Problem-solving is a part of life, especially in our businesses. How you go about it is often the most important determinant of the outcome you get. Here’s a step-by-step management process for problem-solving that you can use the next time something goes wrong and you have to fix it.
1. Be sure you know what the problem is.
Write down all the details you can about the problem: what it is, what caused it, what it’s doing or has done to your business. Define it as clearly as possible and state everything you know about it.
2. Assign a priority to it.
Some problems are urgent, and others have a more flexible timeline. Write down everything you can about the time factors relating to the problem. Determine whether the problem needs to be solved today, this week, or this month. Also, define what will happen if you don’t solve the problem.
3. Check the measurements.
Quantify any aspects of the problem that can be represented numerically. If it has a financial impact on your business, make an estimate of how much it will cost. Also estimate what those numbers will be if the problem is solved.
If not solving the problem for a period of time will make the measurements worse, project these over the anticipated time before you will have solved the problem.
4. Share the problem.
When you have completed the first three steps, you have a clear picture of the problem and are ready to enlist the help of others. Business problems are best treated as a team issue, so assemble a team to help you find the solution.
Choose people that can bring their own problem-solving skills to the project. Make them the owners of the problem, and challenge them to solve it. (Even if the problem-causer is among this group, avoid recriminations and just focus on the solution.)
Review the first three steps to make sure you haven’t missed something or made a miscalculation. Everyone must agree on the dimensions of the problem before proceeding.
5. Agree on what will identify a solution.
How will you know that the problem has been solved? Everyone working on finding a solution has to have a clear goal in mind that represents that solution. Define this as carefully as you’ve defined the problem itself.
6. Manage the solution process.
You’re now there to manage the team in their efforts to find a solution to the problem. Become the focal point for information-gathering and communication, and manage all aspects of the project, including scheduling and meeting deadlines.
7. Don’t just fix the symptoms.
Many business problems manifest themselves with symptoms that can be wrongly perceived as the problems themselves. As project manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the real problem is pursued to the point of solution, and not just the symptoms; fixing the symptoms often helps to mask the real problem.
8. Honesty is the best policy.
You may find that the resources at your immediate command are inadequate to solve the problem. If this is the case, be wise enough to admit it, and call in help from outside the organization.
Refocus the team’s efforts on finding a source for the solution somewhere else. Keep the team together so they can evaluate the proposed solutions received from elsewhere.
9. Choose the best solution.
Assuming that your team has agreed on a solution for the problem, you need to make sure it’s not only going to work, but is also the best solution. Check and double-check before you implement any solution, to be certain it will be the most effective answer to the problem.
10. Thank and disband the team.
Make a final report to the team that has solved the problem and tell them how you appreciate their contributions. You can now officially disband the team and remove this particular problem-solving task from their list of responsibilities.