Six Steps to becoming a Better Problem Solver


Traffic is heavy, so you take an alternate route to work.

You can’t find your meeting notes, so you ask a colleague if you can take a look at hers.

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You are working with a tight deadline, so you turn your phone on silent.

You solve all sorts of work-related problems every day without even really thinking much about it. Why is it then that certain situations leave you stumped? Well, the above examples didn’t really inconvenience anyone else. When others are involved, we worry about potential conflict. We often experience discomfort when we need to make a decision that impacts others. Sometimes that discomfort can even immobilize us.

Many people have one of two responses to a work-place dilemma: they either live with it or they run away from it. By following some basic steps, however, you can offer a third response. You can be part of the process to solve the problem. Here’s how:

Steps to becoming a better problem solver

1. Identify the problem. Sometimes we get so caught up in a situation that we fail to realize that someone else may not be seeing things the same way we are.

Figure out a way to put the problem into terms everyone can understand and agree upon. Be as specific as possible without pointing the finger at anyone. For example, state the problem as “Supply and inventory control” not “People are stealing packaging supplies.”

Once everyone is clear on what the problem is, the next step is to move from a negative frame of mind toward a positive solution. Neuroscientists have shown in numerous studies that our brains cannot find solutions if we focus directly on problems. Instead of focusing on what is wrong or who is at fault, turn your attention to how you are going to solve the problem.

2. Brainstorm possible solutions. This step is really a listening step more than anything else. Encourage everyone to come up with a suggestion or two. If possible, have someone use a whiteboard to write down the ideas that everyone throws out.

In the book Managing the Nonprofit Organization, author Peter F. Drucker identifies listening as one of the basic skills of a good leader.  “Anybody can do it,” he writes with tongue in cheek.  “All you have to do is keep your mouth shut.”  When we are discussing a shared problem, listening may sound easy like an easy task, but it is not.

For effective brainstorming, all ideas can be offered, even if they are not practical. So in the case of the previous problem, ideas could include anything from locking the supply room to charging all employees a supply fee. Don’t judge ideas at this point; it’s amazing how someone’s supposed weird idea can trigger a solution.

In his book Six Thinking Hats, author Edward DeBono remarks: “There are times when we need to use creativity in a deliberate and focused manner. It may be necessary to put forward provocative ideas that are deliberately illogical.”

3. Evaluate the options. Now that everyone has contributed his or her perspective on the problem, it is time to narrow down your list. If necessary, develop a pro-con list of the best options. Listen to everyone’s input in an effort to really understand.

4.  Select a plan. Hopefully, by now, one idea seems to be the best solution to your problem. If there is more than one plan that has merit, select one of them to try for a set time period before trying the other idea. Then you can compare which idea works best.

5. Review the conversation for clarity. Briefly review the process and the group’s solution so that everyone understands and is in agreement to try the new plan. It’s a good idea to write down notes from this meeting so that there is a record of what you have discussed.

6. Arrange a way to follow-up. Schedule a date to follow-up with everyone involved to see how the solution is working out. Allow for the possibility of finding another solution if this one doesn’t work out.

You’ll find that the more opportunities you have for problem-solving, the easier this process will get. The ability to problem-solve – no matter what type of business you are in — is essential to being a good leader.

Having a positive approach to a problem, whether it is big or small, creates a work environment that is open and creative. An essential part of a positive approach is the ability to view problems as opportunities for growth, not as disasters to be avoided at all costs.

In his book Win Win Management: Leading People in the New Workplace, author George Fuller explains that although it isn’t always possible to achieve a consensus within the group, it is important that workers know that their opinions will be heard.

When we reframe problems in a positive light, they can bring your workplace team closer and can have a positive impact on your business.