Problem solving is not an inherent ability but an acquired one. Certain skills like: pragmatic thinking; the ability to break problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces; thinking out of the box, and so on, improve with repeated practice.
There are a few distinct steps that are to be taken in problem-solving. First, is identifying the problem. This involves: detecting and recognizing that there is a problem; identifying the nature of the problem; defining the problem.
The first phase of problem-solving may sound obvious but often requires more thought and analysis. Identifying a problem can be a difficult task in itself, is there a problem at all? What is the nature of the problem, are there, in fact, numerous problems? How can the problem be best defined? – by spending some time defining the problem you will not only understand it more clearly yourself but be able to communicate its nature to others, this leads to the second phase.
Structuring the problem is the next step. This involves a period of observation, careful inspection, fact-finding and developing a clear picture of the problem. I have referred to this in the past as “putting your arms around the issue”.
Following on from problem identification, structuring the problem is all about gaining more information about the problem and increasing understanding. This phase is all about fact-finding and analysis, building a more comprehensive picture of both the goal(s) and the barrier(s). This stage may not be necessary for very simple problems but is essential for problems of a more complex nature.
Next, is looking for possible solutions. During this stage, you will generate a range of possible courses of action, but with little attempt to evaluate them at this stage.
From the information gathered in the first two phases of the problem-solving framework, it is now time to start thinking about possible solutions to the identified problem. In a group situation, this stage is often carried out as a brain-storming session, letting each person in the group express their views on possible solutions (or partial solutions). In organizations, different people will have different expertise in different areas and it is useful, therefore, to hear the views of each concerned party.
Then comes the time to make a decision. This involves careful analysis of the different possible courses of action and then selecting the best solution for implementation.
This is perhaps the most complex part of the problem-solving process. Following on from the previous step it is now time to look at each potential solution and carefully analyze it. Some solutions may not be possible, due to other problems, like time constraints or budgets. It is important at this stage to also consider what might happen if nothing was done to solve the problem – sometimes trying to solve a problem that leads to many more problems requires some very creative thinking and innovative ideas.
Finally, make a decision on which course of action to take – decision making is an important skill in itself and we recommend that you see our pages on decision making.
Next, is the implementation stage. This stage involves accepting and carrying out the chosen course of action.
Implementation means acting on the chosen solution. During implementation, more problems may arise especially if identification or structuring of the original problem was not carried out fully.
Monitoring/Seeking Feedback is the last step. This stage is about reviewing the outcomes of problem-solving over a period of time, including seeking feedback as to the success of the outcomes of the chosen solution.
The final stage of problem-solving is concerned with checking that the process was successful. This can be achieved by monitoring and gaining feedback from people affected by any changes that occurred. It is good practice to keep a record of outcomes and any additional problems that occurred.