I used to get flustered when things went wrong. I would make a good plan and then run into snags. I’d let it get under my skin at times.
It took me far too long to accept that problems are typical in every process. Unless you’re dead, you will have to deal with them. So, I always prepare for obstacles in my plans!
This report results from my study, research, and many years of experience solving some big problems as a military officer. It includes problem solving techniques for every occasion. They will help you overcome challenges to goal achievement.
Some of these are full problem-solving techniques. Others are tools to help with one aspect of a problem. I’ve organized them into categories for easy reference below. Click on a link to navigate to a section you want.
Categories of Techniques and Tools
Click on any category, technique, or tool to navigate directly to that section.
Viewing a Problem from Different Perspectives
Six Thinking Hats
Using the metaphor of different hats is a way to look at problems from different angles. You imagine wearing a hat that makes you view the situation in a specific way.
This hat represents facts and data. You wear it first to brainstorm and identify all of the information you need.
The red one represents feelings, hunches, and intuition. You consider what you like, dislike, and fear about the circumstance.
This hat is for thinking about the potential negative consequences of solutions. Consider why a solution might not work or may cause other problems.
The opposite of the black hat is the yellow one. Consider all of the benefits of a solution.
This hat is for creative thinking. Consider unlimited possibilities and unrestrained ideas, possibilities, and new concepts. Come up with new ideas and perceptions.
The blue hat is for the leader or facilitator in problem-solving sessions. Use the hat for managing the complete process.
The Flip-It strategy reduces bias in your thinking about problems. First, you examine the issue from a perspective of fear. You write down all of your concerns about it. Then you go back over each item and view it from a perspective of hope. This process clarifies your view of the situation.
You can employ Flip-it in other creative ways to tackle difficult issues. Here’s an article with a different slant.
This process model starts with the end goal in mind. Then you brainstorm ideas related to your end goal in each category: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
- What are the facts?
- What do you want to achieve?
- What do you need to find a solution?
- What if you don’t make a decision or find an answer?
- Why do you want to find a solution?
- Why did the opportunity or problem arise?
- Why do you need to find a solution?
- How will the situation change?
- How relevant is the information you are gathering?
- How can you learn more?
- How can you involve concerned people?
- Where did the issue begin?
- Where does it impact?
- Is “where” necessary? Why?
- Who are you trying to please?
- Who cares? Who is affected?
- Who is involved?
- Who needs to be informed?
- When did the issue appear?
- When do you need to act?
- By when must it be solved?
Creative Problem Solving
This tool is for stimulating creativity. If you’re stuck on looking for a solution, use this method to get unstuck. You need a die and a timer. You also need three sheets of paper labeled separately as Goals / Facts / Ideas. Write down the problem or issue you are considering with the page titles on each page.
When you do this exercise, write rapidly, use abbreviations and initials. Go fast! You only have 3 minutes. Roll the die and follow the list below based on the number that comes up. Whenever you roll the same number consecutively, roll the die again until you get a different result.
- Specify: Spend only 3 minutes (using a timer) to identify the goals you want. Don’t think. Rapidly write whatever pops in your mind. Write them down on the Goals sheet.
- Investigate: For 3 minutes, recall facts about the issue and write them on the page labeled Facts.
- Brainstorm Ideas: Within 3 minutes, write down interesting, creative, and practical ideas about your problem.
- Incubate: Distract yourself for 3 minutes and don’t think about the issue.
- Review: Look at the items on your sheets for 3 minutes and add related topics if you think of any. If you haven’t written anything yet, roll the die again.
- Integrate: Check your sheets. If any of the pages are blank, roll the die again. If none of the pages are empty, consider combining ideas from the different groups into one package.
Hopefully, you get unstuck and get some good ideas for some more useful solutions.
15 Percent Solution
What is your 15 percent? It’s where you have discretion and freedom to act without more resources or authorization?
You list all of the things you can do to solve your problem without any other authority or resources.
It’s valuable in a group setting because it reveals what each group member can solve.
HOW NOW WOW
You begin with a list of ideas that you have from brainstorming as an individual or group. Now, you use the HOW NOW WOW matrix to separate your ideas into the three categories.
Draw a 2-by-2 matrix. The X-axis indicates the originality of the idea, and the Y-axis exhibits how difficult it is to implement.
Label the quadrants as:
Now/Blue Ideas – Ordinary ideas that are easy to implement. These are typically simple solutions to fill existing gaps in processes. These usually result in incremental improvements.
How/Yellow Ideas – Original ideas that are impossible to implement. These are significant ideas in terms of impact but are impossible to implement with current technology/budget constraints.
Wow/Green Ideas – Original thoughts, easy to implement. Ideas are those with the potential for significant impact and possible to implement within current circumstances.
The Five-step Approach
There is a simple approach to problem-solving that includes five steps:
- Identify the problem.
- Find out what caused it.
- Brainstorm ideas to solve it.
- Choose the best solution.
- Act on your solution
It’s essential to be clear about your problem. Examine the situation thoroughly and be sure about what the problem is. Then the rest of the steps will flow from the correct problem identity.
Here is a thorough discussion of a 5-step process to solve problems.
Prioritizing Problems and Solutions
Impact and Effort Matrix
In this decision-making exercise, you map possible actions based on how much effort you need to implement them and how great their potential impact. Categorizing ideas in this way improves decision-making because you have to balance and evaluate solutions before committing to them.
Begin with a goal and list ideas for how to achieve it. Frame the plan as “What to do” or “What we need” questions. Questions may sound as simple as “What do we need to reach our goal?”
Generate ideas and then place them within a 2×2 matrix that is organized by impact and effort. The impact is the benefit of the action. The effort is the cost of taking action.
Use the information to help you decide what to do.
Predicting Problems and Solutions
Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)
Engineers and management at Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors use this method. FMEA is also popular in the medical field. It is a process of identifying when failures or problems will happen and how damaging their effects would be.
Finally, come up with a list of actions to take to prevent each of the failures you listed in the previous steps.
This method results in a list of actions to take to achieve your Goal.
“G” stands for Goal. Define the Goal clearly, so there is no doubt when you achieve it.
“R” is for Reality. Reality is where you are now. What are the issues and the challenges? How far do you have to go to reach your Goal?
“O” Obstacles and Options. There will be Obstacles between where you are now and where you want to go. Once you’ve identified the Obstacles, find ways (Options) of dealing with them.
“W” Way Forward. Convert the Options into action steps to achieve your Goal. These are the Way Forward.
Ask questions that begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how to explore issues thoroughly. These questions help ensure that your identification and analysis phases are covered in-depth.
The objective is to generate a broader range of ideas. These are the six critical questions that journalists use to ensure they have covered the whole story. The questions invite thinking about the concept in question and allow approaches to it from various angles in problem-solving circumstances.
Make the focus question precise. Brainstorm as many items as you can in each of the six questions.
These are a few illustrations. Don’t limit your inquiries to the examples.
1. Who? (Actor or Agent) Who is involved? What are the people features of the problem?
2. What? (Act) What should happen? What is it? What was done, should be done, was not done?
3. When? (Time or Timing) When (past, present, or future) it occurs or is performed?
4. Where? (Scene or Source) Where did, will, should this occur or be performed? Where else is a possibility?
5. Why? (Purpose) Why was or is this done, avoided, permitted? Why should it be done, avoided, permitted?
6. How? (Agency or Method) How was it, could it be, should it be done, prevented, destroyed, made, improved, altered? How can it be described, understood?
Now you should have more ideas about the issue.
Cause and Effect Analysis
This analysis is a procedure for finding the root causes of problems.
- Draw the diagram of a fish and begin with the effect or problem as the fish head.
- Ask why a process has problems, breakdowns, difficulties, or delays.
- Brainstorm the underlying reasons for the issue and add them as bones on the fish.
- Dig deeper by examining each reason and asking, “Why is this happening?”
- Prioritize the causes.
- Move on to finding solutions.
SQUID Technique (Sequential Question and Insight Diagram)
SQUID is a way to question your problem and dig deeper, asking even more questions about your answers. It’s a model that involves switching between giving questions and answers and developing problem-solving skills. You label the head, like a squid head, with your central topic. Then you make the tentacles of the squid your questions. Next, you make the tentacles longer by connecting the questions to answers and then more questions.
First, brainstorm a series of questions connected to your best guess on how to approach the matter. Then, come up with answers to those questions, fix them to the diagram, and connect them with a line.
After that, ask more questions about the answers. The process repeats itself drilling deeper and deeper into the issue with questions.
After you’re satisfied with your knowledge of the issue, focus on solving it.
This method is a metaphor for identifying problems that you need to solve. In Speed Boat, anchors represent challenges that might be holding you (or the boat) back. You also look for any sharks (potential problems) in the water and develop problem-solving strategies to deal with issues outside of your company.
Draw a boat with anchors attached on a whiteboard. Name it after the product/service or goal you’re evaluating. This image is the metaphor for the activity—the speedboat represents the issue you’re considering, and the anchors are the obstacles slowing the movement toward your objective.
Write the issue under discussion next to the boat. For example, “What features don’t you like about the product?” or “What’s holding back progress toward this goal?”
Read the question and then assess the product/service’s current features or the goal’s current environment.
Next, take 5–10 minutes and write the features of the product/service you don’t like or any variables in the way on sticky notes. If you’d like, you can also estimate how much faster the boat would go (in miles or kilometers per hour) without those “anchors” and add that to your sticky notes.
Once you finish, post the sticky notes on and around the picture’s anchors.
Analyze the content on each sticky note and look for observations and insights. The intention is to reveal deficiencies so that you can improve the product/service or Goal.
This process is for identifying problem issues, not solving them.
Root Сause Analysis (RCA)
RCA is a popular way to find the origin of a problem and prevent it from recurring. It uses specific steps and associated tools to find the fundamental cause of the problem so that you can:
- Discover what happened.
- Settle why it happened.
- Decide what to do to reduce the chances that it will happen again.
In RCA, you assume that systems and events are interrelated. Activity in one area triggers a series of actions in other areas. By backtracking these actions, you can trace to where the problem started and how it grew into your present situation.
Typically there are three basic types of causes:
- Physical causes – Tangible, material items failed somehow (like a car’s brakes failing).
- Human causes – People made mistakes or failed to do something necessary. Human errors often generate physical problems (for example, a person didn’t fill the brake fluid, so the brakes failed).
- Organizational causes – A system, operation, or policy for making decisions or doing work is deficient (for example, no person was responsible for vehicle maintenance, and everyone assumed someone else had filled the brake fluid).
RCA examines all three kinds of causes. It involves investigating the problem patterns finding hidden flaws in the system and discovering specific actions contributing to the problem. The process often means that RCA reveals more than one root cause.
TIPS for Better Problem Solving Skills
Some believe that you have to be super smart to be a good problem solver, but that’s not true.
You don’t have to be a genius to solve problems. You need practice.
When you become skilled at the different steps to solve a problem, you’ll create great solutions.
The Wanderer Technique
It’s a cute way of referring to taking a break from the situation for a time. Distract yourself with something else, and then often, a solution appears when you least expect it.
Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem
It makes perfect sense that your brain cannot find solutions if you focus on the problem. Why? Because when you focus on finding a solution, your mind works toward that end. Focusing on problems takes attention away from finding solutions.
You shouldn’t ‘ignore the problem. It helps first to acknowledge the problem and then orient your mindset towards solutions. If not, you may get caught up on who’s at fault or why it’s happening to you.
Adapt 5 Whys to Define the Problem Clearly
5 Whys is a problem-solving process to dig deep into the cause of a problem. Ask why over again five times, and you can get to the root cause of a problem. Getting to the root leads to the best solution.
List as many solutions as possible.
Approach brainstorming with the attitude that ‘No idea is a bad idea”—Reserve judgment and evaluation until after you develop a list of solutions. Try to think of ‘ALL POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS’ – even if they seem absurd at first. Keep an open mind to enhance creative thinking that triggers potential solutions.
Use Language That Creates Possibility Thinking
Start your thinking with words like ‘what if…’ and ‘imagine if…’ These words encourage our brains to think creatively and promote solutions.
Avoid limited thinking and don’t evaluate ideas until after you have a list of solutions. While looking for answers, assume that you will find a way to overcome hurdles.
Conclusion to Problem Solving Techniques
Creative people have come up with many ways to analyze and solve problems. Take time to learn about the different methods and tools. How well you can solve problems depends on how much practice you get.
Best wishes in your efforts to master problem-solving!