How to solve problems when you don’t know where to start.

Problem-solving can often feel overwhelming and sometimes chaotic – a complex series of moving pieces and personalities.  Imagine receiving a call from your boss.  She informs you that there is a serious issue but is confident that as the subject-matter expert, you will quickly resolve the problem.  Amid a crisis, it is always advisable to take a step back, quickly assess the situation, and ensure you completely understand the issue.  Make sure you understand the real problem before jumping into action and potentially adding additional fuel to the fire.

Start with what you see.

Quickly survey the problem, taking note of the symptoms that have been reported, who reported the issue and what is being impacted.  You will often find the symptoms aren’t very accurate and may not be relevant, but they can help point you in the right direction.  Once you have listened and observed the symptoms, survey the environment surrounding the problem, remembering that everything has a context – a physical context and a process context (the activities surrounding it).  Then, assess the situation, the impacts, implications, other people involved, etc.  You now should have an understanding of what the big picture looks like.

Validate the symptoms.

The facts and symptoms about the situation and ‘what’ happened are interesting, but you can’t begin formulating an action plan (without just taking a shot in the dark) until you understand the evidence.  This is when you validate what you have already heard, apply your knowledge about how things work, your experiences of similar situations you’ve encountered in the past and organizational wisdom.  Also, it is critical to capture what potentially could be impacted but is currently not impacted.  As you look at the big picture, it should now be more than a bunch of shapes and components – you should be able to understand and explain how the various pieces interact with each other.

Trace cause and effect

Here is where you start building confidence.  Through the first few activities, you’ve developed an understanding of situation and how the pieces of the puzzle are supposed to fit together, which enables you to go on a quest for the source of ‘why’ the situation has failed.  As you take the symptoms that were identified and trace them back through the chain of cause and effect, you will likely either encounter either an obvious ‘ah-ha!’ moment or run into a dead end.  Either of these is a sign that you’ve exposed something meaningful.  What you are looking for is the ‘true cause’ of the problem – the combination of situations, activities and events that (when combined) caused the problem to be initiated.

With perseverance, you will have identified the true cause of the problem, by developing an understanding of the what, how and why the problem occurred.  You are now ready to solve the problem.  The more diligent you are with understanding the true-root cause, the more likely you are to initiate actions that will lead to success in resolving the problem.  If you were to forego these steps, the best you could expect is to get lucky with a guess, but you are more likely to take an action that makes the situation worse.

Kepner-Tregoe has been a leader in helping companies improve their competency in problem-solving for over 60 years.  While problem-solving is often considered a management skill, decades of experience across industries has shown that leaders at all levels of the organization can benefit from the confidence that comes with understanding and solving problems.  To learn more, visit https://kepner-tregoe.com/

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