A Definitive Guide to Problem-Solving

Hal Conick
Key Takeaways

​What? There's no one way to solve a problem, but there are steps, models and methods that have helped people for decades.

So what? Companies can hinder their problem solving by misidentifying the problem, poorly staffing teams or forgetting to document progress.

Now what? Use these steps to chart your own problem-solving path.​​​​​​​

​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. 

A caveat to finding and defining problems is the distinct difference between problems that have a single solution and those that don’t, according to M. Neil Browne, a professor at Bowling Green State University’s College of Business and co-author of Asking the Right Questions. Single-solution problems—“efficiency questions,” Browne calls them—will have one answer that is clearly better than the rest. If shipping products has become too expensive, for example, there’s likely one answer that works best to reduce costs. But in more complex problems—“critical thinking problems,” Browne says—the best answer depends on perspective.

“If a firm is having difficulty and the marketing director says, ‘You should spend more money providing incentives to our sales staff,’ but one of the production engineers says, ‘You could save more money by spending more on automated equipment,’ that’s not going to be something that every reasonable person in the room is going to agree with,” Browne says, “because their assumptions are different.”

Consider critical-thinking problems this way: Your back hurts, so you make appointments with an exercise physiologist, an orthopedic surgeon and a holistic health guru. Each will use knowledge of their specialty to give you a different solution for your back pain. They could debate for hours without reaching a single conclusion. As psychologist Abraham Maslow quipped in 1966: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

This initial stage of problem-solving—defining the problem—is where most businesses stumble, says Andrea Bassi, founder and CEO of KnowlEdge Srl, associate professor of system dynamics modelling at Stellenbosch University and co-author of Tackling Complexity. There are many ways companies can misidentify problems, but Bassi says that their biggest mistake often occurs when they define a problem by its symptoms instead of its causes, main effects and true drivers. Addressing the symptoms can help eliminate short-term issues, Bassi says, but it likely won’t solve the long-standing problems and could create more. 

Most problems emerge from within organizations rather than originating from the outside, Bassi says. “We tend to think that things are imposed onto us, and we need to find solutions, but in fact, we’re normally creating problems with our behavior,” he says. “If you use a systemic approach, you can figure out more lasting and more effective solutions.”

But before moving into a systemic approach, it’s important to go beyond the surface of what the problem could be and find out exactly what it is. In this stage, Nickols says that companies must avoid locking in on one solution by asking many questions: What functions do you want to be able to perform, and who must be able to perform them? What kind of data structure do you want in the system? 

“Over time, the picture of the system that you’re building will begin to emerge and finally crystallize,” Nickols says.

But the questions should never stop, even if the problem crystalizes. Questions, according to Browne, are likely the most important part of the next step: Creating the team that will solve the problem.

Building the 
Problem-Solving Team

In 2009, nonprofit Prize4Life posted a problem to InnoCentive, an open-innovation and crowdsourcing platform. Prize4Life wanted to find the biomarker for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative disease that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Prize4Life offered problem-solvers $1 million to find the ALS biomarker; within two years, Dr. Seward Rutkove of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston found it. Six years later, Prize4Life used the pool of more than 1,000 problem-solvers on InnoCentive to find ways to predict disease progression in ALS patients, awarding problem-solvers smaller cash prizes. 

InnoCentive’s crowdsourcing system brings in problem-solvers from outside the organization, granting access to the eyes, brains and problem-solving abilities of people who may have never worked in medical research. Jon Fredrickson, chief innovation officer at InnoCentive, says that using outsiders allows companies to look at a problem differently than they would by assembling a team from inside. 

But what if a company has access only to its own employees?

Companies should form a problem-solving team where each member brings a different perspective, writes Antonio E. Weiss in his book Key Business Solutions: Essential Problem-Solving Tools and Techniques That Every Manager Needs to Know. Each team member must feel comfortable giving feedback to one another: “Feedback is just as much about giving constructive praise as constructive criticism,” he writes. “And feedback can be given by any team member, no matter how junior or inexperienced.” Weiss writes that all team stakeholders need to understand what the problem is, what a good solution looks like, when the solution needs to be delivered and the context surrounding the problem. 

Glenn Llopis, a business management consultant and author of The Innovation Mentality: Six Strategies to Disrupt the Status Quo and Reinvent the Way We Work, says that cultivating an environment where feedback is acceptable takes something organizations often lack: vulnerability.

“Very few people have all the answers, so you have to be able to create an environment of vulnerability and inclusivity within your organization for people to provide constant feedback and recommendations, regardless of hierarchy or rank,” Llopis says. “There are so many opportunities that are ignored because the individual doesn’t feel comfortable revealing them.”

Beyond stifling feedback, companies often involve too many high-level employees and not enough employees who deal with the problem’s issues every day, Bassi says. “They may not have enough knowledge of what’s going on,” he says of high-level personnel. “They miss what could be the root causes of a problem in the production chain. They may miss some of the considerations that actually drive them to find a lasting solution.”

To avoid missing insights, Bassi says that organizations should find a mix of knowledge from technical and managerial points of view. “You need someone with the vision of the higher level in a management position and those that work more on the technical level and see how the work is performed on the ground,” he says. 

Nickols, the Navy serviceman who went on to solve problems his entire career, says that he has a few basic principles for forming a problem-solving team. First, there must be someone in a position of authority. In addition, he agrees with Bassi: There must be people who know the system well. “I don’t want newbies and trainees,” he says. “I want people who have the respect of their peers.” Nickols says that the team also needs a sponsor, someone who will give the project authority and support behind the scenes and get all departments to buy into the team’s work. Finally, he suggests adding a “straw boss,” someone who ensures the team has everything it needs. 

In the book The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, authors Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen suggest that businesses frame problems in a way that allows employees to be curious. “Reframe the problem as a phenomenon,” the authors write. “If your team can create a shared understanding of the problem and agree on what you and the rest of the team don’t know, it is much easier to accept new ways of solving the problem.”

In Brian Tracy’s book Creativity & Problem Solving, he suggests that teams hold both “mindstorming” and brainstorming sessions. In mindstorming sessions, each team member takes a sheet of paper with the problem or goal at the top, then writes 20 answers using the first-person voice and action verbs. The question, “What can we do to double our sales and profitability in the next 24 months?” could be answered with ideas like, “We hire and train 22 new sales people.” In brainstorming sessions, Tracy widens the scope by including four to seven team members and having them generate ideas together for 30 minutes, staying positive and saving the criticism of ideas for after the meeting. 

Throughout the problem-solving process, Browne says, teams—especially those working on critical-thinking problems—should focus on a series of evidence-focused questions, such as “Do you have any financial interest in the answer to this question?” and “How much experience do you have in using this evidence?” Although many people may find this kind of critical thinking aggressive, Browne says that questions foster a better understanding of what team members know and why they believe their solution would work best. Team members should ask questions respectfully, with curiosity and with willingness to understand new information. 

After all the ideas, questions and evidence are on the table, Browne says that teams must quickly decide on a solution. “We can’t analyze this thing the rest of our lives,” he says. “We have to make decisions in a business environment more quickly than people typically do.”

At this point, digging into the problem through a map and problem statement will be useful. 

Making a Map

After the problem-solving team pours out its ideas and questions, the organization may realize that there is more than one right answer and many potential side effects. This is why everything—ideas, questions, potential side effects—should be recorded and arranged when digging into the problem. The end goal is to have a problem statement, a map of the company’s problems. 

Maps allow multiple different perspectives—economic, social, environmental—to be listed and listened to. The map will give problem-solvers what Bassi calls a “horizontal view” of the problem. 

“If I work on economics and finance, I can’t appreciate the work that others do, nor can I see how their performance is affecting my performance or how my performance is affecting the work of others,” he says. 

Nickols agrees that maps are useful, similar to a cartographer charting the territory she’s exploring. “The complete map is never done,” he says. “You will regularly get enough of it to get to where you want to be. But there’s still a lot of uncharted territory out there.”

A map will also allow companies to know some of the solution’s performance indicators and potential side effects. “We must first figure out what the indicators of performance are and how they are connected to one another,” Bassi says. “Once you know indicators of performance, you can find the person responsible for a certain type of performance or one who has a good view of what’s happening and why we are underperforming in one of the other areas.”

A written system of performance indicators will show organizations causes and effects of different decisions, allowing the problem solvers to understand how different solutions could affect other areas of the business. If one part of the business is changed, and that change affects another part, this view of the problem-solving process may allow the organization to understand why. Without the map, the events may seem disconnected. 

Another way to arrange a problem statement comes from Weiss’ Key Business Solutions, wherein he suggests that companies use the ABC—or arrange, brainstorm, choose—method to break down a problem. Using this technique, companies “arrange” by setting a clear goal, generating evaluation criteria and informing the team of the analysis. Then, they “brainstorm,” group similar ideas together and find new ideas, treating all ideas equally. Finally, they “choose” by adding details to the solution and scoring outcomes against set criteria. 

Digging into a problem allows a company to avoid using a canned approach to problem-solving. Nickols says that most organizations are “committed to canned approaches,” no matter what kind of problem they’re up against. “It just doesn’t work,” he says, adding that most people realize how complex problems are after looking at questions, concerns and potential side effects.  

After the map has been drawn up, it’s time to implement a solution.

Finding and Implementing 
the Solution

When Nickols worked as an executive director at Educational Testing Service in the early 1990s, the rejection rate for one of the company’s health care certification tests was more than 70%. That was too high, he says—test-takers’ careers were on the line. 

The clerical staff at ETS were convinced that people filling out the forms were inept, but Nickols saw that the problem was the system itself. Half of the rejects had an invalid or missing institutional code, a number that identified where the registrant was trained or would be employed, he says. The other half were rejected because of sloppiness, such as leaving fields blank that needed to be filled in. 

To fix the problem, Nickols told the clerical staff to ensure registrants were instructed that ETS wanted a “clean and complete” registration form with all fields filled in. He also realized that registrants were given a numerically ordered institutional code list that they’d have to scan for their institution. To fix this issue, Nickols told staff to give registrants an alphabetically ordered list of institutions. After ETS made the changes, the rejection rate plummeted from 70% to 9%, Nickols says. 

Although this problem seemed easy to solve, Nickols documented everything, just as he would when mapping any other problem. He did this in part to be accountable and responsible, but also because he got the same question from other executives after each problem: “How the hell did you do that?” 

“It’s partly a matter of being accountable,” he says. “It’s partly a matter of sharing what was learned with others. It’s partly a matter of having a record that’s more than just a history. Think of it as a problem-solving memory.”

This problem-solving memory will help companies stay vigilant for side effects of the solution with an organization-wide view, Nickols says. 

In Smart Questions: Learn to Ask the Right Questions for Powerful Results​, authors Gerald Nadler and William J. Chandon suggest that businesses should create a “living solution” to problems. The living solution is similar to the solution companies plan for, but the living solution takes into account a changing environment. 

Nadler and Chandon suggest three steps toward a living solution: First, create a detailed description of recommended changes, coming as close as possible to the solution the company had been planning for, which they call the future solution. Then, plan for successive stages of change and improvement that move toward the future solution. Finally, have an installation plan to begin working on the stages of change. Nadler and Chandon write that there are challenges to having a living solution, including lack of resources, unavailable technology, changes in attitude or skepticism from key decision makers. To anticipate these challenges, the authors suggest that problem-solvers ask questions and think holistically about the living solution. 

Ask information questions like: What specific information needs to be collected to stay as close as possible to the future solution?

Ask questions of uniqueness like: How can we develop a living solution and an implementation plan that work within our environment and stay close to our future solution? 

Ask systematic questions like: What are potential input ideas for overcoming a challenge that prevents us from adopting the future solution now? 

Browne says that businesses should implement solutions as quickly as they decide on them. Although they will occasionally make mistakes, they will also become agile when dealing with problems. Businesses don’t often have four or five months to decide on a solution—by the end, they may have already lost millions of dollars—so quick decisions are imperative. 

“That’s where the role of leadership experience and knowing who, from the past track record, you can depend on,” Browne says. Though a good record doesn’t guarantee future success, he says looking for high-probability events is the best option.

InnoCentive’s Fredrickson uses a fishing analogy to show why companies must decide quickly on solutions. You can know all the best spots in the lake and catch the fish, but do you know what you’re going to do once you catch it? Will you eat it, take a picture and throw it back or simply let the fish rot in the boat, just as an unused idea lies dormant in a company? 

“Unless you are intentional and continue to experiment, you’ve just gone fishing—you caught some fish, but you really didn’t do anything with it, and it rots,” Fredrickson says. “At that point, it’s not innovation because you never really acted on what you found.” 

Once the solution is in place, companies must continue to test their theories, always willing to accept that they may have been wrong. 

Review Results, Analyze the Future and Always Try Again 

For 20 years, Browne and his wife were blackjack counters. “One of the things that always amused us was when we’d be flying to Vegas or Macau and there’d be people on the plane getting ready to play blackjack,” he says. “They’d all have a system and say, ‘I cleaned them out last time.’ They don’t understand: The dumbest monkey in the world could play blackjack and win—it’s just that over time, you lose. That’s the math of the system.”

Much like blackjack, solving problems isn’t an exact science, but it does require some scientific thinking and experimenting. Companies need to grow comfortable with making hypotheses and mistakes and learning from both. Much like card counters must recount when the deck is shuffled, businesses must anticipate a changing environment—measurements, criteria for success, people in the organization, outside factors. What can’t change is a company’s dedication to learning from mistakes and adjusting quickly.

“When you make a mistake, ask, ‘What did I miss? Why did I miss it? What did I fail to do?’,” Browne says. “That’s an analytical process of reviewing the bad decisions you made rather than just wallowing in the successes of the good decisions. Bill Gates has said that success is a lousy teacher; it makes people think they know what they really don’t know. I think that’s true.” 

Once a company implements a solution, Bassi says that it must monitor and evaluate the solution’s performance on an ongoing basis. Start-and-stop exercises—for example, checking the solution’s progress once a year—usually won’t work because companies tend to treat them more like a checkbox than an embedded part of the decision-making process, he says. Continuous evaluation allows companies to catch problems as they emerge, rather than once they are fully realized.

The map will be useful for ongoing monitoring, Bassi says. The company will see performance on departmental and organization-wide levels. If the solution has unforeseen consequences, the map will allow the company to see exactly where it went wrong and quickly fix the problem—or perhaps decide that what went wrong is preferable. 

Nickols says that the path companies take will vary for each solution. Sometimes, companies will think that they have the solution but find that their path leads to a brick wall. “That’s not because you chose the wrong path, it’s because nobody knew what the right path was,” he says. “There’s a lot of feeling your way along.” 

Instead of worrying about what’s at the end of each path, Nickols says that the best thing companies can do to is take a step and figure out where to step next. 

And if the business does reach a point where the problem is solved, there’s only one logical thing left to do: “Celebrate,” Nickols says with a laugh. “The more you succeed in solving issues and wrestling with issues, the more credible you’ll become.”

Hal Conick
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.


Displaying 1 Comments
October 18, 2018

I totally agree. For me personally, when a problem happens, there are four stages: 1. change yourself and your behavior 2. change the situation 3. exit the situation 4. change your attitude to the situation. Such an algorithm can be applied to any problem in fact. Working as a writer, wondering how to write expository essay, I am guided by these points. For the future, I advise everyone to soberly assess what is happening and make the right decisions.