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2 Problem Solving Techniques

Stressing about a big problem in front of you? Worried or overwhelmed by a dilemma? Instead of putting off the decision for months while you chew on it slowly, put in a few hours of concentrated thinking effort and get somewhere sooner with less angst.

Solve problems like a boss!

Here are two processes that will help you to clear up some of the fog surrounding your situation. These are great for personal situations but they are also fabulous for a work problem and can work as solo exercises but really sing when you get others involved.

Technique 1: Get very specific.

When a problem is clearly understood and described, it can be much easier to solve. In your head, you know all the specifics, but until you start writing them down, your brain is less likely to solve the problem then to waste its time ruminating on the many facts and feelings you have about it.

What is the problem exactly?

Be succinct. Write it down. If you have a whiteboard or chalkboard, write in big letters at the top.

If you’re having trouble getting it crystal clear, ask a few iterations of “why is that a problem?” to see if you can get to the deeper root of the matter. So, if your initial problem is “I have no money” but it doesn’t feel quite right or complete, ask “Why is it a problem that I have no money?” Ultimately, the problem might be less about money exactly and more about an unmet desire to travel internationally or a need to pay off your debt. Solving the problem of a travel bug involves very different steps and tools than paying off personal debt. So, being specific about the real problem is key.

Then ask (and document the answer):

  1. Why is this a problem?

  2. What isn’t possible because of this problem?

  3. What would be possible if this wasn’t a problem?

  4. When did this problem start?

  • Is there a root cause that is the actual problem?

  1. By when do I need this problem solved?

  • Do you have time for an elegant solution or is there only time for down-and-dirty problem solving?

  1. Who else is impacted by this problem or by a similar problem?

  • They might want to help or have solutions already.

  1. How much does this problem cost me?

  • This might indicate a problem-solving budget. If the answer to this question is x, then your problem solving budget could be as high as x-1.

  1. What do I get out of having this problem?

  • In other words, are there any unhelpful incentives, even inherent in you, that pull you back from solving this problem? Maybe you are afraid of change a little more than you want to solve this. That emotional component might be your actual problem.

  1. What does someone else get out of this problem existing?

  • Is there a power structure in place that keeps this problem unsolved? Do you need to change someone’s mind or fight against someone else’s desires to solve this problem? That might be the first problem to solve and is at least an important thing to be aware of while you are working on this problem.

  1. Why do I care so much about this problem?

  • What is your true motivation?

  1. If I don't solve this problem, my life/work/situation will be ____________________.

  2. The first step to solving this problem would be to __________________________.

Once you have described the many facts and facets of this problem, leave that board or paper around. Let your brain chew on this problem and the revelations for a few days in the background. Try not to dwell but trust your creative process at work behind the scenes. Then, come back to the drawing board and re-examine these questions. You will probably have a clearer picture then ever about what you’re actually trying to solve (usually, this is half the battle at least), who to talk to for support and where to start.

Technique 2: Play with the numbers.

If you have many options and no good way to choose between them, and especially if you want to look beyond your feelings on the matter, weighted categorization can be the way to go.

It goes like this:

First, write down all the options. Get ridiculous even. Make up more. Write them in a row along the top of your page (or spreadsheet.)

Second, along the far left of the page (or sheet) write in a column the various qualities that might matter to you or even to someone generally making this type of decision.

If your problem is that you can’t figure out what your next job should be, think about various qualities that make jobs great (or not.) Phrase the qualities so that a negative answer (“No, this job is not flexible”) equates to something you would not enjoy or that would be negative for you. The most difficult-to-phrase quality in this list (below) is the last one about the cost of acquiring the job. I went with “Cheapness of transitioning into this role" because that means the negative answer is: “No, this job is not cheap to transition into” which is a negative thing for the job hunter. Play around with complex qualities until you find a way to make the negative answer the negative thing for you.

  • Flexibility

  • Pay

  • Pay growth potential over the years

  • Alignment with my passion

  • Prestige

  • Alignment with my values

  • Travel

  • Fun

  • Uses your education

  • Physical safety

  • Challenging work

  • Many openings for this job in your location

  • Speediness of being hired into this role

  • Cheapness of transitioning into this role

Third, now that you have your table, decide on a ranking system, 1-5 is often the right balance between easy to keep straight and detailed enough to allow for nuance to be expressed. 1 would mean it does not have this quality. 5 would mean it has a lot of that quality.

Fourth, score your possible choices for each quality. This is why you have created a table-like document. For ease later, I highly recommend moving over to a simple whiteboard table with short-hand versions of the options and qualities so that you have lots of space to fill in the data from the next step.

Fifth, ask other people you trust to rate the same information, thinking of your situation. 4 other people starts to be give you a reasonable data set to work with but the more the merrier. Don’t give the others your answers, just give them clarity about what the qualities mean. Maybe add a description of what a score of "5" for each quality would look like. Also, ensure they know what this decision process is focused on deciding.

The reason to get more people involved is because research shows that a group of people make better decisions than one person alone. Take advantage of the experiences, knowledge, insights and gut instincts of those around you to get a truly great answer to this dilemma.

As the answers come rolling in, don’t get bogged down in wondering why your mom thinks that becoming a doctor would be fast and cheap. Anomalies are partly why you’ve asked several people to weigh in and maybe there is a method to her madness. Without judgment (or at least without changing any of the scores) add up all the numbers people gave you, including your own ratings to get the overall scores for each option. So, you should have a total at the bottom of each column, one per option. Which option “won”? Which options were close to winning? Which options are clearly not worth thinking about anymore?

At this point, with your first look at the results, you might be disappointed. Why? What isn’t feeling right about this? Take note of your thoughts and then let's fix the problem by adjusting the weighting. Just because we listed a dozen or more qualities that might be of importance to this decision doesn’t mean that each quality is equally important to you. Continuing with the job hunting example, maybe fun, travel and flexibility are very important to you and working at a job in your current location isn’t very important after all. So, weigh the top qualities “heavier” by multiplying the numbers that you and your team provided for that quality by 2 or 3 or 10. You decide how much more important your top qualities are to the others. And, those qualities that aren’t that important to you, divide those scores by 2. That way, those scores aren’t completely ignored but they are “lighter” in your calculation.

If the data still seems to be giving you funky answers that feel wrong, maybe one of your number-crunchers gave you odd answers. Maybe your little brother knows absolutely nothing about job hunting and that makes his answers useless in this situation. Don't be mad (or tell him you are discounting his numbers! He took time to help you out, so just let it go.) But, on your spreadsheet, either delete all of that person's answers or weigh all of their answers as less important by dividing them by 2 (or 10). Just make sure you don't cherry pick. If you are discounting someone's answers as less trustworthy, change the weight equally on ALL their answers, not just those scores that disagree with your perspective.

Now for the real fun. Play with the numbers to see what another person would get. Maybe your best friend would make her decision based on how satisfyingly challenging the work is for her and how safe the job activities are for her. What job would she pick if she was exactly in your shoes? Change the weights and you can see how she might interpret this same data. What about your mentor? What qualities would they advise you to weight more heavily vs. others? What does the data look like then? What about you when you were 6? What would you have prioritized differently? Does the answer 6 year old you would have gotten feel more “right” to you? Why or why not? And, what would 80 year old you come up with? Would your wisest, most experienced you choose different qualities as unimportant in the grand scheme of things?

From all of this exploration, you should have a much clearer picture of what is truly important to you about this problem and which options fit the facts of your situation the best. And, hopefully you are much clearer about what your feelings are telling you about this problem vs. what the facts of the situation are. That way, you can follow either path with clarity and confidence about why you are choosing x over z.

Catherine Olchowy business HR consultant Victoria BC

Catherine Olchowy

An enthusiastic HR strategist with a wealth of experience supporting business owners and the teams they depend upon.  Bring Catherine in to get great at the people part of your business.

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