4 Questions to Ask for Effective Problem Solving

In so many organizations, we see discussions around problem solving go wrong. In order for an organization to be effective at solving problems, there has to be a framework of questions that will lead towards full alignment on the issue. Once we have that alignment, then we can have a serious conversation around legitimate solutions.

And the hard part here is the wealth of information available to so many of us. The proliferation of information has led to more people having more opinions on more things… which makes consensus on the path forward a lot harder. So, in a world where everyone has vast supplies of information and opinion, how do we build enough consensus to get a group of people moving forward to successfully solve a problem? Let’s dig into that a bit.

There is a well-worn line about problem solving, that “the first step in solving any problem is recognizing that the problem exists.”

We agree. We cannot solve a problem that we are not aware of. Recognition of the existence of the problem is certainly step one. We all can now see that there is a problem… sales are down 5% this quarter But regardless of the cliché, once we realize we have a problem, we are nowhere close to being ready to solve it. So what’s next? We have recognition. But then what?

Step two (and we see this minimized or outright ignored all the time) is to define the cause of the problem. We all can see that sales are down. But what is the underlying cause of those falling sales numbers? We can’t solve a problem that we cannot precisely define. What is the cause of the problem?

Step three, if we can even get that far, takes the conversation even further. We know sales are down. We know that the cause of the sales problem is strong international competition and currency challenges. But then what? Step three of successful problem solving requires that we all see the problem as solvable. Just because we all acknowledge the existence of the problem, and agree on the cause, we might not agree whether the problem is even solvable. It might be cyclical or perhaps inevitable. Can we solve it this problem?

And step four, how big a priority is solving this problem? And do we prioritize it in the same way? Maybe I think customer sales down 5% is not a huge deal, because it is cyclical, and happens every year. You think it is the end of the world, because it signals a critical shift in the market and needs to be dealt with right away. If we disagree on the importance and prioritization, then reaching good consensus is unlikely. Is solving this problem a priority?

So, if we agree that we have a problem… and we agree on the cause of the problem… and we agree that the problem is solvable… and we agree that it is big and cannot be ignored… THEN, at this point, we can finally start to discuss solving the problem.

So, the next time your group has a big problem staring it in the face, try taking these four steps to avoid the frustrations that come with putting the cart before the horse.

One more time…

Do we have a problem?

Do we understand the cause of the problem?

Do we see the problem as solvable?

Do we prioritize solving this problem in the same way?

NOW… if we have agreement on those questions, then we can start discussing the solution… what to DO about it.

Do yourself a favor… save yourself some time and anxiety… make sure your team or organization has an effective structure to discuss problem solving. You will be much happier and your organization will be far more efficient and effective.

Good luck!

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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One response to “4 Questions to Ask for Effective Problem Solving”

  1. Doug Shefsky says:

    Thanks for sharing. I like these questions but have two suggestions.
    1. Be sure to understand the “root” cause so you’re able to prevent recurrence and not treating symptoms.
    2. “Do we see the problem as solvable” feels like a low bar. If the team sees it as a possible priority, determine possible solutions – be creative force yourselves to think of at least 7 ways to solve it. Then evaluate the impact against the effort.

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Brett Slater

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.