Skip to Content Skip to Footer

A Definitive Guide to Problem-Solving

Hal Conick

There’s no one way to solve a problem—in fact, you should avoid using canned approaches. But there are ideas, steps, plans and questions that problem-solving professionals have found useful for decades.​

Finding and Defining Problems

Three days after graduating high school, Fred Nickols joined the U.S. Navy and began solving problems. He learned a technique called fault isolation that let him find and fix problems with radars, computers and weaponry. During one gunfire support mission, he found that a gun was shooting bullets 3,000 yards beyond where the military thought capable—Nickols wrote up the problem and the weapons system was modified to show its more accurate, longer range. “That was a nice beneficial side effect,” he says with a chuckle.

After leaving the Navy, Nickols worked for 40 years as an executive and business consultant and found that business problems could be grouped into the same three categories as they were in the Navy. There are find-and-fix problems, like the gun that shot too far. These problems are easily definable and have definite solutions. There are problems where businesses simply want to improve. “Nothing’s broke, but you want much better than what you have,” Nickols says. Then there are the problems where businesses have a void to fill and must create something new. “You’re starting from scratch,” he says. “You don’t have anything in place, but you’ve got to put something in place to create the results you want.

“You’ve got to decide up front: Are you trying to find something and fix it, are you trying to improve what you have or are you building something from scratch?” Nickols says. 

Advertisement

Want to view this content?

Create a free ama.org account to view this content. This type of account gives you limited access to select AMA content.

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.