…without breaking them down into issues.
Like so many other things in life, problem solving activities have an “80-20 Rule”. To correctly address problems, spend 80% on your time on the problem and 20% of your time on the solution. Most people do it the other way around.
Picture this, a business meeting where it is announced that, “Sales are down and the company is losing money”. Immediately someone in the group says, “We need to increase sales.” The group agrees and they go ahead with efforts to do that, happy that it was so easy to solve the problem.
Do you think that was a good way to solve the problem?
The folks at this meeting jumped on a knee-jerk reaction and then implemented it. Like most people they spent all of their time on the solution. “We need to increase sales.”
If they had spent more time on the problem, they might have found out that their selling costs were so high that they lost money on every sale. Increasing sales would just increase the losses!
The first step in addressing problems is to answer the question, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
In this case, what they thought was the problem, “sales are down”, was not the problem at all. The real problem was that they were losing money.
Problem diagnosis requires getting from the “simple why” (often just a symptom) to the “real why”. The real why searches out the causes of a problem. These causes usually go beyond technical reasons. Causes are best found by the repeated asking of “why” as we dig deeper and deeper into a problem.
Problem diagnosis means seeking answers to factors that could have affected or contributed to the problem. For example: When does the problem occur? Where does it occur? Who is involved in the problem? Are the people involved carefully selected, trained, and motivated? What equipment and facilities are involved? What events or conditions are connected to the problem? What were the hints of an impending problem? What calamities, crises, and/or unusual events may be contributing?
The answers to these real why’s are the issues (factors) surrounding a problem. Not all issues contribute to the problem and some don’t need to be addressed, but always assume that there can be multiple contributing issues do contribute to the problem.
Determine any constraints you may have for solutions (like the cost, legality, etc.), then analyze the issues, and come up with possible solutions. Evaluate each possible solution and select one or more. Develop a plan and implement it. Problem solved.
Remember that fixing a symptom doesn’t cure the problem. For example, an offer of a ride from a neighbor doesn’t solve the real problem of a vehicle not starting in the morning. Another example would be failing grades at school – that’s a symptom; the problem is kids not learning.
All of these steps work on addressing bigger complex problems, like failing school grades, or choosing a new job, or a business that’s losing money. But what about the small simple problems? What can we do to simplify finding solutions? There are many “shortcuts” that can be used.
Everyday Techniques like these are simple:
- Pros and Cons: Listing the advantages and disadvantages of each option, popularized by Plato and Benjamin Franklin.
- Simple Prioritization: Choosing the alternative with the highest probability-weighted utility for each alternative.
- Satisfying: using the first acceptable option found.
- Acquiesce to a person in authority or an “expert”, just following orders.
- Flipism: Flipping a coin, cutting a deck of playing cards, and other random or coincidence methods
…and of course, prayer, tarot cards, astrology, revelation, or similar methods.
One other thing to remember in problem solving – learn to differentiate between a PROBLEM and a FACT OF LIFE. “My mother has Alzheimer’s” is a fact of life. There are no solutions to facts of life, learn to adapt yourself and move on. When you encounter a fact of life, treating it like a problem will make you miserable as you search and try fruitless solutions.
On the other hand, “my mother has Alzheimer’s and she is going to need constant care” is a problem for which problem solving is needed.
I hope this brief exercise helped a lot of you in addressing problems at home or at work, even at play. In future columns I will be making references to some of these tools in addressing some big issues. Please stay tuned in.
David Derosier consults with small business on planning and marketing issues, and provides web design and hosting services through OhainWEB.com, an accredited business with the Better Business Bureau that is rated A+ by BBB. He can be reached at JDAVID@Strategy-Planning.info
This article was first published in The Orange Leader on 10 October 2018.