PROBLEM SOLVING TECHNIQUES
"We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down." (Aneurin Bevan)
Problem solving and decision-making are important skills for business and life. Problem-solving often involves decision-making, and decision-making is especially important for management and leadership. There are processes and techniques to improve decision-making and the quality of decisions. Decision-making is more natural to certain personalities, so these people should focus more on improving the quality of their decisions. People that are less natural decision-makers are often able to make quality assessments, but then need to be more decisive in acting upon the assessments made. Problem-solving and decision-making are closely linked, and each requires creativity in identifying and developing options, for which the brainstorming technique is particularly useful.
- Define and clarify the issue - does it warrant action? If so, now? Is the matter urgent, important or both. See the Pareto Principle.
- Gather all the facts and understand their causes.
- Think about or brainstorm possible options and solutions. (See brainstorming process)
- Consider and compare the pros and cons of each option - consult if necessary - it probably will be.
- Select the best option - avoid vagueness or 'foot in both camps' compromise.
- Explain your decision to those involved and affected, and follow up to ensure proper and effective implementation.
Decision-making maxims will help to reinforce the above decision-making process whether related to problem-solving or not.
Brainstorming technique for problem-solving, team-building and creative process
Brainstorming with a group of people is a powerful technique. Brainstorming creates new ideas, solves problems, motivates and develops teams. Brainstorming motivates because it involves members of a team in bigger management issues, and it gets a team working together. However, brainstorming is not simply a random activity. Brainstorming needs to be structured and it follows brainstorming rules. The brainstorming process is described below, for which you will need a flip-chart or alternative. This is crucial as Brainstorming needs to involve the team, which means that everyone must be able to see what's happening. Brainstorming places a significant burden on the facilitator to manage the process, people's involvement and sensitivities, and then to manage the follow up actions. Use Brainstorming well and you will see excellent results in improving the organization, performance, and developing the team.
- Define and agree the objective.
- Brainstorm ideas and suggestions having agreed a time limit.
- Assess/analyse effects or results.
- Prioritise options/rank list as appropriate.
- Agree action and timescale.
- Control and monitor follow-up.
In other words
Plan and agree the brainstorming aim: Ensure everyone participating in the brainstorm session understands and agrees the aim of the session (e.g. to suggest ways of improving cooperation between the sales and service departments;). Keep the brainstorming objective simple. Allocate a time limit.
Manage the actual brainstorming activity: Brainstorming enables people to suggest ideas at random. Your job as facilitator is to encourage everyone to participate, to dismiss nothing, and to prevent others from pouring scorn on the wilder suggestions (some of the best ideas are initially the daftest ones - added to which people won't participate if their suggestions are criticized). During the random collection of ideas the facilitator must record every suggestion on the flip-chart. Use sticky tape to hang the sheets around the walls. At the end of the time limit or when ideas have been exhausted, use different coloured pens to categorize, group, connect and link the random ideas. Condense and refine the ideas by making new headings or lists. You can diplomatically combine or include the weaker ideas within other themes to avoid dismissing or rejecting contributions (remember brainstorming is about team building and motivation too - you don't want it to have the reverse effect on some people). With the group, assess, evaluate and analyze the effects and validity of the ideas or the list. Develop and prioritize the ideas into a more finished list or set of actions or options.
Implement the actions agreed from the brainstorming: Agree what the next actions will be. Agree a timescale, who's responsible. After the session circulate notes, monitor and give feedback. It's crucial to develop a clear and positive outcome, so that people feel their effort and contribution was worthwhile. When people see that their efforts have resulted in action and change, they will be motivated and keen to help again.
Pro’s and Con's decision-making method
Another simple process for decision-making is the pro's and con's list.
Some decisions are a simple matter of whether to make a change or not, such as moving, taking a new job, or buying something, selling something, replacing something, etc. Other decisions involve number of options, and are concerned more with how to do something, involving a number of choices. Use the brainstorming process to identify and develop options for decision-making and problem-solving.
- First you will need a separate sheet for each identified option.
- On each sheet write clearly the option concerned, and then beneath it the headings 'pro's' and 'con's' (or 'advantages' and disadvantages', or simply 'for' and 'against'). Many decisions simply involve the choice of whether to go ahead or not, to change or not; in these cases you need only one sheet.
- Then write down as many effects and implications of the particular option that you (and others if appropriate) can think of, placing each in the relevant column.
- If helpful 'weight' each factor, by giving it a score out of three or five points (eg., 5 being extremely significant, and 1 being of minor significance).
- When you have listed all the points you can think of for the option concerned compare the number or total score of the items/effects/factors between the two columns.
- This will provide a reflection and indication as to the overall attractiveness and benefit of the option concerned. If you have scored each item you will actually be able to arrive at a total score, being the difference between the pro's and con's column totals. The bigger the difference between the total pro's and total con's then the more attractive the option is.
- If you have a number of options and have complete a pro's and con's sheet for each option, compare the attractiveness - points difference between pro's and con's - for each option. The biggest positive difference between pro's and con's is the most attractive option.
- N.B. If you don't like the answer that the decision-making sheet(s) reflect back to you, it means you haven't included all the con's - especially the emotional ones, or you haven't scored the factors consistently, so re-visit the sheet(s) concerned.
You will find that writing things down in this way will help you to see things more clearly, become more objective and detached, which will help you to make clearer decisions.
Decision option: should I buy a new car?
better comfort (3)
cost outlay will mean making sacrifices (5)
lower fuel costs (3)
higher insurance (3)
lower servicing costs (4)
time and hassle to choose and buy it (2)
better for family use (3)
disposal or sale of old car (2)
better reliability (5)
big decisions like this scare and upset me (4)
it'll be a load off my mind (2)
total 6 pro's, total score 20
total 5 con's, total score 16
On the basis of the pro's and con's, and the weighting applied, in the above example there's a clear overall quantifiable benefit attached to the decision to go ahead and buy a new car. Notice that it's even possible to include 'intangible' emotional issues in the pro's and con's comparison, for example 'it'll be a load off my mind', and 'decisions scare and upset me'. A decision-making pro's and con's list like this helps remove the emotion which blocks clear thinking and decision-making - you can now see the wood for the trees again, and make a confident decision.
SWOT & PEST analysis method of decision-making
SWOT analysis helps assess the strength of a company, a business proposition or idea; PEST analysis helps to assess the potential and suitability of a market. Good decision-making requires a mixture of skills: creative development and identification of options, clarity of judgement, firmness of decision, and effective implementation. For group problem-solving and decision-making, or when a consensus is required, workshops help, within which you can incorporate these tools and process as appropriate. Here are some useful methods for effective decision-making and problem-solving: First a simple step-by-step process for effective decision-making and problem-solving.
SWOT analysis overview
A SWOT analysis is a subjective assessment of data which is organized by the SWOT format into a logical order that helps understanding, presentation, discussion and decision-making. The four dimensions (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) are a useful extension of a basic two heading list of pro's and con's. SWOT analysis can be used for all sorts of decision-making, and the SWOT template enables proactive thinking, rather than relying on habitual or instinctive reactions.
Translating SWOT analysis into actions
- Product (what are we selling?)
- Process (how are we selling it?)
- Customer (to whom are we selling it?)
- Distribution (how does it reach them?)
- Finance (what are the prices, costs and investments?)
- Administration (and how do we manage all this?)
If it's a business, and the aim is to improve it, then work on translating: into actions (each within one of the six categories) that can be agreed and owned by a team or number of teams.
Strengths: maintain, build and leverage,
Opportunities: prioritize and optimize,
Weaknesses: remedy or exit,
PEST analysis overview
The PEST analysis is a useful tool for understanding market growth or decline, and as such the position, potential and direction for a business. A PEST analysis is a business measurement tool. PEST is an acronym for Political, Economic, Social and Technological factors, which are used to assess the market for a business or organizational unit.
More confusingly (and some would say unnecessarily) PEST is also extended to seven or even more factors, by adding Ecological (or Environmental), Legislative (or Legal), and Industry Analysis, which produces the PESTELI model. Other variations on the theme include STEEP and PESTLE, which allow for a dedicated Ethical section. STEEPLED is another interpretation which includes pretty well everything except the kitchen sink: Political, Economic, Social and Technological - plus Ecological or Environmental, Ethical, Demographic and Legal.
All businesses benefit from a SWOT analysis, and all businesses benefit from completing a SWOT analysis of their main competitors, which interestingly can then provide some feed back into the economic aspects of the PEST analysis.
PEST becomes more useful and relevant the larger and more complex the business or proposition, but even for a very small local businesses a PEST analysis can still throw up one or two very significant issues that might otherwise be missed.
The PEST subject should be a clear definition of the market being addressed, which might be from any of the following standpoints:
- a company looking at its market
- a product looking at its market
- a brand in relation to its market
- a local business unit
- a strategic option, such as entering a new market or launching a new product
- a potential acquisition
- a potential partnership
- an investment opportunity
Whatever the technique
"In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing." (attributed to Theodore Roosevelt)
JFDI - Just Frigging Do it (polite version). The decision-maker's motto. There are usually several right answers when you are faced with a complex decision. When you've found the best solution you can find, get on with it, make it work, and it most probably will.