Best Problem Solving Techniques and Methods

Best Problem Solving Techniques and Methods

Best Problem Solving Techniques and Methods

Problem solving is a vital skill in both business and life.

When facing any kind of challenge, difficulty, or obstacle, having strong problem solving abilities can make the difference between struggling and succeeding.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share the top techniques and methods for effective problem-solving, along with real-world examples of how to apply them.

Introduction to Problem Solving

Before diving into specific techniques, it’s helpful to level-set on some problem solving basics.

At a high-level, the key steps to solving problems effectively are:

  1. Clearly understanding the root causes of the problem
  2. Generating potential solutions through both analytical and creative thinking
  3. Evaluating the proposed solutions to pick the optimal one(s)
  4. Executing the chosen solution(s)
  5. Continually monitoring progress and iterate as needed

While simple in theory, putting this into practice takes diligence and the right frame of mindset. In the sections below, I’ll expand on each phase of the problem solving process with actionable methods and examples.

First though, let’s level-set on a working definition of a “problem”…

Understanding the Problem

The first and most critical step in problem solving is gaining a deep understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. This includes unpacking the root causes and getting clear on the endpoint vision.

Common techniques for the problem clarification phase include:

Asking Why 5 Times: Made famous by Toyota, this involves asking “why” up to five times to get to the root of what’s broken. For example, if the problem is “sales are down this quarter”, you’d ask why multiple times – why are sales down? Because conversion rates are lower. Why are conversion rates lower? Because visitors are abandoning their shopping carts. Why are they abandoning? Because of lack of product information. And so on, until you uncover the true root cause.

Fishbone Diagrams: This visual tool helps map out all the potential factors contributing to an overall problem. Resembling the bones on a fish, you put the main problem at the head, then branch out possible causes into major categories feeding into the problem. This exposes relationships and provides a fact base for solution ideas.

Pareto Analysis: The 80/20 principle applied to problem solving. Identify the 20% of causes creating 80% of negative outcomes. Address that vital 20% first.

Thought Experiments: Imagine that the problem is solved in some future state, then look backward and ask what needed to happen to solve it. Removes mental blocks about “impossible” solutions.

The key is to avoid assumptions and ensure you have an accurate, thorough grasp of all the factors at play and the outcome sought. With that solid foundation gained, you can then shift gears into solution mode.

Generating Solutions

Once the problem is clearly understood, the next phase is coming up with potential solutions. This involves both logical analytical thinking and creative divergent thinking.

Analytical Thinking

Analytical approaches are data-driven and logical, leveraging facts to drive experimentation and decisions. Useful methods include:

Root Cause Analysis: Identify all components of a problem then anatomize the underlying factors systematically. Remove or mitigate key components causing issues.

SWOT Analysis: Examine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to proposed solutions. Weigh when strengths/opportunities outweigh weaknesses/threats.

Prediction Analysis: Use data modeling, trends analysis, and scientific methods to predict the outcomes of each proposed solution. Compare results.

Decision Tree Analysis: Map out all potential options on a tree. Trace each branch to evaluate ROI, feasibility, and more of every option.

Six Sigma: Apply a data-driven approach to reducing defects and variance in processes. Seeks continuously closer conformance to customer specifications.

Cost/Benefit Analysis: Quantify the total expected cost versus total benefits for solution options over a set timeframe. Calculate ROI.

Creative Thinking

While analytics focuses on facts, data, and feasibility, creativity opens the door to innovation. Some great techniques to spur creative ideas include:

Brainstorming: Generate tons of ideas without any judgment. Build on others’ ideas. Apply constraints to stretch thinking.

Mind Mapping: Visually organize all solution ideas with branches and sub-branches of related concepts and patterns. Links show new connections.

SCAMPER Method: Use each letter to spark ideas: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse.

Six Thinking Hats: Look at solutions from various modes – facts, emotions, critique, optimism, creativity, next steps. Removes bias.

Prototype and Test: Quickly build basic concept models, gather user feedback, and refine based on learnings. Fail fast, learn faster.

Inversion: Come up with ways to make the problem worse. Invert that for solutions.

The magic happens when you apply both analytical and creative approaches synergistically. Data informs possibilities while creativity unlocks innovation.

Implementing and Evaluating the Solution

Once potential solutions have been identified, applying analytical thinking again comes in handy to determine which option(s) are most viable for testing. Useful analytical filters include:

  • Cost/Benefit Analysis: Compare ROI across solutions over set periods.
  • Market Research: Survey target users on proposed products/services.
  • Prediction Analysis: Model and compare potential outcomes of each solution.
  • Pilot Testing: Run small-scale test models before full deployment. Gathers user feedback.

Based on the analytical evaluation, pick the solution(s) with the highest probability of success to test and implement.

Be sure to establish clear success metrics upfront based on the originally clarified goals so you can accurately assess if the implemented solution had the desired effect.

Also, build in ongoing monitoring and course correction plans as part of the execution. The path to success is rarely a straight line. Being agile and dynamically adjusting based on real-world feedback is key.

Common Barriers to Effective Problem Solving

While the problem solving process itself is relatively straightforward in theory, executing it effectively can be challenging. Some common pitfalls that sabotage success include:

Unclear Objectives: Failure to precisely define the ultimate goals/desired outcome. Without clarity here, solutions may target the wrong problems.

Bias: personal experiences, assumptions or emotions clouding objectivity when assessing problems and solution options.

Groupthink: Pressure to conform to consensus in a group overrides realistic critical evaluation of ideas. Stifles debate.

Premature Decisions: Rushing to choose a solution before gathering all relevant data. Better to fully analyze before acting.

Perception Barriers: Viewing a problem too narrowly through the lens of one’s existing experience or skillsets. Obscures discoveries.

Information Overload: Failing to filter/synthesize all available data into core drivers, patterns, and insights. Analysis paralysis.

The most effective problem solvers are aware of these potential blindspots and actively mitigate their impact by cross checking data, testing assumptions, and keeping an open, growth mindset.

The Value of Diverse Perspectives

One proven way to overcome perceptual and bias barriers is to bring in diverse perspectives when clarifying problems and ideating on solutions.

People with different backgrounds, skills, and life experiences offer wholly fresh angles on both defining the root issues and envisioning solutions. This diversity stems from differences in:

  • Education
  • Functional expertise
  • Industry experience
  • Age/generational lens
  • Cultural worldview
  • Gender identity
  • Political affiliation
  • Socioeconomic status
  • and much more…

While gathering disparate, even opposing vantage points may seem counterintuitive, it cuts through assumptions, expands thinking, and offers a mosaic view of the reality of complex problems.

In the solution phase, constructive debate between people with diverse perspectives surfaces ideas no individual would ever conceive of on their own. The friction stokes innovation.

Bottom line – diversity powerfully complements both the analytical and creative thinking required for optimal problem solving.

Developing Your Problem Solving Skills

Like any skill, consistently practicing and pushing your abilities is the only way to improve in problem solving over time.

Some great ways to build your competency include:

Expanding Your Knowledge: Learning new models, methods, and analytical tools to evaluate problems from new angles.

Trying Unfamiliar Approaches: Stepping outside your comfort zone expands how you perceive problems. Don’t default to the familiar.

Reflecting on Wins and Losses: Review past successes and failures with brutal honesty. Spot personal tendencies that help or hurt outcomes.

Observing Great Problem Solvers: Pay attention to the behaviors and working styles of highly skilled folks. Emulate what works for them.

Tackling Real Challenges: Nothing accelerates practical learning like actually facing consequential problems head-on. Ideally in environments with guidance from experts.

Striving to continuously improve problem solving capabilities over time compounds, ultimately leading to mastery levels. With complex business and societal problems rapidly accelerating, the need for highly skilled problem solvers has never been greater.

Conclusion

In summary, reliably overcoming challenges both big and small comes down to mastering a structured approach to problem solving.

While some analytical thinking methods as well as creative techniques are required for optimal outcomes, simply following steps alone is insufficient. Avoiding subjective blindspots and embracing diverse inputs is crucial too.

With concerted effort through continual practice on real problems, anyone can improve their problem solving talents over time.

Given problems are inevitable, developing competence in this domain pays dividends across all facets of business and life. The frameworks and methods outlined in this guide offer an actionable toolkit to start honing this increasingly vital skill immediately.

TL;DR

Effective problem solving requires:

  • Clear problem definition
  • Analytical and creative solution ideation
  • Evaluating proposals on cost, feasibility etc
  • Implementation and outcome measurements
  • Iterative enhancements

Key problem solving methods include:

  • Root cause analysis
  • Brainstorming
  • Prediction analysis
  • Pilot testing
  • SWOT analysis
  • Decision tree mapping

Core problem solving skills develop through practical application over time. Diverse inputs offset blindspots.

Q&A

Q: If I follow all the methods described here, does that guarantee I’ll solve any problem successfully?

A: While this guide provides a robust framework proven to produce optimal outcomes in most cases, unfortunately, there are no guarantees in problem solving. The reality is some problems may simply not have viable solutions or the resources available to address them may be inadequate through no fault of the process or people involved. Whenever faced with seemingly intractable problems, the best course of action is to review the process end-to-end for potential enhancements or creative workarounds. Seek diverse opinions to shake up thinking. If ultimately though the issue truly cannot be solved due to some insurmountable restraint, accept this reality while still mining learnings for future challenges.

Q: I tend to have gut reactions about how to solve problems but others keep telling me to take a more analytical approach. What should I do?

A: Both analytical and intuitive approaches have merit, but relying solely on gut reactions and emotions often derails effective problem solving. The best solution is using a blended approach that applies analytically rigorous assessment methods to evaluate the viability and anticipated outcomes for all proposals, including intuitive ideas. This keeps your creativity unconstrained in solution ideation while still filtering proposals against critical data to prevent moving forward with options that may “feel” right but won’t work based on facts on the ground. Making this shift doesn’t mean fully disregarding your instincts either though, as sometimes an inspired creative leap can unlock solutions none of the data could predict. Finding the right balance here is key.

Q: What one skill would you recommend most highly focusing on to become an exceptional problem solver long-term?

A: Of all the myriad talents that contribute to excellence in problem solving, continuously striving to deepen understanding ranks at the very top. This means constantly maintaining curiosity to probe deeper beneath surface issues to unpack root causes. It also means acknowledging gaps in knowledge or experience and dedicating yourself to lifelong learning around analytical tools, creative techniques, and even emotional/social intelligence to perceive problems and solutions more accurately. The depth and breadth of one’s comprehension fundamentally impact the quality of problem analysis and solution ideation. Devoting yourself to understanding problems, processes, and people at ever more profound levels compounds over a career to drive visionary and pragmatic problem solving mastery. There is no ceiling here – no matter your current skill level, insatiable intellectual curiosity to deepen understanding will serve as the ultimate force multiplier.

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