peer or someone else.
Prioriti/e t$e %roblems&
#f you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then
prioriti2e which ones you should address first.
0nderstand )our role in t$e %roblem&
3our role in the problem can greatly influence how you perceive the
role of others. 4or example, if you$re very stressed out, it$ll probably
look like others are, too, or, you may resort too "uickly to blaming and
reprimanding others. Or, you are feel very guilty about your role in the
problem, you may ignore the accountabilities of others.
1" Loo at %otential causes #or t$e %roblem
0 #t$s often useful to collect input from other individuals one at a
time %at least at first'. Otherwise, people tend to be inhibited about
offering their impressions of the real causes of problems.
5 (rite down a description of the cause of the problem and in
terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom and
2" Identi#) alternatives #or a%%roac$es to resolve t$e %roblem
#t$s critical when collecting the ideas to not pass any -udgment on the
ideas .. -ust write them down as you hear them. %/ wonderful set of
skills used to identify the underlying cause of issues is 6ystems
3" Select an a%%roac$ to resolve t$e %roblem
7 (hen selecting the best approach, consider+
8 (hich approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the
long term)
9 (hich approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now) ,o
you have the resources) /re they affordable) ,o you have enough
time to implement the approach)
: (hat is the extent of risk associated with each alternative)
4" Plan t$e im%lementation o# t$e best alternative 't$is is )our
action %lan*
!arefully consider (hat will the situation look like when the
problem is solved)
(hat steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to
solving the problem) (hat systems or processes should be changed
in your organi2ation, for example, a new policy or procedure) ,on$t
resort to solutions where someone is -ust going to try harder.
*ow will you know if the steps are being followed or not) %these
are your indicators of the success of your plan'
(hat resources will you need in terms of people, money and
*ow much time will you need to implement the solution) (rite a
schedule that includes the start and stop times, and when you
expect to see certain indicators of success.
(ho will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of
the plan)
(rite down the answers to the above "uestions and consider this
as your action plan.
!ommunicate the plan to those who will involved in
implementing it and, at least, to your immediate supervisor.
5" Monitor im%lementation o# t$e %lan
Monitor the indicators of success+
/re you seeing what you would expect from the indicators)
(ill the plan be done according to schedule)
#f the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider+ (as
the plan realistic) /re there sufficient resources to accomplish the
plan on schedule) 6hould more priority be placed on various
aspects of the plan) 6hould the plan be changed)
6" Veri#) i# t$e %roblem $as been resolved or not
One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to
resume normal operations in the organi2ation. 6till, you should
(hat changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in
the future) !onsider changes to policies and procedures, training,
;astly, consider (hat did you learn from this problem solving)
!onsider new knowledge, understanding and<or skills.
!onsider writing a brief memo that highlights the success of the
problem solving effort, and what you learned as a result. 6hare it
with your supervisor, peers and subordinates.
Rational Versus Organic +%%roac$ to Problem Solving
/ person with this preference often prefers using a comprehensive and
logical approach similar to the guidelines in the above section. 4or
example, the rational approach, described below, is often used when
addressing large, complex matters in strategic planning.
,efine the problem.
=xamine all potential causes for the problem.
#dentify all alternatives to resolve the problem.
!arefully select an alternative.
,evelop an orderly implementation plan to implement that best
!arefully monitor implementation of the plan.
>erify if the problem has been resolved or not.
/ ma-or advantage of this approach is that it gives a strong sense of
order in an otherwise chaotic situation and provides a common frame
of reference from which people can communicate in the situation. /
ma-or disadvantage of this approach is that it can take a long time to
finish. 6ome people might argue, too, that the world is much too
chaotic for the rational approach to be useful.
6ome people assert that the dynamics of organi2ations and people are
not nearly so mechanistic as to be improved by solving one problem
after another. Often, the "uality of an organi2ation or life comes from
how one handles being on the road itself, rather than the arriving at
the destination. The "uality comes from the ongoing process of trying,
rather than from having fixed a lot of problems. 4or many people it is
an approach to organi2ational consulting. The following "uote is often
used when explaining the organic %or holistic' approach to problem
All the greatest and most important problems in life are
fundamentally insoluble They can never be solved, but only
outgrown. This outgrowing proves on further investigation to require
a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared
on the horion and through this broadening of outloo!, the insoluble
lost its urgency. "t was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded
when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.
4rom ?ung, !arl, @sychological Types %@antheon Aooks, 0B57'
/ ma-or advantage of the organic approach is that it is highly
adaptable to understanding and explaining the chaotic changes that
occur in pro-ects and everyday life. #t also suits the nature of people
who shun linear and mechanistic approaches to pro-ects. The ma-or
disadvantage is that the approach often provides no clear frame of
reference around which people can communicate, feel comfortable and
measure progress toward solutions to problems.

Problem-solving strategies
The following techni"ues are usually called problem#solving strategies+
Abstraction+ solving the problem in a model of the system before
applying it to the real system
Analogy+ using a solution that solves an analogous problem
Brainstorming+ %especially among groups of people' suggesting a
large number of solutions or ideas and combining and developing
them until an optimum solution is found
Divide and conquer+ breaking down a large, complex problem into
smaller, solvable problems
Hypothesis testing+ assuming a possible explanation to the problem
and trying to prove %or, in some contexts, disprove' the assumption
Lateral thinking+ approaching solutions indirectly and creatively
Means-ends analysis+ choosing an action at each step to move closer
to the goal
Method of focal objects+ synthesi2ing seemingly non.matching
characteristics of different ob-ects into something new
Morphological analysis+ assessing the output and interactions of an
entire system
roof+ try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. The point
where the proof fails will be the starting point for solving it
!eduction+ transforming the problem into another problem for
which solutions exist
!esearch+ employing existing ideas or adapting existing solutions
to similar problems
!oot cause analysis+ identifying the cause of a problem
"rial-and-error+ testing possible solutions until the right one is
Problem-solving met$odologies
A#%/pplied @roblem 6olving'
$ight Disciplines roblem #olving
%!&' model
Ho( to #olve )t
*epner-"regoe roblem #olving and Decision Making
&&DA loop%observe, orient, decide, and act'
!! roblem Diagnosis%rapid problem resolution'
7ommon barriers to %roblem solving
4ive of the most common processes and factors that researchers have
identified as barriers to problem solving are confirmation bias, mental set,
functional fixedness, unnecessary constraints, and irrelevant information.
7on#irmation bias
Motivation refers to oneDs desire to defend or find substantiation for
beliefs %e.g., religious beliefs' that are important to him or her.
/ccording to Eaymond &ickerson, one can see the conse"uences of
confirmation bias in real life situations, which range in severity from
inefficient government policies to genocide.
Mental set
Mental set describes one$s inclination to attempt to solve problems in
such a way that has proved successful in previous experiences.
*owever, as ;uchins$ work revealed, such methods for finding a
solution that have worked in the past may not be ade"uate or optimal
for certain new but similar problems. Therefore, it is often necessary
for people to move beyond their mental sets in order to find solutions.
8unctional #i.edness
4unctional fixedness can affect problem solvers in at least two
particular ways. The first is with regards to time, as functional
fixedness causes people to use more time than necessary to solve any
given problem. 6econdly, functional fixedness often causes solvers to
make more attempts to solve a problem than they would have made if
they were not experiencing this cognitive barrier. #n the worst case,
functional fixedness can completely prevent a person from reali2ing a
solution to a problem. 4unctional fixedness is a commonplace
occurrence, which affects the lives of many people.
0nnecessar) constraints
%roupthink, or taking on the mindset of the rest of the group members,
can also act as an unnecessary constraint while trying to solve
problems. This is due to the fact that with everybody thinking the
same thing, stopping on the same conclusions, and inhibiting
themselves to think beyond this. This problem can be "uickly solved
with a dawning of reali2ation, or insight. / few minutes of struggling
over a problem can bring these sudden insights, where the solver
"uickly sees the solution clearly.
Irrelevant in#ormation
)rrelevant information is information presented within a problem that is
unrelated or unimportant to the specific problem. (ithin the specific
context of the problem, irrelevant information would serve no purpose
in helping solve that particular problem. Often irrelevant information is
detrimental to the problem solving process. #t is a common barrier that
many people have trouble getting through, especially if they are not
aware of it. "rrelevant information makes solving otherwise relatively
simple problems much harder.