Seven Step Problem Solving
Seven Step Problem Solving: what’s the problem?
Our seven step problem solving technique provides a structured basis to help deliver outcomes and solutions to your problems.
If you are in hurry you can read our “manage in a minute” guide 7 Problem Solving Steps for the essentials of problem solving.
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 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?”
Too often our approach to problem solving is reactive, we wait for the problems to arise. 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
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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. 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 Druckers 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.
Implentation of 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 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:
- Define it
- Design it
- 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
You will have done some things really well through this seven step problem solving process. 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 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?”
Once you’ve read this article, turn seven step problem solving into eight steps, with our great-value e-guide: What’s the Problem?! A comprehensive guide to problem solving, complete with these 9 essential tools:
- 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