Problem solving is something we all have to do, whether it's getting to an appointment when your car has a flat tire, juggling bills, or making a decision at work.

Many people hide from problems or panic when facing them. It could be that they don't have a method for working through challenges. The great advantage of a methodology is the way it takes you out of a situation and lets you apply a series of steps that can lead to the result you need.

The following steps can help you work through virtually any problem. They're general, of course--otherwise the problems you could address would be too limited. Instead of specifics, they rely on principles of addressing the dynamics of an issue so you can find the best resolution. Depending on the situation, you might even be able to skip some steps, but always see if they might apply. The more aspects you can address, the more tools you have to construct a solution.

Identify the actual problem

You may think you're seeing one problem when, in fact, something else is going on. A simple example: You are waiting for an overdue check from a company and are getting angry and confrontational with your contact. You're assuming that the organization has deliberately avoided paying you while pretending it's doing the right thing, because the people in accounting don't want to get yelled at. Although experience suggests this as the likely issue, perhaps there is a problem with the postal service, or maybe things are being delivered but stolen. Until you know the actual problem, rather than assuming you do, you may not find the right solution.

Break it down into parts

A classic mistake when trying to solve a problem is to misidentify the critical issue. Back to the check example. By breaking the invoicing and payment process down and verifying what happened at each step, you might learn that someone in accounting accidentally transposed two digits in your street address, so the check that was sent (late) went to the wrong address and hasn't made its way back to the company. The more detail you cover, the better your chance of finding what's creating the issue.

Examine the history

We often treat problems in isolation, as though unrelated to any other events. But that often is a mistake. What happens today may relate to previous experiences. When applicable, walk back through the history of a situation and see how it developed. You want the solution to the underlying problem, when possible, rather than treatment for a symptom.

Determine the people involved

Most problems involve the interaction of people. Knowing the people involved is a critical step to solving the problem, because they, and you, may well be part of it. Sometimes you're up against a faceless bureaucracy and a set of rules, but even then there are always people playing roles. You want to identify those people, because they're the ones who can help. And if they can't, or won't, there may be supervisors who can.

Know who benefits

Reporters often say "follow the money" to understand a story. When people are involved in a problem, frequently there will be benefits and disadvantages. Ask yourself whether fueling an ongoing issue is a matter of someone getting something she wants or trying to rid herself of what is perceived as a time sink or unpleasant effort.

Find the possible solutions

Now that you've broken everything down and analyzed the parts and people, it's time to find the potential solutions to the problem. Don't rule any out at the start. Think of this as a brainstorming session. Everything is permissible at this stage.

Note the pros and cons and pick your solution

Once you have your list of solutions, consider the pros and cons of each. Be as specific as you can, as you're now examining the tradeoffs of an option. Every choice will have a price. It may be trivial, like placing a phone call, or might be more substantial--agreeing to a reduction of an owed amount to finally get paid. Know what you can live with and what you'll have to do to make the solution work.

Published on: Aug 8, 2016
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