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Sudoku for Beginners: How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills
Are you a beginner when it comes to solving Sudoku puzzles? Do you find yourself frustrated and unsure of where to start? Fear not, as we have compiled a comprehensive guide on how to improve your problem-solving skills through Sudoku.
Understanding the Basics of Sudoku
Before we dive into the strategies and techniques, let’s first understand the basics of Sudoku. A Sudoku puzzle is a 9×9 grid that is divided into nine smaller 3×3 grids. The objective is to fill in each row, column, and smaller grid with numbers 1-9 without repeating any numbers.
Starting Strategies for Beginners
As a beginner, it can be overwhelming to look at an empty Sudoku grid. But don’t worry. There are simple starting strategies that can help you get started. First, look for any rows or columns that only have one missing number. Fill in that number and move on to the next row or column with only one missing number. Another strategy is looking for any smaller grids with only one missing number and filling in that number.
Advanced Strategies for Beginner/Intermediate Level
Once you’ve mastered the starting strategies, it’s time to move on to more advanced techniques. One technique is called “pencil marking.” This involves writing down all possible numbers in each empty square before making any moves. Then use logic and elimination techniques to cross off impossible numbers until you are left with the correct answer.
Another advanced technique is “hidden pairs.” Look for two squares within a row or column that only have two possible numbers left. If those two possible numbers exist in both squares, then those two squares must contain those specific numbers.
Benefits of Solving Sudoku Puzzles
Not only is solving Sudoku puzzles fun and challenging, but it also has many benefits for your brain health. It helps improve your problem-solving skills, enhances memory and concentration, and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
In conclusion, Sudoku is a great way to improve your problem-solving skills while also providing entertainment. With these starting and advanced strategies, you’ll be able to solve even the toughest Sudoku puzzles. So grab a pencil and paper and start sharpening those brain muscles.
This text was generated using a large language model, and select text has been reviewed and moderated for purposes such as readability.
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7 Steps to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills
Our lives are full of problems. And the biggest problem is finding an effective solution to any problem. Seems funny, right? But it’s true. Every day, from your personal to professional life, you have to deal with different kinds of problems, and it’s not unnatural that sometimes you struggle to solve them. Though in the end, you find a solution, it takes too much effort and time. Don’t you think it would be better if you could find the solution in the first place? That’s where problem-solving skills would help you a way out.
Problem-solving skills are vital to have in professional life. Many issues arise in the workplace and giving a quick touch up on them is an unwritten duty for you. In a professional setting, it doesn’t matter that much what solution you find to a problem. Rather it matters how you find that solution and how much time it takes. In this case, another skill which is Problem Solving Skills merges up with problem-solving skills. Both are important for your regular duties in the workplace and your job growth, especially when you’re in a leadership or management position.
7 Key Steps to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills
However, everyone is by born a problem solver. But the thing that counts is how efficiently the problem is being solved. That’s why you should nurture problem-solving skills to become an ultimate problem solver. In this article, you’re going to explore seven effective steps that will help you improve your problem-solving skills. So, without further ado, let’s dig deeper.
Step 1: Define The Problem
The first thing that comes when solving a problem is identifying and defining the problem. Without knowing the problem, you can’t move further. So, have a clear understanding of the problem for which you’re going to find a solution. Define the problem and make it precise. Since you won’t be working alone, describe the context, and make sure it is understandable by others who are involved in the decision-making process. However, different people have different perspectives on what a problem is, and you should keep it in your mind.
Step 2: Analyse The Problem
The second step to solving a problem is analysing the problem. It helps you understand the nature of the problem and find the possible ways out. Develop some creative problem-solving questions in this stage, such as why it is a problem, why it is required to solve it, how to find the solution, what barriers and opportunities lie within the problem, what effect it will cause if the problem isn’t resolved, etc.
Develop these questions and assign answers to them. In the end, you’ll find a clear picture of the whole situation. This will help you prepare your strategy to solve the problem.
Step 3: Develop Potential Solutions
Once you’re done with analysing the problem, you have to look for potential solutions to the problem. Note that I said solutions, not a solution. It’s essential to come up with multiple viable solutions to a problem. Because you don’t know yet what outcomes the action is going to bring about. That’s why you should have alternatives in all possible ways to solve the problem so that you can compare them and pick the best one.
In this regard, you have to set a standard with which you will compare the expected outcomes of the potential solutions. However, don’t use the standard to judge the solutions, instead, use it only for coming up with ideas.
Step 4: Evaluate The Options
After listing down the potential solutions to the problem, your next task is to analyse and evaluate the options. This will help you determine the most effective and suitable solution to the problem. Now it comes how to evaluate the options. Do it almost in the same way you’ve analysed the problem before. This means asking some questions and comparing the answers for different options. So, the creative problem-solving questions that you’ll make to evaluate the problem may look like the followings:
- Is the solution easily achievable?
- How much effort and resources it will take?
- Does it fit the organizational processes and cultures?
- What are the pros and cons of the solution?
- What is the possible outcome of this solution?
- Is it well suited to the time and budget?
Prepare the answers for each of the options and compare them. Then eliminate those which don’t pass the criteria and tailor the list for further action.
Step 5: Select The Best Option
After evaluating all the possible solutions and tailoring the list, you have a concise list of solutions to the problem. Now you have to choose the best solution among these options. Select the solution that is best fitted to the organizational cultures and goals, and meets all the criteria that you set for evaluating the options. In this case, your experience, courage, and decision-making skills will help you to determine the option.
However, you may consult your peers as it would give you different insights into the situation. After selecting the best-suited solution, make the necessary documentation, and submit to the authority for approval.
Step 6: Implement The Solution
You’ve selected the solution to the problem and got it approved by the higher authority. Now it’s time to go for action and showcase your problem-solving skills. So, at first, you have to prepare a detailed work plan putting all the necessary things into it. You have to ensure that every one of your team understands the plan and what are their responsibilities to make the plan fruitful. So, you should communicate well with everyone involved in the plan.
Also, your plan should include actions to be taken if something goes wrong or doesn’t go just like as you thought it would. This is important to make a concrete plan. After setting the plan, arrange everything you require and put your solution into action, and wait for the results.
Step 7: Measure The Results
Your duty isn’t finished with the implementation of your solution. You have to keep track to measure the results and make sure the plan is performing well to solve the problem. Great leaders always keep follow-ups and proper documentation of their actions. It’s helpful in their future challenges and acts as a guideline for their successors. Moreover, it will help you show a scalable and notable outcome of your plan to the authority.
Now it’s time to wrap up. Following these seven simple steps will strengthen your problem-solving skills and make you an efficient problem solver in your organization. However, problem-solving is a vast topic, and there are even more things to explore about it which aren’t possible to include in a single article. If you want to explore more and develop your problem-solving skills, it will be better to take training on this.
But how can you attend formal training when you’ve lots of duties to do? In this case, you can consider taking online training where you can learn anytime from anywhere, and most importantly, without juggling your regular schedule. To help you in this regard, Training Express is offering an online course on problem-solving skills where you’ll be learning from experts. So what are you waiting for? Have a look at this.
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7 Steps to an Effective Problem-Solving Process
September 1, 2016 | Leadership Articles
An effective problem-solving process is one of the key attributes that separate great leaders from average ones.
Being a successful leader doesn’t mean that you don’t have any problems. Rather, it means that you know how to solve problems effectively as they arise. If you never had to deal with any problems, chances are pretty high that your company doesn’t really need you. They could hire an entry-level person to do your job!
Unfortunately, there are many examples of leaders out there who have been promoted to management or leadership positions because they are competent and excel in the technical skills needed to do the work. These people find themselves suddenly needing to “think on their feet” and solve problems that are far more high-level and complicated than they’ve ever really had to deal with before. Are there tools available to these people to help them solve the problem correctly and effectively? Absolutely!
Today, I am going to introduce you to the Seven Steps of Effective Problem Solving that Bullet Proof® Managers are learning about, developing, and implementing in their teams.
Step 1: Identify the Problem
What are things like when they are the way we want them to be?
This question helps you find the standard against which we’re going to measure where we are now. If things were going the way we want them to go, what does that look like? If this person were doing the job we want him or her to do, what would they be doing?
And then ask this important question: How much variation from the norm is tolerable?
Therein lies the problem. From an engineering perspective, you might have very little tolerance. From a behavioral perspective, you might have more tolerance. You might say it’s okay with me when this person doesn’t do it exactly as I say because I’m okay with them taking some liberty with this. Some other issue you may need 100% compliance.
Step 2: Analyze the Problem
At what stage is this problem? This helps you identify the urgency of the problem, and there are generally three stages.
The emergent stage is where the problem is just beginning to happen. It does not cause an immediate threat to the way business operates every day. It is just beginning to happen and you have time on your side to be able to correct it without it causing much damage to the processes it is affecting. The mature stage is where this problem is causing more than just minor damage. Some amount of damage has been done, and you need to jump on it immediately to fix it before it becomes a problem where the consequences may be greater, deeper, and more expensive if we don’t solve this problem fast.
The third stage is the crisis stage, when the problem is so serious it must be corrected immediately. At this stage, real damage has been done to company processes, reputation, finances, etc. that will have potentially long-term effects on your ability to do business.
Step 3: Describe the Problem
You should be able to describe a problem by writing it in the form of a statement and you should do it in 12 words or less, assuming it’s not a complicated, scientific problem. This way, you have clarity exactly what the issue is. Then, perhaps try distributing it to your team to ensure they agree that this is the root of the problem, that it makes sense, and everyone that is working toward a solution is working toward the same goal.
The most important question of all, when describing your problem: Is your premise correct?
Let me give you an example of what I mean. We’ve all heard – or read – the story of the engineer’s take on the old “half empty, half full” question. A speaker holds up the glass of water and asks if the glass is half empty or half full, a discussion within the group ensues, and you generally expect some sort of lesson in optimism, etc. from it. In this version, an engineer is in the room and answers, “I see this glass of water as being twice the size it needs to be.”
You see, sometimes when you are the one in charge of the problem, you tend to set the premise of the problem from your own perspective. But, that premise may not be accurate, or it may just need an alternate perspective from which to see it. If your premise is not correct, or at least incomplete, you are not fully understanding the problem and considering all the best options for a solution.
Step 4: Look for Root Causes
This step involves asking and answering a lot of questions. Ask questions like: What caused this problem? Who is responsible for this problem? When did this problem first emerge? Why did this happen? How did this variance from the standard come to be? Where does it hurt us the most? How do we go about resolving this problem?
Also, ask the most important question: Can we solve this problem for good so it will never occur again? Because an important aspect to leadership is coming up with solutions that people can use for a long-term benefit, rather than having to deal with the same problems over and over and over.
Step 5: Develop Alternate Solutions
Just about any problem you have to deal with has more solutions to it than the one that you think of first. So, it is best to develop a list of alternate solutions that you and your team can assess and decide which one will be the best for the particular problem. I often use the ⅓ + 1 Rule to create consensus around one – or the top two or three solutions – that will be best for everyone involved.
Then rank those solutions based on efficiency, cost, long-term value, what resources you have and that you can commit to the solution of the problem. Then, look at every one of those solutions carefully and decide what you believe to be the best solution to this problem at this time.
Step 6: Implement the Solution
Implementing the solution you decide on can include creating an implementation plan. It could also include planning on what happens next if something goes wrong with the solution if it doesn’t work out the way you thought it would. Implementation means that everyone on your team knows and understands their part in making the solution work, that there are timelines for execution, and also that you have a system in place to track whether or not the solution has corrected the problem.
Step 7: Measure the Results
From your implementation plan in step 6, make sure you track and measure the results so you can answer questions such as: Did it work? Was this a good solution? Did we learn something here in the implementation that we could apply to other potential problems?
These seven simple steps will help you become a more effective, efficient problem solver in your organization. As you practice this process and develop the skills, these steps will become more natural to you until the point that you are using them without noticing!
About Crestcom International, LLC.
Crestcom International, LLC is an international leadership development organization, training more than one million leaders for 25,000 businesses in over 60 countries across the globe. Crestcom achieves this through a blend of live-facilitated multimedia video, interactive exercises, and shared learning experiences. Crestcom implements action plans and coaching accountability sessions to ensure measured development in key leadership competency areas. For more information, please contact your local Crestcom representative found here .
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What's New In Onramp
Author: Vincent Bull in: Business Solutions
7 Steps to Problem Solving
January 9, 2023.
With the ongoing goal of improved productivity and minimal waste, it helps to have a method that helps you understand and resolve problems that exist in your processes and functions. Of course, as part of Lean , there is the method for continuous improvement.
Finding and solving problems is, in essence, the goal of the Kaizen method. The idea is to continuously improve your processes to solve any problems within them in a virtuous cycle of increasing productivity and efficiency.
However, just saying you know there is a problem that needs solving is only half the battle. The crucial part is understanding the problem. Or even if the problem you think you have is the actual problem.
Find the Problem
The first step is quite obvious. You have to establish the problem and its context. This can be done with the simple act of asking questions. Things like:
- Why is this a problem?
- What are we trying to solve?
- Are there any constraints to the problem/ solution?
- What other processes depend on the problem/ solution?
- Are there specific words or logic that can improve the outcome?
- Is there an action associated to the problem?
- How urgent is the solution?
- How precise must the solution be?
- Are there ideal conditions for the desired outcome?
- What outside forces are impacting the decision?
- Can we explore other venues or outcomes?
These are just some examples of questions that can impact your solution to the problem and understanding the problem itself. Once you have a firm grasp of the problem, you will be ready to move more efficiently towards a better solution.
Disassemble the Problem
Once the problem is established and understood, try to break the problem down into smaller, logical, chunks, and then review those chunks to see if they can be broken down again. This allows you a different outlook at a separate issue and helps you understand which team to assign the solution to.
A technique that can often help with the disassembling step is the logic tree .
Prioritize Problem Branches
With the problem divvied up between your team, be sure to understand how important each branch of the tree is and how it will impact the overall outcome.
By adding a priority to the various branches of your logic tree, you can ensure that your team will not spend time arguing about a branch that is minor, has no impact on the urgency, or cannot be changed.
Plan the Work
Leaving the plan entirely to the team can have disastrous consequences. While planning can seem tedious, it is an imperative part of the process that ensures your staff know what you expect of them. There are a few things to watch out for when planning and assigning work to your staff. Your plan of action should be:
- Inline with the level or precision that the solution calls for
- Within the allotted time frame
- With the desired result for the stakeholders
- Short and quick
- Aware of team biases, like: anchoring , optimism , sunflower , etc.
You should also be weary of the level of action assigned. Is the proposed solution a surface level fix that will require you to take further action? Is there a more in-depth action that can be taken that will cut down longer term expenses at the cost of the current quarter?
Finally, you should be conscientious of solution-context. That is, be aware of “This solution worked here when this person implemented it and this problem is close enough that it should work too.” Context changes. What worked before, or staff that performed well in a certain area before, may not always engage in the same manner if some conditions have been changed.
Analyze the Process
Now that your team has been assigned work and they know what branch has priority, they can start analyzing and resolving their portion of the puzzle while contributing to the others.
Resolving an issue is rarely a simple thing. Problems come from in all chapes and sizes and often the solution to the core problem is not transparently visible. Here, starting with a method like the 5 Whys can help you and your team think critically about the problem and analyze the possible solution.
Summarize the Analysis
With the analysis of the process complete to you and your team’s satisfaction, distill the resulting information down to an easy to understand and easy to digest summary.
Develop the solution
Now that you have both a detailed and a summarized understanding of the problem, you can begin to develop a solution to the problem that will satisfy all stakeholders.
By asking the right questions and planning how your team will engage with the problem, you can improve your problem determination and resolutions in a way that will improve your outcomes and your stakeholder satisfaction.
Agree/ Disagree? Tell us what you think below!
Vincent Bull is the current VP of Sales and Marketing at On-Ramp Solutions Inc. On-Ramp provides comprehensive, flexible fully integrated ERP, MES software solutions to manufacturing and services based companies. He is seasoned in the interaction between software solutions and pairing that with helping human resources improve their abilities to increase their production capacity. Vincent has a passion as well for sports such as basketball and has long been a supporter of such initiatives as The Guelph Board of Approved Basketball Officials. He also has volunteered at Special Olympics Ontario, for a host of different sporting events. Vince is a graduate of Georgian College in Ontario, holding a degree in Computer Programming.
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Paul Henriques is the current Manager for the Documentation and Training team at OnRamp Solutions Inc. Paul has over 15 years of experience in writing training material and documentation for various software companies. Having had to learn OnRamp ERP to better document it’s features and write training material; Paul is constantly stunned by the amount of thought that goes into each feature and the capabilities that are within the program, with features for all the various business units of a manufactory. Paul spends most of his free time keeping up to date on all the latest news and best practices for the manufacturing sector. Paul’s favorite manufacturing quote: “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.” – Henry Ford
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Seven Step Problem Solving Technique
What's the problem?
Our seven step problem solving technique provides a structured basis to help deliver outcomes and solutions to your problems. (But if you’re in hurry, click here for our “manage in a minute” tip: 7 Problem Solving Steps ).
Ever heard people say (or perhaps said yourself) things like :
“I wished we hadn’t jumped to that solution so quickly.”
“I think we may have solved the wrong problem.”
“It was only at the end that I realised we had acted too quickly with too little information.”
“The solution we went ahead with turned out to be impractical and too expensive.”
A structured process helps ensure you stay on track with what you really need to do, to solve a problem.
The seven step problem solving technique covers:
- Finding the right problem to solve
- Defining the problem
- Analysing the problem
- Developing possibilities
- Selecting the best solution
- Evaluating and learning
You’ll find a brief explanation of these points below. Once you’ve read these, you can find more details, in our comprehensive guide to problem solving: What’s the Problem (with a tool for each or our problem solving steps).
1 Find the Right Problems to Solve
Surprised to start with this step? Not many problem solving processes include this step, yet it is absolutely crucial. Think how often we spend time and resources on problems which don’t necessarily demand such attention. Ask yourself “Is it the right problem to solve?”. This is also one of the most important stages in our seven step problem solving technique. Why?
Well too often our approach to problem solving is reactive, we wait for the problems to arise. So firstly in our seven step problem solving process, we advocate taking a proactive approach, go and find problems to solve; important and valuable problems. The real starting point then for any problem solving process is to find the right problem to solve.
How do you go about finding the right problems to solve?
That’s what we set to answer in our problem solving skill article: “Finding the Right problems to Solve”. You will find useful management tips in this activity to start the problem solving process by looking firstly at the possibilities in your current issues and then secondly looking to the future.
2 Define the Problem
It is very tempting to gloss over this step and move to analysis and solutions. However, like the first step, it is one of the secrets of effective problem solving and helps to differentiate our seven step problem solving technique. Combining problems that are valuable to solve, with defining exactly what you are trying to solve, can dramatically improve the effectiveness of the problem solving process. The secret to defining the problem, is really about attitude. Try to see every problem as an opportunity.
This is the crucial attitude which will then help you define the problem in a way which focuses on the potential and opportunity in the situation. Peter Drucker advocates that we should starve problems and start feeding opportunities. Perhaps because we don’t see the right problems to solve or the opportunity in solving them. Essentially Drucker suggests that we should move from a problem focus to an opportunity focus.
Define your problem as an opportunity! Our problem solving activity tool does just that, providing a process to frame your problem as an opportunity and a question checklist to help you define what exactly the problem is, and why it is worth your while solving it. The question checklist also leads you through a structured set of questions to start the analysis of the problem. Which is the next step in the seven step problem solving technique.
3 Analyse the Problem
Analysis is a process of discovery of the facts, finding out what you know about the situation. The problem solving activity question checklist leads you through a set of questions to identify the nature of the problem and to analyse what it is and what it isn’t.
One of the most important aspects of analysing any situation is involving the right people.
In “ the best management tools ever: a good question ” we suggest using Reg Revans approach of asking three questions:
- Who knows? – about the situation/opportunity, or who has the information we need to solve it/realise it
- Who cares? – that something is done about it
- Who can? – do something about the solution
These questions are fundamental management tips. They help us to identify the people who need to come together, in order to take appropriate action to solve an issue or realise an opportunity.
Analysis often requires a detailed examination of the situation. This is an important element in seven step problem solving.
An excellent approach to detailed examination is adopted in our structured problem solving technique which uses four steps to improve processes in your organisation. This management tool firstly helps you define the current situation, then challenges all aspects of that current process. The third and fourth steps are to develop options and then seek an optimal solution. The tool leads us from analysis to the next two stages in our seven step problem solving technique, that is developing options and selecting a solution.
4 Develop Possibilities
The previous steps will have already revealed plenty of possibilities for solving the problem and realising the opportunities. At this stage it is important to give time and space for creative solutions. Placing a high value on the ideas of others is a crucial leadership concept and facilitator skill when generating ideas to solve problems.
We have already suggested that for effective problem solving you need to ensure that you find the right problems to solve and then ask yourself what opportunities are created by solving this problem. But how do you focus on opportunities?
We have developed a tool, the power of positive thinking , which helps you to focus on those opportunities, using 5 questions that create opportunities. A group process is recommended to help get possible solutions from a wide range of people – solutions which can create significant opportunities for the organisation.
A second resource provides a great process to explore new possibilities and potential. In “ the best management tools ever: a good question ” there is a tool which groups questions to help you:
- focus collective attention on the situation
- connect ideas and deeper insight
- create forward momentum and move to action
A rich range of possible solutions opens up the opportunities. When you consider you have plenty of ideas with potential it’s time to make a decision.
5 Select the Best Solution
The next phase in our seven step problem solving technique is to consider the number of solutions found. It’s likely that more than one will be viable so how do you decide which solution to select? There will be constraints restricting what you can do, issues about whether solutions fit within what is currently done, and various stakeholders views to consider. Solutions therefore need to be evaluated. A powerful way to do this has been proposed by Peter Drucker. In our business planning tool, “ business goal setting “, we suggest using Drucker’s three criteria as a filter to select ideas to take forward. To screen your ideas apply the three filter tests:
- Operational validity – Can you take action on this idea, or can you only talk about it? Can you really do something right away to bring about the kind of future you desire?
- Economic validity – Will the idea produce economic result? What would be the early indicators that it was working?
- Personal commitment – Do you really believe in the idea? Do you really want to be that kind of people, do that kind of work, and run that kind of business?
Take you time answering these questions. You may well find that many of the other stages in our business goal setting article can help in the problem solving process. Especially if the problem is of organisational significance and its solution could impact the direction the business or unit takes.
Implementing the seven step problem solving technique moves to a project implementation process. But before putting your decision into effect check that you have:
- carefully defined the problem, and the desired outcome
- analysed the problem at length
- collected every available item of information about it
- explored all possible avenues, and generated every conceivable option
- chosen the best alternative after considerable deliberation.
To implement first make sure that you follow project management guidelines , particularly to be clear on the outcomes, ask yourself what will be different when you solve the problem and realise the opportunity.
Secondly what are the objectives, these should clearly demonstrate how you will get to the outcomes. Gaining clarity on these, and acceptance from the various stakeholders is crucial to succeeding.
The implementation process can then effectively follow a project management model of:
- Do it – carry out activities to implement
- Deliver it – test and ensure it has met the outcomes
Make sure that the three “who’s” are with you!
During the seven step problem solving process you should build the commitment of those:
- who care – they want to see a solution,
- who can – they are able to make it happen
- who know – they can help you implement effectively.
7 Evaluate and Learn from the seven step problem solving technique
You will have done some things really well by applying this seven step problem solving technique. It would be all too easy to forget them in rushing to solve the next problem, or to implement the solution. You should evaluate at least two areas:
- How you carried out the seven step problem solving process
- The effectiveness of the solution you implemented. Did it deliver the outcomes you expected?
You should also ask what you are now able to do, or what you could do next, now that you have improved things by solving the problem. What further opportunities can you now realise that you weren’t able to before?
This seven step problem solving technique ensures you follow a systematic process but it also emphasises two secrets of effective problem solving:
- Use your problem solving skills to ask: “is it the right problem to solve?”
- Then ensure that any problem solving activity asks the question: “what opportunities are created by this problem?”
The eighth problem solving step
- Tool 1: When you don’t know what to do
- Tool 2: Defining questions for problem solving
- Tool 3: Finding the right problems to solve
- Tool 4: Problem solving check-list
- Tool 4a: Using the question check-list with your team
- Tool 5: Problem analysis in 4 steps
- Tool 5a: Using 4 Step problem analysis with your team
- Tool 6: Questions that create possibilities
- Tool 6a: Using the 5 questions with your team
- Tool 6b: Putting creativity to work – 5 alternate questions
- Tool 6c: Workshop outline
- Tool 7: Evaluating alternatives
- Tool 8: Creative thinking techniques A-Z
- Tool 9: The 5 Whys technique
>> return to problem solving hub, looking for more resources.
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10 Mar 7 Steps for Effective Problem Solving
One logical way to problem solving is to seek support. While it is logical to seek advice, don’t forget that the final decision is still yours to make.
It is typically easier to advise others how to react in a particularly problematic situation than to confront that same or similar situation ourselves. This is the main reason individuals seek solutions by consulting others for outside opinions.
Seeking support : It is common to get caught up in a problematic situation where we don’t see a possible or clear solution. It is difficult to dissociate and remain neutral while accurately assessing a problem at hand in order to recognize possible solutions. Strong emotional ties make this process especially difficult.
The final decision is yours:
Like many of us, you’ve likely offered advice to a friend which didn’t produce optimal results. They might be said something along the lines of “Why did I listen to you?”.
People often seek outside advice to remove responsibility from their own shoulders. Taking responsibility for one’s own actions and words is the hardest part of making decisions and resolving issues. Doubt and negative thoughts form quickly: “What if I haven’t made the right choice?”, “What if I don’t succeed?”, “Am I making the right decision?”.
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7 Steps for Effective Problem Solving
Below are concise descriptions of the 7 steps for effective problem solving .
This problem solving technique is commonly used by psychologists in the counseling process to assist individuals in finding a solution on their own and put it to use in a real scenario.
Step 1: Identifying the Problem
Ask yourself what the problem is. There may be multiple issues within a single situation. Make a list of these issues and define why each one is a problem to you. Focus on behaviors rather than on yourself or a person (Incorrect example: “The problem is that I am stupid.”) (Correct example: “The problem is that I easily allow others to betray or disappoint me because I trust people too quickly.”).
Step 2: Defining Goals
Try to define your goals specifically, while making them as realistic and attainable as possible. An example of a poor or broad goal is “I want to be happy.” First, define what happiness means to you and what you can do to feel happier overall. Try to form your goals in the sense of actions you can take to achieve the desired goal.
Step 3: Brainstorming
Take time to brainstorm possible ways to resolve the problem. Do not rush this process- People often want to prevent and solve problems before they even appear. Write down all ideas, even the ones that seem absurd or bizarre. Try to find 6-8 varying alternatives when resolving a particular problem.
Step 4: Assessing Alternatives
For every alternative you formed in the previous step, weigh the positive effects and negative consequences that each solution would bring. For every and any option, determine its advantages and its risks.
Step 5: Choosing the Solution
Carefully weigh all solutions. The best solution is not necessarily the option with the most pros and/or the least cons. Think about what means more to you, which solution can highlight the positive effects that matter the most to you, and which solution produces the mildest consequences. When you decide on a solution, it is important to create a timeline of when you intend to achieve your ultimate goal.
Step 6: Active Execution of the Chosen Solution
Don’t worry about failure. In this phase, concentrate on the journey that will lead you to your goal- don’t worry yourself with potential problems.
Step 7: Evaluation
It’s time to evaluate your success. If you were successful, congratulations! If not, no worries. Maybe you didn’t quite choose the right solution or the situation changed. You have definitely learned something. Take this newfound knowledge, return to the beginning steps, and try again!
Problems often cause you stress and it can take time before you find the optimal solution. But it is crucial to keep your stress levels in check to have the headspace you need during the process of problem-solving.
A good tactic is to increase your resilience, which you can do with our Resilient Option Program . This program will give you the tools you need to stay calm under pressure and come to a good decision.
How to Teach Employees to Resolve Problems
Eva Kovac is a performance psychologist working in the field of talent management, organizational psychology, and performance psychology. She is educated as a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, a medical hypnotherapist. Eva has rich global experiences working with international organizations on employee well-being programs and professional athletes, teams, managers, and talents. Eva is also a guest speaker at many international conferences on psychology-related topics. Stress managment facilitator for Apollo Hospitals, Tata Motors, Tata Consultancy Services, NSIC, AIMA, Roseate Hotels and many others.
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Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace
Problem-solving and decision-making. Ask anyone in the workplace if these activities are part of their day and they answer ‘Yes!’ But how many of us have had training in problem-solving? We know it’s a critical element of our work, but do we know how to do it effectively?
People tend to do three things when faced with a problem: they get afraid or uncomfortable and wish it would go away; they feel that they have to come up with an answer and it has to be the right answer; and they look for someone to blame. Being faced with a problem becomes a problem. And that’s a problem because, in fact, there are always going to be problems!
There are two reasons why we tend to see a problem as a problem: it has to be solved and we’re not sure how to find the best solution, and there will probably be conflicts about what the best solution is. Most of us tend to be “conflict-averse”. We don’t feel comfortable dealing with conflict and we tend to have the feeling that something bad is going to happen. The goal of a good problem-solving process is to make us and our organization more “conflict-friendly” and “conflict-competent”.
There are two important things to remember about problems and conflicts: they happen all the time and they are opportunities to improve the system and the relationships. They are actually providing us with information that we can use to fix what needs fixing and do a better job. Looked at in this way, we can almost begin to welcome problems! (Well, almost.)
Because people are born problem solvers, the biggest challenge is to overcome the tendency to immediately come up with a solution. Let me say that again. The most common mistake in problem solving is trying to find a solution right away. That’s a mistake because it tries to put the solution at the beginning of the process, when what we need is a solution at the end of the process.
Here are seven-steps for an effective problem-solving process.
1. Identify the issues.
- Be clear about what the problem is.
- Remember that different people might have different views of what the issues are.
- Separate the listing of issues from the identification of interests (that’s the next step!).
2. Understand everyone’s interests.
- This is a critical step that is usually missing.
- Interests are the needs that you want satisfied by any given solution. We often ignore our true interests as we become attached to one particular solution.
- The best solution is the one that satisfies everyone’s interests.
- This is the time for active listening. Put down your differences for awhile and listen to each other with the intention to understand.
- Separate the naming of interests from the listing of solutions.
3. List the possible solutions (options)
- This is the time to do some brainstorming. There may be lots of room for creativity.
- Separate the listing of options from the evaluation of the options.
4. Evaluate the options.
- What are the pluses and minuses? Honestly!
- Separate the evaluation of options from the selection of options.
5. Select an option or options.
- What’s the best option, in the balance?
- Is there a way to “bundle” a number of options together for a more satisfactory solution?
6. Document the agreement(s).
- Don’t rely on memory.
- Writing it down will help you think through all the details and implications.
7. Agree on contingencies, monitoring, and evaluation.
- Conditions may change. Make contingency agreements about foreseeable future circumstances (If-then!).
- How will you monitor compliance and follow-through?
- Create opportunities to evaluate the agreements and their implementation. (“Let’s try it this way for three months and then look at it.”)
Effective problem solving does take some time and attention more of the latter than the former. But less time and attention than is required by a problem not well solved. What it really takes is a willingness to slow down. A problem is like a curve in the road. Take it right and you’ll find yourself in good shape for the straightaway that follows. Take it too fast and you may not be in as good shape.
Working through this process is not always a strictly linear exercise. You may have to cycle back to an earlier step. For example, if you’re having trouble selecting an option, you may have to go back to thinking about the interests.
This process can be used in a large group, between two people, or by one person who is faced with a difficult decision. The more difficult and important the problem, the more helpful and necessary it is to use a disciplined process. If you’re just trying to decide where to go out for lunch, you probably don’t need to go through these seven steps!
Don’t worry if it feels a bit unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. You’ll have lots of opportunities to practice!
Tim Hicks is a conflict management professional providing mediation, facilitation, training, coaching, and consulting to individuals and organizations. From 2006 to 2014 he led the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon as its first director. He returned to private practice in 2015. Tim is… MORE >
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How to master the seven-step problem-solving process
In this episode of the McKinsey Podcast , Simon London speaks with Charles Conn, CEO of venture-capital firm Oxford Sciences Innovation, and McKinsey senior partner Hugo Sarrazin about the complexities of different problem-solving strategies.
Simon London: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the McKinsey Podcast , with me, Simon London. What’s the number-one skill you need to succeed professionally? Salesmanship, perhaps? Or a facility with statistics? Or maybe the ability to communicate crisply and clearly? Many would argue that at the very top of the list comes problem solving: that is, the ability to think through and come up with an optimal course of action to address any complex challenge—in business, in public policy, or indeed in life.
Looked at this way, it’s no surprise that McKinsey takes problem solving very seriously, testing for it during the recruiting process and then honing it, in McKinsey consultants, through immersion in a structured seven-step method. To discuss the art of problem solving, I sat down in California with McKinsey senior partner Hugo Sarrazin and also with Charles Conn. Charles is a former McKinsey partner, entrepreneur, executive, and coauthor of the book Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything [John Wiley & Sons, 2018].
Charles and Hugo, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here.
Hugo Sarrazin: Our pleasure.
Charles Conn: It’s terrific to be here.
Simon London: Problem solving is a really interesting piece of terminology. It could mean so many different things. I have a son who’s a teenage climber. They talk about solving problems. Climbing is problem solving. Charles, when you talk about problem solving, what are you talking about?
Charles Conn: For me, problem solving is the answer to the question “What should I do?” It’s interesting when there’s uncertainty and complexity, and when it’s meaningful because there are consequences. Your son’s climbing is a perfect example. There are consequences, and it’s complicated, and there’s uncertainty—can he make that grab? I think we can apply that same frame almost at any level. You can think about questions like “What town would I like to live in?” or “Should I put solar panels on my roof?”
You might think that’s a funny thing to apply problem solving to, but in my mind it’s not fundamentally different from business problem solving, which answers the question “What should my strategy be?” Or problem solving at the policy level: “How do we combat climate change?” “Should I support the local school bond?” I think these are all part and parcel of the same type of question, “What should I do?”
I’m a big fan of structured problem solving. By following steps, we can more clearly understand what problem it is we’re solving, what are the components of the problem that we’re solving, which components are the most important ones for us to pay attention to, which analytic techniques we should apply to those, and how we can synthesize what we’ve learned back into a compelling story. That’s all it is, at its heart.
I think sometimes when people think about seven steps, they assume that there’s a rigidity to this. That’s not it at all. It’s actually to give you the scope for creativity, which often doesn’t exist when your problem solving is muddled.
Simon London: You were just talking about the seven-step process. That’s what’s written down in the book, but it’s a very McKinsey process as well. Without getting too deep into the weeds, let’s go through the steps, one by one. You were just talking about problem definition as being a particularly important thing to get right first. That’s the first step. Hugo, tell us about that.
Hugo Sarrazin: It is surprising how often people jump past this step and make a bunch of assumptions. The most powerful thing is to step back and ask the basic questions—“What are we trying to solve? What are the constraints that exist? What are the dependencies?” Let’s make those explicit and really push the thinking and defining. At McKinsey, we spend an enormous amount of time in writing that little statement, and the statement, if you’re a logic purist, is great. You debate. “Is it an ‘or’? Is it an ‘and’? What’s the action verb?” Because all these specific words help you get to the heart of what matters.
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Simon London: So this is a concise problem statement.
Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah. It’s not like “Can we grow in Japan?” That’s interesting, but it is “What, specifically, are we trying to uncover in the growth of a product in Japan? Or a segment in Japan? Or a channel in Japan?” When you spend an enormous amount of time, in the first meeting of the different stakeholders, debating this and having different people put forward what they think the problem definition is, you realize that people have completely different views of why they’re here. That, to me, is the most important step.
Charles Conn: I would agree with that. For me, the problem context is critical. When we understand “What are the forces acting upon your decision maker? How quickly is the answer needed? With what precision is the answer needed? Are there areas that are off limits or areas where we would particularly like to find our solution? Is the decision maker open to exploring other areas?” then you not only become more efficient, and move toward what we call the critical path in problem solving, but you also make it so much more likely that you’re not going to waste your time or your decision maker’s time.
How often do especially bright young people run off with half of the idea about what the problem is and start collecting data and start building models—only to discover that they’ve really gone off half-cocked.
Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah.
Charles Conn: And in the wrong direction.
Simon London: OK. So step one—and there is a real art and a structure to it—is define the problem. Step two, Charles?
Charles Conn: My favorite step is step two, which is to use logic trees to disaggregate the problem. Every problem we’re solving has some complexity and some uncertainty in it. The only way that we can really get our team working on the problem is to take the problem apart into logical pieces.
What we find, of course, is that the way to disaggregate the problem often gives you an insight into the answer to the problem quite quickly. I love to do two or three different cuts at it, each one giving a bit of a different insight into what might be going wrong. By doing sensible disaggregations, using logic trees, we can figure out which parts of the problem we should be looking at, and we can assign those different parts to team members.
Simon London: What’s a good example of a logic tree on a sort of ratable problem?
Charles Conn: Maybe the easiest one is the classic profit tree. Almost in every business that I would take a look at, I would start with a profit or return-on-assets tree. In its simplest form, you have the components of revenue, which are price and quantity, and the components of cost, which are cost and quantity. Each of those can be broken out. Cost can be broken into variable cost and fixed cost. The components of price can be broken into what your pricing scheme is. That simple tree often provides insight into what’s going on in a business or what the difference is between that business and the competitors.
If we add the leg, which is “What’s the asset base or investment element?”—so profit divided by assets—then we can ask the question “Is the business using its investments sensibly?” whether that’s in stores or in manufacturing or in transportation assets. I hope we can see just how simple this is, even though we’re describing it in words.
When I went to work with Gordon Moore at the Moore Foundation, the problem that he asked us to look at was “How can we save Pacific salmon?” Now, that sounds like an impossible question, but it was amenable to precisely the same type of disaggregation and allowed us to organize what became a 15-year effort to improve the likelihood of good outcomes for Pacific salmon.
Simon London: Now, is there a danger that your logic tree can be impossibly large? This, I think, brings us onto the third step in the process, which is that you have to prioritize.
Charles Conn: Absolutely. The third step, which we also emphasize, along with good problem definition, is rigorous prioritization—we ask the questions “How important is this lever or this branch of the tree in the overall outcome that we seek to achieve? How much can I move that lever?” Obviously, we try and focus our efforts on ones that have a big impact on the problem and the ones that we have the ability to change. With salmon, ocean conditions turned out to be a big lever, but not one that we could adjust. We focused our attention on fish habitats and fish-harvesting practices, which were big levers that we could affect.
People spend a lot of time arguing about branches that are either not important or that none of us can change. We see it in the public square. When we deal with questions at the policy level—“Should you support the death penalty?” “How do we affect climate change?” “How can we uncover the causes and address homelessness?”—it’s even more important that we’re focusing on levers that are big and movable.
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Simon London: Let’s move swiftly on to step four. You’ve defined your problem, you disaggregate it, you prioritize where you want to analyze—what you want to really look at hard. Then you got to the work plan. Now, what does that mean in practice?
Hugo Sarrazin: Depending on what you’ve prioritized, there are many things you could do. It could be breaking the work among the team members so that people have a clear piece of the work to do. It could be defining the specific analyses that need to get done and executed, and being clear on time lines. There’s always a level-one answer, there’s a level-two answer, there’s a level-three answer. Without being too flippant, I can solve any problem during a good dinner with wine. It won’t have a whole lot of backing.
Simon London: Not going to have a lot of depth to it.
Hugo Sarrazin: No, but it may be useful as a starting point. If the stakes are not that high, that could be OK. If it’s really high stakes, you may need level three and have the whole model validated in three different ways. You need to find a work plan that reflects the level of precision, the time frame you have, and the stakeholders you need to bring along in the exercise.
Charles Conn: I love the way you’ve described that, because, again, some people think of problem solving as a linear thing, but of course what’s critical is that it’s iterative. As you say, you can solve the problem in one day or even one hour.
Charles Conn: We encourage our teams everywhere to do that. We call it the one-day answer or the one-hour answer. In work planning, we’re always iterating. Every time you see a 50-page work plan that stretches out to three months, you know it’s wrong. It will be outmoded very quickly by that learning process that you described. Iterative problem solving is a critical part of this. Sometimes, people think work planning sounds dull, but it isn’t. It’s how we know what’s expected of us and when we need to deliver it and how we’re progressing toward the answer. It’s also the place where we can deal with biases. Bias is a feature of every human decision-making process. If we design our team interactions intelligently, we can avoid the worst sort of biases.
Simon London: Here we’re talking about cognitive biases primarily, right? It’s not that I’m biased against you because of your accent or something. These are the cognitive biases that behavioral sciences have shown we all carry around, things like anchoring, overoptimism—these kinds of things.
Charles Conn: Availability bias is the one that I’m always alert to. You think you’ve seen the problem before, and therefore what’s available is your previous conception of it—and we have to be most careful about that. In any human setting, we also have to be careful about biases that are based on hierarchies, sometimes called sunflower bias. I’m sure, Hugo, with your teams, you make sure that the youngest team members speak first. Not the oldest team members, because it’s easy for people to look at who’s senior and alter their own creative approaches.
Hugo Sarrazin: It’s helpful, at that moment—if someone is asserting a point of view—to ask the question “This was true in what context?” You’re trying to apply something that worked in one context to a different one. That can be deadly if the context has changed, and that’s why organizations struggle to change. You promote all these people because they did something that worked well in the past, and then there’s a disruption in the industry, and they keep doing what got them promoted even though the context has changed.
Simon London: Right. Right.
Hugo Sarrazin: So it’s the same thing in problem solving.
Charles Conn: And it’s why diversity in our teams is so important. It’s one of the best things about the world that we’re in now. We’re likely to have people from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and national backgrounds, each of whom sees problems from a slightly different perspective. It is therefore much more likely that the team will uncover a truly creative and clever approach to problem solving.
Simon London: Let’s move on to step five. You’ve done your work plan. Now you’ve actually got to do the analysis. The thing that strikes me here is that the range of tools that we have at our disposal now, of course, is just huge, particularly with advances in computation, advanced analytics. There’s so many things that you can apply here. Just talk about the analysis stage. How do you pick the right tools?
Charles Conn: For me, the most important thing is that we start with simple heuristics and explanatory statistics before we go off and use the big-gun tools. We need to understand the shape and scope of our problem before we start applying these massive and complex analytical approaches.
Simon London: Would you agree with that?
Hugo Sarrazin: I agree. I think there are so many wonderful heuristics. You need to start there before you go deep into the modeling exercise. There’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening, though. In some cases, for some types of problems, it is even better to set yourself up to maximize your learning. Your problem-solving methodology is test and learn, test and learn, test and learn, and iterate. That is a heuristic in itself, the A/B testing that is used in many parts of the world. So that’s a problem-solving methodology. It’s nothing different. It just uses technology and feedback loops in a fast way. The other one is exploratory data analysis. When you’re dealing with a large-scale problem, and there’s so much data, I can get to the heuristics that Charles was talking about through very clever visualization of data.
You test with your data. You need to set up an environment to do so, but don’t get caught up in neural-network modeling immediately. You’re testing, you’re checking—“Is the data right? Is it sound? Does it make sense?”—before you launch too far.
Simon London: You do hear these ideas—that if you have a big enough data set and enough algorithms, they’re going to find things that you just wouldn’t have spotted, find solutions that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of. Does machine learning sort of revolutionize the problem-solving process? Or are these actually just other tools in the toolbox for structured problem solving?
Charles Conn: It can be revolutionary. There are some areas in which the pattern recognition of large data sets and good algorithms can help us see things that we otherwise couldn’t see. But I do think it’s terribly important we don’t think that this particular technique is a substitute for superb problem solving, starting with good problem definition. Many people use machine learning without understanding algorithms that themselves can have biases built into them. Just as 20 years ago, when we were doing statistical analysis, we knew that we needed good model definition, we still need a good understanding of our algorithms and really good problem definition before we launch off into big data sets and unknown algorithms.
Simon London: Step six. You’ve done your analysis.
Charles Conn: I take six and seven together, and this is the place where young problem solvers often make a mistake. They’ve got their analysis, and they assume that’s the answer, and of course it isn’t the answer. The ability to synthesize the pieces that came out of the analysis and begin to weave those into a story that helps people answer the question “What should I do?” This is back to where we started. If we can’t synthesize, and we can’t tell a story, then our decision maker can’t find the answer to “What should I do?”
Simon London: But, again, these final steps are about motivating people to action, right?
Charles Conn: Yeah.
Simon London: I am slightly torn about the nomenclature of problem solving because it’s on paper, right? Until you motivate people to action, you actually haven’t solved anything.
Charles Conn: I love this question because I think decision-making theory, without a bias to action, is a waste of time. Everything in how I approach this is to help people take action that makes the world better.
Simon London: Hence, these are absolutely critical steps. If you don’t do this well, you’ve just got a bunch of analysis.
Charles Conn: We end up in exactly the same place where we started, which is people speaking across each other, past each other in the public square, rather than actually working together, shoulder to shoulder, to crack these important problems.
Simon London: In the real world, we have a lot of uncertainty—arguably, increasing uncertainty. How do good problem solvers deal with that?
Hugo Sarrazin: At every step of the process. In the problem definition, when you’re defining the context, you need to understand those sources of uncertainty and whether they’re important or not important. It becomes important in the definition of the tree.
You need to think carefully about the branches of the tree that are more certain and less certain as you define them. They don’t have equal weight just because they’ve got equal space on the page. Then, when you’re prioritizing, your prioritization approach may put more emphasis on things that have low probability but huge impact—or, vice versa, may put a lot of priority on things that are very likely and, hopefully, have a reasonable impact. You can introduce that along the way. When you come back to the synthesis, you just need to be nuanced about what you’re understanding, the likelihood.
Often, people lack humility in the way they make their recommendations: “This is the answer.” They’re very precise, and I think we would all be well-served to say, “This is a likely answer under the following sets of conditions” and then make the level of uncertainty clearer, if that is appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’re always in the gray zone; it doesn’t mean you don’t have a point of view. It just means that you can be explicit about the certainty of your answer when you make that recommendation.
Simon London: So it sounds like there is an underlying principle: “Acknowledge and embrace the uncertainty. Don’t pretend that it isn’t there. Be very clear about what the uncertainties are up front, and then build that into every step of the process.”
Hugo Sarrazin: Every step of the process.
Simon London: Yeah. We have just walked through a particular structured methodology for problem solving. But, of course, this is not the only structured methodology for problem solving. One that is also very well-known is design thinking, which comes at things very differently. So, Hugo, I know you have worked with a lot of designers. Just give us a very quick summary. Design thinking—what is it, and how does it relate?
Hugo Sarrazin: It starts with an incredible amount of empathy for the user and uses that to define the problem. It does pause and go out in the wild and spend an enormous amount of time seeing how people interact with objects, seeing the experience they’re getting, seeing the pain points or joy—and uses that to infer and define the problem.
Simon London: Problem definition, but out in the world.
Hugo Sarrazin: With an enormous amount of empathy. There’s a huge emphasis on empathy. Traditional, more classic problem solving is you define the problem based on an understanding of the situation. This one almost presupposes that we don’t know the problem until we go see it. The second thing is you need to come up with multiple scenarios or answers or ideas or concepts, and there’s a lot of divergent thinking initially. That’s slightly different, versus the prioritization, but not for long. Eventually, you need to kind of say, “OK, I’m going to converge again.” Then you go and you bring things back to the customer and get feedback and iterate. Then you rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. There’s a lot of tactile building, along the way, of prototypes and things like that. It’s very iterative.
Simon London: So, Charles, are these complements or are these alternatives?
Charles Conn: I think they’re entirely complementary, and I think Hugo’s description is perfect. When we do problem definition well in classic problem solving, we are demonstrating the kind of empathy, at the very beginning of our problem, that design thinking asks us to approach. When we ideate—and that’s very similar to the disaggregation, prioritization, and work-planning steps—we do precisely the same thing, and often we use contrasting teams, so that we do have divergent thinking. The best teams allow divergent thinking to bump them off whatever their initial biases in problem solving are. For me, design thinking gives us a constant reminder of creativity, empathy, and the tactile nature of problem solving, but it’s absolutely complementary, not alternative.
Simon London: I think, in a world of cross-functional teams, an interesting question is do people with design-thinking backgrounds really work well together with classical problem solvers? How do you make that chemistry happen?
Hugo Sarrazin: Yeah, it is not easy when people have spent an enormous amount of time seeped in design thinking or user-centric design, whichever word you want to use. If the person who’s applying classic problem-solving methodology is very rigid and mechanical in the way they’re doing it, there could be an enormous amount of tension. If there’s not clarity in the role and not clarity in the process, I think having the two together can be, sometimes, problematic.
The second thing that happens often is that the artifacts the two methodologies try to gravitate toward can be different. Classic problem solving often gravitates toward a model; design thinking migrates toward a prototype. Rather than writing a big deck with all my supporting evidence, they’ll bring an example, a thing, and that feels different. Then you spend your time differently to achieve those two end products, so that’s another source of friction.
Now, I still think it can be an incredibly powerful thing to have the two—if there are the right people with the right mind-set, if there is a team that is explicit about the roles, if we’re clear about the kind of outcomes we are attempting to bring forward. There’s an enormous amount of collaborativeness and respect.
Simon London: But they have to respect each other’s methodology and be prepared to flex, maybe, a little bit, in how this process is going to work.
Hugo Sarrazin: Absolutely.
Simon London: The other area where, it strikes me, there could be a little bit of a different sort of friction is this whole concept of the day-one answer, which is what we were just talking about in classical problem solving. Now, you know that this is probably not going to be your final answer, but that’s how you begin to structure the problem. Whereas I would imagine your design thinkers—no, they’re going off to do their ethnographic research and get out into the field, potentially for a long time, before they come back with at least an initial hypothesis.
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Hugo Sarrazin: That is a great callout, and that’s another difference. Designers typically will like to soak into the situation and avoid converging too quickly. There’s optionality and exploring different options. There’s a strong belief that keeps the solution space wide enough that you can come up with more radical ideas. If there’s a large design team or many designers on the team, and you come on Friday and say, “What’s our week-one answer?” they’re going to struggle. They’re not going to be comfortable, naturally, to give that answer. It doesn’t mean they don’t have an answer; it’s just not where they are in their thinking process.
Simon London: I think we are, sadly, out of time for today. But Charles and Hugo, thank you so much.
Charles Conn: It was a pleasure to be here, Simon.
Hugo Sarrazin: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Simon London: And thanks, as always, to you, our listeners, for tuning into this episode of the McKinsey Podcast . If you want to learn more about problem solving, you can find the book, Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything , online or order it through your local bookstore. To learn more about McKinsey, you can of course find us at McKinsey.com.
Charles Conn is CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation and an alumnus of McKinsey’s Sydney office. Hugo Sarrazin is a senior partner in the Silicon Valley office, where Simon London, a member of McKinsey Publishing, is also based.
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7 Steps To Problem-Solving
The 7 steps to problem-solving is a disciplined and methodical approach to identifying and then addressing the root cause of problems. Instead, a more robust approach involves working through a problem using the hypothesis-driven framework of the scientific method. Each viable hypothesis is tested using a range of specific diagnostics and then recommendations are made.
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Understanding the 7 steps to problem-solving
The core argument of this approach is that the most obvious solutions to a problem are often not the best solutions.
Good problem-solving in business is a skill that must be learned. Businesses that are adept at problem-solving take responsibility for their own decisions and have courage and confidence in their convictions. Ultimately, this removes doubt which can impede the growth of businesses and indeed employees alike.
Moving through the 7 steps to problem-solving
Although many versions of the 7-step approach exist, the McKinsey approach is the most widely used in business settings. Here is how decision makers can move through each of the steps systematically.
Step 1 – Define the problem
First, the scope and extent of the problem must be identified. Actions and behaviors of individuals must be the focus – instead of a focus on the individuals themselves. Whatever the case, the problem must be clearly defined and be universally accepted by all relevant parties.
Step 2 – Disaggregate the problem
In the second step, break down the problem (challenge) into smaller parts using logic trees and develop an early hypothesis. Here, economic and scientific principles can be useful in brainstorming potential solutions. Avoid cognitive biases, such as deciding that a previous solution should be used again because it worked last time.
Step 3 – Prioritize issues
Which constituent parts could be key driving factors of the problem? Prioritize each according to those which have the biggest impact on the problem. Eliminate parts that have negligible impact. This step helps businesses use their resources wisely.
Step 4 – Plan the analyses
Before testing each hypothesis, develop a work and process plan for each. Staff should be assigned to analytical tasks with unique output and completion dates. Hypothesis testing should also be reviewed at regular intervals to measure viability and adjust strategies accordingly.
Step 5 – Conduct the analyses
In step five, gather the critical data required to accept or reject each hypothesis. Data analysis methods will vary according to the nature of the project, but each business must understand the reasons for implementing specific methods. In question-based problem solving, the Five Whys or Fishbone method may be used. More complicated problems may require the use of statistical analysis . In any case, this is often the longest and most complex step of the process.
Step 6 – Synthesise the results
Once the results have been determined, they must be synthesized in such a way that they can be tested for validity and logic. In a business context, assess the implications of the findings for a business moving forward. Does it solve the problem?
Step 7 – Communicate
In the final step, the business must present the solutions in such a way that they link back to the original problem statement. When presenting to clients, this is vital. It shows that the business understands the problem and has a solution supported by facts or hard data. Above all, the data should be woven into a convincing story that ends with recommendations for future action.
- 7 steps to problem-solving is a methodical approach to problem-solving based on the scientific method.
- Although a somewhat rigorous approach, the strategy can be learned by any business willing to devote the time and resources.
- Fundamentally, the 7 steps to problem-solving method involves formulating and then testing hypotheses. Through the process of elimination, a business can narrow its focus to the likely root cause of a problem.
- Definition : The 7 Steps to Problem-Solving is a structured methodology rooted in the scientific method. It emphasizes systematic hypothesis testing and data analysis to identify and address the root cause of problems, avoiding surface-level solutions.
- Problem-Solving Skill : Effective problem-solving is a learned skill that fosters responsible decision-making, boosts confidence, and supports business growth .
- Define the Problem : Clearly outline the problem’s scope and impact, focusing on actions and behaviors rather than individuals.
- Disaggregate the Problem : Break down the problem into smaller parts using logic trees and form early hypotheses. Avoid biases from past solutions.
- Prioritize Issues : Identify key driving factors of the problem and prioritize them by impact. Eliminate parts with minimal impact to allocate resources efficiently.
- Plan the Analyses : Develop work and process plans for hypothesis testing, assigning staff and setting completion dates. Regularly review and adjust strategies.
- Conduct the Analyses : Gather critical data to accept or reject hypotheses. Use methods like Five Whys, Fishbone diagrams, or statistical analysis .
- Synthesize the Results : Combine and analyze results to determine their validity and implications for the business . Assess if the problem is solved.
- Communicate : Present solutions that link back to the original problem statement, supported by facts. Create a compelling story ending with recommendations.
- The 7 Steps to Problem-Solving is based on the scientific method.
- It requires a structured approach to formulating and testing hypotheses.
- Businesses willing to invest time and resources can learn and apply this method effectively.
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The 7 Steps to Problem Solving
Effective problem solving, document.write("page last modified on: " + document.lastmodified +"");.
Problem solving with a standardized, disciplined and methodical approach is by far the best way of understanding root causes, exploring influences and implementing solutions that not only work, but also stay effective over time. The best solution to a problem is not always the most obvious and only after careful thought and assessment can the most suitable and feasible solution or solutions be implemented. The 7 step problem solving guide provided below has been created to help solve problems where the solution or in some cases the problem itself is not obvious.
STEP 1: The Right Problem to Solve STEP 2: Analyse the Problem STEP 3: Define the Problem STEP 4: Develop Opportunities (Possible Solutions) STEP 5: Select the Best Solution STEP 6: Implement the Solution STEP 7: Evaluate and Learn
When should problem solving be used?
Anytime you have a goal to achieve or simply experience a challenge, problem solving techniques can be adopted. The steps provided can be used on any problem no matter how small and simple, or large and complex with the only difference being the amount of overall time required to be spent on the problem at hand. Unfortunately effective problem solving does take some time and attention to detail but the rewards for the time taken may far outweigh the consequences for leaving problems in place.
STEP 1: The Right Problem to Solve
Identifying the right problem to solve can be by far the most crucial element in the process and it can’t be stressed enough that for this step to work to its full potential it is important to remember to focus on the problem and not just its symptoms or possible solutions, these parts will come shortly. If dealing with multiple problems the right problem is generally the one with the most important outcome, the greatest chance for solution and the nearest deadline. When trying to determine the right problem or if only intending to confirm one, ask yourself the following questions:
- Being as specific as possible what exactly is the problem to be solved?
- a clearly and concisely defined problem avoids confusion.
- A vaguely defined problem could be interpreted as something different.
- Can the problem be broken down further?
- A problem in its most simple form is in the best state for solving.
- Complex problems are possibly multiple smaller problems.
- Is the problem exactly the same from multiple perspectives? If not, can it be reworded so that it is?
- Problems can look different to different people.
- Solving for one person will not necessarily solve for everyone.
- Is there anyone who thinks it is not a problem? Why not?
- Any doubt is worth looking into, they could know something you don’t.
- It is always a possibility that you or your perceptions are the problem.
- Is the problem a symptom of a deeper, underlying condition?
- Fixing the problem will stop future symptoms.
- Fixing a symptom is only temporary.
- Is the problem one that can be solved? If no, can the problem be redefined?
- How to get to work with a broken leg is a problem that can be solved.
- A broken leg itself is not a problem because it can’t be solved, it's broken.
- Can the problem be defined as an opportunity?
- An opportunity is something positive we generally look forward to and want to take advantage of.
- A problem is generally something negative we don’t like and simply want to get rid of.
- Is the problem a beneficial one to solve? Why?
- The most beneficial problem is often a good place to start.
- The world is full of problems and unfortunately we can’t solve them all.
- Are you trying to solve a problem? Or are you confusing cause and effect?
- Building an airstrip so a plane has somewhere to land can be solving a problem.
- Building an airstrip because you know planes land on them does not guarantee a plane.
Once the above questions can be answered concisely you should be left with a well-defined problem which can also be described as an opportunity and more importantly you should have a better understanding of what you will be going to solve or achieve. It is time for the next step, analysing the problem.
STEP 2: Analyse the Problem
Analysing the problem starts with collecting as much information as possible relating to all aspects of the problem. This is where you find out what you already know about the situation and what areas need further looking into. To help discover all the facts it is a good idea to create a number of lists relating to the problem where you in turn list as many points as possible.
Remember that in this stage writing down anything and everything that comes to mind can be a good starting point; irrelevant items can be removed at the end. Some of the information you may find valuable may stem from the following questions. There are quite a few questions to consider, but hopefully they will guide you in the right direction. They are based on the "5 W's and 1 H".
- What does the problem currently affect?
- People or yourself?
- What will be the benefits of solving the problem? And by how much?
- What influences the problem?
- Does anything seem to aggravate or spread the problem?
- Does anything seem to reduce or delay the problem?
- Does anything tend to speed up / slow down the problem?
- Can the problem be simulated, recreated or acted out in another setting?
- Is there a specific example of an extreme case?
- What would be needed to solve the problem?
- Will new tools and/or policies be required?
- Will new equipment be required?
- Will new people be required?
- Could any new problems arise?
- What would happen if no solution can be found?
- Will a solution be available at a later date?
- What would be the next best thing to finding a complete solution?
- Is there a way to delay the problem?
- What would be the next best thing to solving the problem?
- Is there a chance the problem will go away on its own?
- Is there a way to change the problem for the better?
- Why do you want to achieve a solution?
- Is it something you personally want to do?
- Is it something you have been told to do?
- Is it something you feel you have to do?
- Why did the problem arise in the first place?
- Can the exact cause of the problem be pin pointed?
- Were there numerous reasons for the problem starting?
- Was a problem expected to occur at the time?
- Why was the problem allowed to escalate as far as it has?
- How much further can the problem escalate?
- Have previous attempts at solving the problem been made?
- Does the problem benefit anything/anyone else?
When you ask "How?" you are asking in what way or manner; by what means - "How does it work?" or used to ask about the condition or quality of something - How was your time there?"
- How long has the problem been around?
- Has it always been a problem?
- Has it got worse over time?
- Has the problem occurred at a previous time?
- How will the situation be different once the problem is solved?
- In particular what will be different?
- Can you guarantee the situation will be different?
- How relevant is the information available?
- Is the information up to date?
- Was the information created for the specific purpose it will be used for?
- Does the information need to be modified?
- How can I find out more information on the problem and possible solutions?
- Is all available information available?
- Is any information not available? Why not?
- Will additional research be required?
- Can additional people get involved with finding a solution?
- Is there an expert who can be approached?
- Are additional resources required?
- Where did the problem arise?
- Has the problem always existed?
- Can the exact starting point of the problem be pin pointed?
- Why did the problem arise where it did?
- Where is the problem currently located?
- Is the problem in a single or multiple locations?
- Can the problem be contained in its current location until it is dealt with?
- Is there a chance the problem will spread to different locations?
- Is the “where” component to the problem important? If so, why?
When you ask "Who?" you are asking what or which person or people are involved - "Who is that?" or "Who was there at the time?"
- Who are the stakeholders?
- Who is affected by this problem?
- Who will be affected once it is solved?
- Does anyone think that it is not a problem? What is different about their perspective?
- Who knows about the problem?
- Who has the information needed to solve or release the problem or issue?
- Who can do something or take action as a possible solution?
- Does anyone/s need to be informed about the problem?
- How do processes currently work where the problem is occurring?
- Who does what?
- With what information?
- Using what tools?
- Communicating with whom?
- In what time frame?
- Using what format?
When you ask "When?" you are asking at what time - "When did last witness it?" or at or on which time or circumstance - "Is early mornings when it happens most?"
- When did the problem first appear?
- What was its initial impact?
- How was it identified?
- Who identified it first?
- How did it start?
- Where did it start?
- Why did it start?
- What initially started it?
- When did it start?
- When does a solution need to be found?
- Would it be better to wait for a better time to implement a solution?
- Is too late to look for solutions?
Once every aspect of the problem has been looked into it is not uncommon for other potential problems to be identified as well. It may be necessary to start the entire process again for these new problems, but remember that problems are best dealt with one at a time and with that in mind it is time for the next step, defining the problem.
STEP 3: Define the Problem
Only after the right problem has been identified and analysed can one be sure of the correct definition of the problem. In most cases the definition will remain unchanged from STEP 1, but in some cases once other available information has been brought to light the problem, the opportunity or the desired outcome may have changed to accommodate either new information or a new perspective on the problem itself.
The following definitions should be written down for future reference. If there is any hesitation with any of the definitions it can be a sign that you don’t fully understand the problem at hand and that the previous step should be re-visited.
- Define exactly what the problem is.
- Define exactly what needs to be solved.
- Define your problem as an opportunity.
- Define the desired outcome.
STEP 4: Develop Opportunities (Possible Solutions)
There is always more than one way to solve a problem and in some cases simultaneous solutions may be required. As with the previous steps it is essential that time is taken to develop plenty of innovative and creative ideas. At the end of this step you can be certain you will have the best solution if you have explored all possible avenues and generated every conceivable option. To help you find the best solution the following methods can be used.
Seek advice; ask an expert In today’s day and age there is an expert on pretty much any topic you can imagine. Sometimes the best and fastest approach to getting the information we need can be simply to ask someone who knows more about the subject than we do. Of course finding that someone can be a challenge in itself, but the rewards in doing so could far outweigh other options. If the expert is unsure about the best approach for your situation they will probably be able to point you in the right direction.
Brainstorming Best done with a group of individuals brainstorming is always a good starting point. Brainstorming involves creating a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by an individual or group of individuals. With this method there is no wrong answer and wild or unexpected answers are often encouraged with all suggestions being written down. The process continues until no more suggestions can be thought of and the list of ideas can later be used to develop a solution.
The Scientific Method A method for conducting an objective investigation which is a proven approach to solving problems in a way that is reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary. The scientific method can be seen to underlay the scientific revolution and has helped to create many of the great accomplishments of recent human history. A basic flow chart of the scientific method is shown below.
Have a Guess If there is some indication, a technique you have heard of or a gut instinct about a possible solution, why not look into it further. Starting with an inkling and checking and adjusting it to suit the problem at hand could lead to the ideal solution. This method generally works better for a limited number of potential solutions where you can eliminate the options one at a time but there is no harm in employing the method in any case, it might just lead to the solution you have been looking for.
Work Backwards If the “where to start” is not obvious starting at the end goal and working backwards can be a good approach. Working backwards can sometimes offer the fastest solution because it gets you thinking with where you want to end up in mind. This approach to problem solving can also be effective when used at a point not quite at the end goal or even to back check the starting point from a different perspective.
Do the Opposite What effect does doing the opposite to what you have been doing have on the situation? If you at a dead-end or simply want to explore the opposite of something that clearly isn’t working, doing the opposite can provide a new and refreshing perspective. Rather than avoiding a situation, doing a complete 180 and diving straight in can in some cases be the best and/or fastest approach.
A Randomized Approach When all else fails or there is no indication what so ever to what sort of approach should be taken a random approach may be required. By applying random solutions and seeing how they influence the problem at hand may eventually lead to something more meaningful. You might get lucky and find the solution you have been looking for or worst possible case you may just find yourself where you started.
If after numerous attempts without success it might be necessary to go back to previous steps and try to "look outside the square". Every now and then a problem presents itself that will require a bit more creativity to come up with a feasible solution.
STEP 5: Select the Best Solution
With a list of possible solutions developed in the previous step it is time to select the best individual or best combination of solutions to be put into action and to eliminate the problem at hand. The process of selecting the best solution is a matter of ranking all of the available solutions against one another and defining each options “pluses and minuses”. Some of the key areas that might need to be evaluated and prioritised have been listed below.
- Operational validity: Can the solution actually be implemented or is it just an idea?
- Economic validity: Is the solution economical? Will the solution bring an economic result?
- Degree of Complexity: Is the solution simple to implement or are there complexities involved?
- Ease of Implementation: Is the solution ready to go and easy to install?
- Stakeholder interest: Does the solution satisfy everyone’s interests.
- Potential Risk: Does the solution bring any additional risk with it?
- Personal commitment: Is the solution something that reflects the ideals of all involved? Is the solution something you believe in?
- End result: Will the solution solve all parts of the problem or will the problem just be reduced or concealed?
Keeping in mind that the best solution will be the result of considerable deliberation and also that one solution that is available for any problem is to simply do nothing, everything should now be in place for putting the solution into action. If something happens so that the chosen solution/s cannot be used or if the solution stops working, there will now be a list of alternatives already assessed, prioritised and ready to go.
STEP 6: Implement the Solution
The implementation plan is just as important as implementing the solution/s and monitoring the progress of this step is something that will need to be done also. A brief guide to some of the things that will need to be considered have been detailed below.
- Planning and documentation of a new solution/s
- When will the solution be implemented?
- Where will the solution be implemented?
- How is the solution to be implemented?
- What has to be done before the solution is implemented?
- How long will the solution take to start working?
- What time frame is the solution expected to take before the problem is solved?
- Have monitoring provisions been put in place?
- What are the key signs to look for to indicate the solution is working?
- Who will need to be notified about the changes about to take place?
- At what stages will the progress be reviewed?
- Have contingency arrangements been put in place for if the solution doesn’t work?
- What will be the next step if the solution doesn’t work?
- If required, have all agreements been documented and signed?
- How will it be confirmed that the problem has been solved?
- Are steps required to remove or disable the solution?
- What will happen once the problem has been solved?
- Putting the solution into action
- Put the solution into action
- Monitor the progress and effect of the solution
- Test and ensure the solution is meeting expectations and outcomes
STEP 7: Evaluate and Learn
Hopefully everything went to plan and the problem is now solved and even if it wasn’t, this step is still the same. It is vital that the whole process is evaluated from problem to solution and a good starting point is to document the 7 step procedure. This step is intended to not only provide a future reference but also a learning experience for future problem solving. At a very minimum the following questions should be answered:
- How effective was that particular solution?
- Did the solution achieve the desired outcomes?
- What consequences did problem solving activity have on my situation?
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