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Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace
solving and decision making. Ask anyone in the workplace if these activities
are part of their day and theyd certainly answer Yes!
But how many of us have had training in problem solving? We know its
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 thats a problem because, in fact, there are always going to
There are two reasons why we tend to see a problem as a problem: it
has to be solved and were 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 dont 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
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 in problem
solving 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. Thats 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
(thats the next step!)
2. Understand everyones interests.
- This is a critical step that is usually skipped.
- 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
- The best solution is the one that satisfies everyones 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
(Separate the generation and 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.
- Whats 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).
- Dont 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
- How will you monitor compliance and follow-through?
- Create opportunities to evaluate the agreements and their implementation.
(Lets try it this way for three months and then look at
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
youll 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 youre
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 youre just trying to decide where to
go out for lunch, you probably dont need to go through these seven
Dont worry if it feels a bit unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first.
Youll have lots of opportunities to practice!
Tim Hicks is founder and director of CONNEXUS Conflict Management providing
mediation, facilitation, training, and conflict management consultation
to businesses. Tim can be reached at email@example.com.
Visit the CONNEXUS website at www.connexus.mediate.com