“You can measure a leader by the problems he tackles,” writes John C. Maxwell in The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. When a problem arises, skilled leaders see opportunities, rather than limitations. They hold a light to the issue by investigating, asking constructive questions, remaining aware of their environment, and thinking outside of the box when needed.
A great example of problem solving in business is the 150 million dollar investment deal Steve Jobs struck with Bill Gates in 1997. When Jobs came back to Apple in 1996, the company was failing and embroiled in a lawsuit with Microsoft. Jobs solved the business’s two-pronged problem by directly calling Bill Gates. They made a deal, mended their relationship, and started working more closely together.
At the D5 conference in 2007, Jobs explained, “There were too many people at Apple . . . playing the game of, for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose . . . Apple didn’t have to beat Microsoft. Apple had to remember who Apple was because they’d forgotten who Apple was. So to me, it was pretty essential to break that paradigm.”
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What is Problem Solving?
Problem Solving Definition
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of problem solving is “the process or act of finding a solution to a problem.” In business, problems occur when a goal is blocked from achievement. The key to cultivating excellent problem solving skills is to hold a light to the issue by investigating, asking constructive questions, remaining aware of your environment, and thinking outside of the box as needed.
While it may seem like problem solving involves a complex strategy, the process is quite simple. In this article, find out how to produce long-lasting resolutions in six easy problem solving steps.
Step 1 – Review Initial Goals and Be Open To Refining Your Strategy
First, revisit your goals and your initial “ideal” strategy. In a perfect world, business would always go according to plan. However, strategic blueprints often require a few tweaks along the way as your team works to puts goals into action.
Problems that arise can be positive constructive tools to help leaders understand what parts of their strategy and expectations need adjustments and improvements. For example, maybe a certain part of a new company process wasn’t clearly defined and now there is a bottleneck because the team is unsure of what they should be doing next. Not only does this exercise help leaders refine their strategic planning techniques, but it also helps determine the precise location of the problem.
Step 2 – Identify the Real Root of the Problem
Next, find and treat the real root of the problem. According to the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) framework, the research process begins once you identify the root issue you’re tackling. Sometimes the surface issue isn’t what needs to be addressed. Just like an earthquake, organizational issues have an epicenter—complete with shock waves that negatively impact the business. If the core problem isn’t resolved, it expands and the damage becomes more detrimental.
One of the best ways to discover the root cause of a problem is by utilizing the 5 Whys method developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries. It’s as simple as it sounds. When a problem occurs, ask why it happened five times. In theory, the last answer should get to the heart of the issue.
Here’s an example of how the “5 Whys” work in action:
Problem: A client calls about several missing items from their order. The following 5 Why questions help get to the root of what the core issue is that needs to be solved.
- Why wasn’t their order correct?
Answer: The employee who fulfilled the order miscounted them.
- Why did they miscount them?
Answer: Because they only went back and counted the total number of units once.
- Why did they only count the units once?
Answer: There is no company policy for the number of times orders must be checked.
- Why is there no policy in place?
Answer: A quality control program was never set up within the company.
- Why is there no quality control program?
Answer: Because the business didn’t make it a strategic initiative.
When business leaders use the “5 Whys” method, problems are given more context. Uncovering how, when, and why issues happen helps company owners and executives identify the organization’s core issues. It’s a great method for creating long-lasting solutions rather than quick fixes.
Step 3 – Research Possible Solutions to the Root Problem
Too many businesses make quick decisions in the heat of the moment. Once you’ve identified the root problem, take your time by conducting research using primary and secondary resources in order to create a list of possible solutions.
Conduct primary research by:
- Having a discussion with a mentor.
- Interviewing a person who’s successfully solved this problem before.
- Strategizing with team members working on the ground with the issue.
Great secondary sources include:
- Trustworthy online articles and news sources from credible websites.
- Books from experts who’ve written about the problem.
- Podcast interviews on the issue.
- YouTube videos featuring established leaders.
Once equipped with more knowledge around the problem, create a list of viable solutions. First, take the pressure off and step away. You can’t effectively problem solve in stress mode. Think about when and where your best ideas happen and get the creative juices flowing by working in an inspiring, comfortable environment.
For example, Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX®, says her most productive creative thinking happens when she’s driving in her car. So even though she doesn’t have a real “commute to work,” she gets in the car and makes one up. As a result, she sets time aside for developing her best problem solving ideas every single day.
Step 4 – Follow a Decision-Making Process
Now that you’ve identified the root of the problem and researched possible solutions, how do you settle on the best option? Adhering to a decision-making process helps business owners and company leaders objectively choose the best solution. Making a quick decision without analyzing potential outcomes might make the issue worse or leave it untreated.
In order to make the most objective decision:
- Get into a humble mindset and make sure you’re willing to listen and learn.
- Don’t let emotions influence the choice.
- Reverse-engineer the possible outcome of any given solution.
- Weigh the pros and cons of each choice.
- Seek wise counsel from trusted mentors, leaders, and team members.
5. Develop an Action Plan
Often when problem solving, it’s easy to get sidetracked from the original goal. Now that you’ve chosen a possible solution, revisit step one and make sure the choice aligns with your main objective. If it doesn’t, although it may be a valid choice, it’s most likely not the best one for your team. If this is the case, don’t get discouraged. Problem solving takes time. Keep working on ideas until the solution removes the roadblock and makes the goal achievable.
Once the choice is made, and the solution is placed into the overall strategy, start developing an action plan. Layout the “who,” “what,” “when,” “why,” and “how.” Visualize exactly what success looks like with this new plan. When working through this process, write all these details down. This helps leaders construct action items and delegate them accordingly. Never leave this part of the process empty-handed. The team needs a clear picture of expectations so they can properly implement the solution.
What Comes Next?
As a business grows and changes, new challenges will arise. Measuring success helps the leadership team know where the company needs to continue adapting, shifting, and growing as time goes on. You can’t really know if your chosen solution worked unless its success is monitored. Regular testing and check-ins ensure whether or not the measures taken were a long-term solution. Set performance measures—such as KPIs or OKRs—to help identify whether or not the team is getting closer to their overall objective.