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7 problem-solving strategies to overcome project hurdles

Problem Solving Strategy
What are problem-solving strategies?
The four essential steps to problem-solving
Seven powerful problem-solving strategies
1The trial-and-error approach
2The 5 Whys
3Problem tree analysis
4SWOT analysis
5Means-end analysis
6Consult an expert
7Work from experience
Supplemental strategies for optimal problem-solving
Final thoughts

Unexpected problems are unavoidable in business. Whether it’s a workplace conflict between two coworkers or a sudden change in industry regulations, problem-solving strategies and skills are crucial if you want to be successful.

Each industry and individual career has its own set of unique challenges that require different approaches. The trick is to have a fully loaded problem-solving toolkit ready to go when problems arise.

In this article, we’ll break down the problem-solving process and then dive into seven of the most powerful problem-solving strategies.

What are problem-solving strategies?

Problem-solving strategies help you break down, analyze and resolve problems. They take you beyond obvious answers and help you find the best solution to your specific problem.

Whether your problem is a business challenge, personal conflict or technical work issue, problem-solving strategies help replace random guesswork with detailed blueprints.

In sales and marketing, problem-solving strategies are used as guidelines to figure out the best way to resolve industry challenges. These strategies can be put in place ahead of time so that when fires arise, you have the tools required to put them out.

Different problem-solving strategies are designed for different types of problems. While one problem requires a strategy that uses creative thought and experimentation, another problem might require a heavily analytical approach.

Before we dive into specific strategies, let’s take a look at the foundations of good problem-solving.

The four essential steps to problem-solving

To solve a problem, you need to identify it, conceptualize solutions, decide on the best solution and then put the solution into action.

While all problem-solving strategies approach these steps differently, each step is integral to the process, so let’s take a look at the four steps in detail.

1. Identify and define the problem

To solve a problem effectively, you need to know exactly what it is. Trying to solve a vague problem is like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it. Any solutions you implement will be based on guesswork and probably won’t solve the problem in its entirety.

To identify your problem, remember:

  • Clarify with a statement. It’s far easier to solve a clear problem. Use journalistic questioning (who, what, where, when, why and how) to clarify the problem as far as possible. Then create a problem statement that defines your problem in simple terms.

  • Break the problem down. Problems are often complex with a lot of distracting information. The trick is to identify key parts of the problem and, if necessary, break it down into smaller problems that you can solve individually.

  • Visualize the problem. If the problem you’re dealing with is abstract or particularly complex, it can help to try to build a mental picture of it. For example, if your problem is with your sales software, visually map out the elements of the program and how you use it. This lets you see each step and pinpoint where issues may originate.

Example: Your team’s sales productivity is lower than it should be. You investigate and realize that your sales process is disorganized, causing opportunities to slip through the cracks. You break the problem down to look at each part of the process and find that your sales reps don’t have a standardized way of tracking customer interactions.

2. Brainstorm possible solutions

With the problem clearly defined, your next step is to generate an exhaustive list of potential solutions. The purpose of this step is to work out everything you could possibly do so that you can narrow it down later.

Here are some tips for effective brainstorming:

  • If you’re working with a team, have them brainstorm ideas before the meeting. Prior to the brainstorming meeting, provide background information so everyone has some ideas ready by the time you meet and you can get to a solution faster.

  • Include key stakeholders. Who does the problem mainly affect? This is the group of people you should include in the solution-finding process, as they will have the deepest understanding of the problem.

  • Include every solution and narrow them down later. Begin by getting as many ideas written down as possible. This will get the creative juices flowing and help you consider all angles to develop a more effective solution.

Example: You send out your findings about the gaps in the sales process in advance and ask each sales team member to bring a few proposed solutions to share. During the meeting, you set a ground rule that you won't discuss or critique ideas until they’re all on the table. By the end, a series of solutions are suggested, including introducing new tools to track the customer journey, automate repetitive tasks and set follow-up reminders.

3. Decide on a single solution

Now that you have a list of solutions, it’s time to decide which are likely to be the most effective. To do this, you need to evaluate each in order until you have a short list of promising solutions.

To help evaluate your solutions, consider whether:

  • The solution will achieve your desired outcomes without causing additional issues

  • The solution aligns with your organizational goals

  • The solution is affordable and realistic with your current resources and constraints

This step is often the most difficult and requires effective decision-making abilities in addition to problem-solving skills. Often, there will be several solutions that vary in their projected cost, effectiveness and difficulty to implement and you’ll need to take all this into account when making a decision.

Example: Based on your brainstorming session, you decide that the best solution is to invest in a customer relationship management (CRM) system. This will allow you to set up a consistent process and will easily pay for itself in increased productivity. The CRM’s reporting features will also provide greater insight into your sales team’s performance, helping you improve processes further based on what’s working.

4. Implement the solution

Finally, it’s time to put the solution in place. Depending on the complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve, this may require additional steps. For example, you might need to develop a detailed action plan for several team members and then monitor their effectiveness going forward.

To ensure that your solution remains effective:

  • Schedule regular feedback meetings. Regular feedback from the people closest to the problem will help you gauge whether the solution has been effective and how and when you may need to make adjustments over time.

  • Decide on key metrics before implementing the solution. Which metrics will tell you whether your solution is working? For example, if your problem is tech-related, you could judge whether the solution worked based on how many IT requests come in each month. Determine what you’ll need to measure upfront.

  • Don’t be afraid to try again. If your solution didn’t work, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Get your short list of possible solutions out again and reevaluate them based on what you’ve learned. You might find that another solution works better now that you have more data.

Example: You invest in a CRM solution for your team. A week after onboarding your team, you meet to discuss how the software is working for your team. Based on the discussion, you discover ways to optimize your sales process further.

Seven powerful problem-solving strategies

The type of problem you’re facing will determine how you approach each step in the problem-solving process. Different problems require different creative thinking, critical thinking and brainstorming techniques to come to a solution.

To help you sort out your approach, here are seven different strategies you can use to tackle different kinds of problems:

1. The trial-and-error approach

Trial-and-error is a step-by-step problem-solving approach that’s most effective for problems with many possible solutions. As you test each solution rapidly in order, you’ll find the best fit as quickly as possible.

For this reason, trial-and-error problem-solving is incredibly useful in fields like tech support.

For example, imagine your internet connection drops out. There could be more than one possible cause for this, so quickly running through a checklist of solutions (like checking if your provider is down and restarting the router) is the most effective method.

However, when you’re dealing with large, serious issues, the trial-and-error approach is tantamount to guesswork and may introduce more problems than it fixes.

2. The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys process is a systematic problem-solving method with a simple premise: Keep asking “Why?” until you discover the root cause of an issue.

In good problem-solving, people will often try to solve a surface-level issue without investigating any deeper. The problem many surface-level problems are themselves caused by prior problems that went unchecked.

The 5 Whys process helps uncover these root causes. It also provides a framework for you to work through more complex problems. With the framework in place, it’s much easier to develop a plan to solve each part of the problem in turn.

How to use the 5 Whys:

  1. Write down the surface-level problem.

  2. Ask why the problem has occurred and write the answer below the original problem.

  3. If the answer isn’t the root cause of the problem, repeat step 2 until you find the root (five times is usually all it takes, hence the name).

Here’s what this looks like in practice:

The overarching problem: You aren’t generating enough sales leads.

Why #1: Your website isn’t receiving enough traffic.

Why #2: Your website isn’t optimized for sales lead generation.

Why #3: You don’t have any landing pages or effective calls-to-action (CTAs).

Why #4: You haven’t allocated enough of your marketing budget to hire an in-house marketer or agency.

Once you find the root cause, you can easily develop a solution by working backward. In this example, you can clearly see that a potential solution to the overarching problem is to invest in a role that can drive website optimization for lead generation.

3. Problem tree analysis

Problem tree analysis is the process of mapping out the causes and effects of a problem. The causes become the roots of the tree, while the consequences become the branches. Once mapped out, the tree can be inverted to become a solution tree.

Here’s how a problem tree might look for a company struggling to move prospects past the sales demo in their sales process:

Problem Tree

This format helps break a problem down into manageable chunks so you can prioritize key objectives. Here’s how to use problem tree analysis:

  1. Identify and write down the problem. Write it in the center of a piece of paper in negative form (for example, “sales process stall after on-site demos”). This will be the “trunk” of the tree and is the focal issue.

  2. Work out the causes of the problem. Write these below the problem and use arrows to connect them – these are the “roots” of the problem tree. Dig deeper to find whether each cause has further causes (you can use the 5 Whys process for this).

  3. Write down the consequences of the problem above the cause. These are the “branches” and connect to the “trunk” in the same way that the “roots” do.

  4. Analyze the tree to ensure it’s complete. If you’re certain that everything is covered, highlight the most serious causes and consequences, as well as the ones that are the easiest to address.

  5. Create a solution (or objective) tree. Flip all negatives into positives. For example, the problem “sales process stall after on-site demo” would become the desired outcome “on-site demos help close deals”. Replace each cause and consequence with its positive counterpart to see how to correct the problem. Turning root causes into root solutions quickly establishes solution starting points.

  6. Double-check your solution tree. Make sure each of your solutions is clear and realistic and there are no gaps between causes or consequences.

  7. Implement a solution. Select your preferred solution and begin to work toward it using the solution tree as your blueprint.

4. SWOT analysis

SWOT analysis is a strategic planning and sales management technique that can also be used as an effective problem-solving strategy.

Start by identifying the problem and coming up with a list of solutions. You can then use SWOT analysis to determine which solution is most suitable for your situation:

  • What are its strengths? Why is this solution the best fit for the problem at hand? How does it solve the problem better than other solutions might?

  • What are its weaknesses? Are there any ways this solution is lacking? Can you do anything to remove or strengthen those weaknesses?

  • Does it open up any opportunities? Does this solution provide any further benefits or opportunities?

  • Does it introduce any threats? Are there any risks involved with this solution? Could it backfire in any way?

This will help you compare solutions and choose the best one.

This approach works best with complex problems that have multiple possible solutions as it helps you consider their potential impact within your organization.

5. Means-end analysis

Means-end analysis is a problem-solving strategy that involves working out what you need to do (the means) to get to a certain outcome (the end).

You start by defining both your current situation and your ideal situation. You then determine solutions to get from one to the other.

For example, say your problem is that you want to increase sales performance. Your starting point is your current sales metrics while the outcome (end) is the number of sales you want to reach.

Then, develop a list of likely obstacles that might prevent you from reaching your goal and devise solutions to overcome each.

In the above example, you might find that a competitor is offering better deals on their products. You can then devise the solution of creating a new sales promotion or focusing your messaging on a unique attribute of your product.

6. Consult an expert

While this isn’t a creative problem-solving methodology, it is effective.

When problems arise that are completely outside of your expertise, attempting to solve them yourself is often time-consuming and costly. Most organizations simply don’t have the time or resources to create detailed strategies for complex, highly specific problems.

In many industries, there are expert consultants you can hire to help you solve your issues in a fraction of the time that it would take you on your own.

You wouldn’t attempt to replace your home’s hot water system with no experience in plumbing, you’d call in an expert. Sometimes it’s best to approach complex problems with the same mentality.

7. Work from experience

Use your experience with similar or related past problems to work out a solution based on a calculated guess. Working from a framework or strategy you’ve already established (such as an algorithm or formula, often called a heuristic approach), is a mental shortcut that helps you come up with answers quickly.

For example, say a previous organization you worked for reduced customer complaints by having sales reps follow up with customers within one week of purchase.

When your current company has an urgent need to improve customer feedback, you draw from your experience and propose implementing rapid follow-up. The team then compares the solution with your current problem to gauge whether it might help in this case, too.

Heuristics are a quick way to get to a solution, and though it may not be the optimal final solution, this is a helpful approach when you need a fast fix.

Supplemental strategies for optimal problem-solving

Here’s a list of general strategies that can be applied to any problem-solving technique to help you devise a better solution in less time.

  • Don’t reject any ideas (at first). Fully consider your options when coming up with a solution. Many solutions could work, but some will be quicker, cheaper or more effective than others. Likewise, team members may hold back potential solutions for fear of immediate rejection. Instead, list them all at first and narrow them down later.

  • Set a deadline. Some problems are tedious to solve so they get put on the back burner. To keep easily fixed issues from remaining on hold indefinitely, set a deadline. Establishing a stopping point will increase the chances that you’ll find a solution within the time frame.

  • Introduce a mediator. If you have a sensitive issue like a personal conflict between two employees, it can help to introduce a neutral third party. A mediator can help reduce tensions and approach the conflict from an unbiased perspective.

  • Drop the assumptions. Assumptions can be one of the biggest obstacles to successful problem-solving. If you’re biased toward a particular solution or have unfounded presumptions about particular constraints, you may pass over effective solutions.

  • Reframe the problem as an opportunity. If you approach every problem with a negative mindset, you’ll think of the solution as an unwanted burden or cost. Instead, try to think of the problem as a challenge or opportunity. When you see it as a chance to improve your results and further your business, you’ll be eager to implement solutions.

  • Distance yourself from the problem. Problem-solving can require intense discussions and deep critical thought. It can help to distract yourself from the issue for a while and then return with a fresh mind. Instead of dwelling on a problem, try sleeping on it. You might find that your mind is open to new ideas when you return.

Final thoughts

Problems are a constant when you’re running a business. The key to success is preparation. With the right tools and problem-solving methodologies, nothing can stop you.

Look for strategies that address your specific problems and don’t forget to celebrate when you crack a tough problem.

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