As you gather experience as a leader, over time you acquire a tool kit of techniques and strategies that serve you well. Then when a conflict hits and you're under the wire, you don't have to reinvent the wheel but can instead turn to something tried-and-true.

One of the techniques you may find yourself turning to often is problem solving--so much so that developing a reliable method of problem solving is critically important. Details and personalities can vary widely from one situation to another, so the most effective problem solvers rely on a mental model to help them come up with the best solutions.

Try this simple six-step model the next time a problem crops up. As you work with the model, you may find ways to tailor it to your situation and way of thinking. That's fine, of course. The more you refine it, the better it will work.

Step 1: Understand the problem.

Most people start out just looking for a solution. Any solution. But it's best at the beginning to make sure you have a solid grip on the relevant facts and issues. Gather all available information; think about the situation from all perspectives. Make a list of those involved, along with their needs and expectations.

Step 2: Define the problem.

Ask yourself the same "Five Ws and an H" that journalists use:

Once you have the information, make notes. Document your sources, and mark any discrepancies in their versions of the story.

Step 3: Know your role.

Reflect on the information in light of your own standards and values. Is there really a conflict, or is it just a bunch of noise? Does something need to be resolved? Do you have to get involved? Can you leave this up to the parties involved? Think clearly about whether and how you wish to take a stand on the issue.

Step 4: Identify the root causes.

List all the underlying factors you can think of that contributed to the problem--system issues, personalities, old grudges and simmering conflict, plain bad luck. Then list them in rank order according to facts and observation, and spend some time thinking about where the problem really lies.

Step 5: Select a solution.

As you weigh possible solutions, keep in mind that you're aiming for something that

Step 6: Check in and monitor.

After you've selected a solution and implemented it, continue to monitor the situation and check in occasionally to ensure that the problem has truly been resolved.

A system for problem solving can help you avoid unnecessary conflicts, disputes, and friction. You can know that you're making decisions based on facts, not personalities or snap judgments, and you can give less of your precious time to putting out fires. Try this technique and let me know what happens.