Solving problems. It can be a daunting task when faced with problems that seem insurmountable. The truth is that solving problems is an everyday thing that most of us just do and don't give much thought to. Solving problems is part of our work life whether we realize it or not. By taking control of the situation and being more aware, solving problems is something that can be very satisfying.
People tend to do three things when faced with solving problems: they get scared or uncomfortable and hope it goes away; they feel that they must come up with an answer and it has to immediately be the right answer, and they look for someone to blame. Being faced with a problem becomes a problem in and of itself. And that's a big deal because, in fact, there are always going to be problems!
There are two reasons we tend to see a problem as a problem in the first place: it has to be solved and we're not sure how to go about finding the best solution, and there will probably be conflicts about what the best solution is. Most of us prefer avoiding conflicts. We don't feel comfortable dealing with conflict so 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” and “conflict-competent”.
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 is to overcome the tendency to immediately come up with a solution. Let me say that again. The most common mistake in solving problems is trying to find a solution right away. That's 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 some steps to solving problems that you can follow.
Identify the Issues
- Get clear on what the problem really is
- Be aware that people have differing views of what a problem is
- Separate the issues from the interests
Be Aware of Everyone's Interests
- This step is critical but is generally the step missed
- Interests are the needs that you want to be satisfied by any given solution. We often ignore our true interests as we become attached to one particular solution. This is a huge mistake.
- The solution that satisfies everyone's interests is the best solution
- Use your active listening skills
- Keep the interests separate from the solutions
List the Possible Solutions
- Do some brainstorming. At The Web Scientists we use a “what's working/what's not working” approach to solving problems.
- Just list your solutions, don't evaluate them at this point.
- Don't censor any suggestions
Evaluate Your Options
- Now is the time to be brutal by going through and evaluating the options on your list
- List the pluses and minuses of each option
- Separate this evaluation from any selection of an option
Select One or More Options
- As you balance all interests, what's the best option?
- Can multiple options be bundled together for a better solution?
Document All Agreements
- This is not the time to rely upon memory
- Writing down the agreements helps you think through everything…perhaps you've missed something?
Come to an Agreement on Contingencies, Monitoring and Progress Evaluation
- In case things change, always have contingencies
- How will compliance be monitored?
- Create ways to evaluate progress
Solving problems takes time and attention. You need to be willing to slow down. Problems are like a curve in the road…handle it right and you are fine. If you go too fast there is the chance you will crash.
Working through this process is not always a strictly linear thing. You may have to cycle back to an earlier step. For example, if you're 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 you're just trying to decide where to go out for lunch, you probably don't need to go through these seven steps!
Don't worry if it feels a bit unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. You'll have lots of opportunities to practice!