Problem solving: techniques to get you thinking about your thinking


‘If I were given one hour to save the planet,’ Albert Einstein famously said, ‘I would spent 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.’

In today’s hectic, deadline driven world, where the ‘real’ work is perceived in the ‘doing’, it’s tempting to dive straight into a problem and look for the nearest solution. But in sticking with the status quo of your usual thinking styles, you may fail to explore creative – and more effective – solutions to the problems in your working lives. Furthermore, says Sara Parsons in the everywomanNetwork webinar ‘ Make sure you know what problem you’re trying to solve, by jumping into problem-solving mode, brainstormers often neglect to truly understand the root cause of the issue they’re attempting to deal with. Though everywomanNetwork members have clearly defined preferred thinking styles (see poll results opposite and discover more about your own style in our thinking styles quiz), as many as 75% admit that they’ve wasted time in the past by attempting to solve the wrong problem, rushing into idea generation, evaluation and implementation, having failed to diagnose the real issue at play. There are various techniques that can be used – both by individuals and groups – to help you brainstorm the real problem. In some cases it might be relevant to use each technique to road test the question you’ve identified; in other situations, one or two may be the most relevant. Take your pick from some of the tools below.

The fishbone diagram

Also called the ‘cause and effect diagram’ or the ‘root cause diagnostic’, this method is simple to use. Add your problem to the centre of the diagram (high staff turnover, for example), and then on each ‘fishbone’ throw in potential causes. One bone might be headed ‘culture’, from which you might surmise that the organisation’s recruitment procedure is what needs tackling.

The five whys?

Asking ‘why’ something has failed can be really irritating and make even the most level-headed employee defensive. Rather than asking the big why (why has this project failed? Why are we losing money?), this technique asks softer, multiple whys. A famous example of the five whys in use can be seen in the cleaning up of the Washington Monument. Its beautiful stone was getting dirtier more rapidly than neighbouring buildings, despite vigorous cleaning. Rather than jumping in and organising yet another clean-up operation, the project team asked why the stone was deteriorating. The answer was they’d been using harsher cleaning products on it. Why? Because there were lots of bird droppings. Why? The birds were attracted to the spiders in the building’s crevices. Why so many spiders? They were attracted to the insects, which in turn were attracted to the specific type of light that shone on the Monument around the clock. The solution therefore was to investigate alternative lighting, rather than investing more in cleaning products. Five whys may turn into twenty whys, but in asking those questions, the effective, long term solution will eventually emerge.

Six word dissection

Brainstorms can quickly become chaotic, as everyone in the room tackles a problem from a different angle. By taking each question one at a time, sessions can remain organised while enabling much greater focus. If there’s an issue with staff not attending departmental meetings, for example, the line of questioning might run as follows:
  • Who are the individuals/groups struggling to commit?
  • What are they doing when they’re not at the meetings?
  • Where is the meeting held and does that have any bearing on attendance?
  • When are the meetings with the best and worst attendance rates?
  • Why are individuals saying they can’t make the sessions?
  • How can we make tweaks in order to increase attendance?

Tree mapping

In the example tree map opposite, a group are brainstorming the reasons why clients are ringing customer services rather than using the wealth of information on the company website. They start one ‘branch’ of thought by looking at what issues their website might be posing for customers which are pushing them to instead make a call. On the next branch they look at why the email system might be failing customers. The simple but effective method behind tree mapping is to keep adding new schools of thought and whittle them down to the lowest common denominator until next step actions emerge.

The wish list

‘I wish I was better at presenting,’ you might say to yourself, but by focusing on a large problem, obvious, tangible solutions can be evasive. Instead break your wishes down into smaller wishes: I wish I had more confidence; I wish I had more time to plan; I wish I was better at PowerPoint; I wish I had more experience of public speaking. This simple technique breaks down an insurmountable problem into digestible, smaller, more manageable and actionable chunks.

The challenge continuum

The tools above are all about breaking problems down into their simplest form; but this still requires you and your brainstorming colleagues to challenge one another. This is where the mind-set with which you and your colleagues ‘enter the room’ is crucial. Do you have preconceived notions of how the conversation will go? Chances are these could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Are you or your colleagues tired, frustrated or unwilling to take part? These feelings and emotions will no doubt impact the quality of the problem solving. As one end of the challenge continuum we have ‘artificial harmony’. The workspace might feel an unsafe one in which to challenge or disagree, the team may not yet have bonded sufficiently to open up or for whatever reason, the room might be focused on being ‘nice’ – meaning the solution to the problem isn’t uncovered through healthy discussion and disagreement. At the extreme opposite of the scale we have ‘mean spirited personal attacks’, where individuals lean towards blame, scoffing at ideas presented, focusing on why something won’t work and scoring points – and as a result, potential solutions can be shot down before being given a chance to work. Before entering any session, take a look at your own mind-set. Is it as close as possible to the ideal challenging point? If not, what will it take to get you there?

The final word

Most organisations are thankfully tolerant to different types of thinking and creative solutions (only 11% of everywomanNetwork members say theirs are intolerant to versatility). When it comes to creative thinking, challenging your own preferred styles can open you up to a world of possible new solutions. ‘Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that can be learnt,’ said business author Edward Bono. ‘It empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities which improves teamwork, productivity, and where appropriate, profits.’

More like this on the everywomanNetwork

Workbook: Killer problem solving Quiz: what is your problem solving style? Downloadable workbook: Running brilliant brainstorms 8 golden rules for running brilliant brainstorms 7 ways to unleash your team’s creative side Quiz: Discover your thinking style


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