Everyone has a go-to response when faced with a problem. Does your mind jump directly to a solution? Perhaps you stop and reflect on the problem. Or does your body just move into action. In a word, what is your go-to response?
Sequential Problem-Solving Steps
My word is WHEN. When can we get started? When will we be done. My mind gravitates to when questions. But is that the right question to be asking? That depends on where you are in the problem-solving process.
There is a natural order to problem solving — a sequence of steps that occurs as you move from the beginning point of problem identification to the end when the problem is solved. The Enneagram informs us of a problem-solving strategy that consists of 9 steps, which I detail in chapter 2 of Teamwork 9.0.
Problem Solving 9 Steps
In a word, the nine problem-solving steps are as follows:
1 – Why?
2 – Who?
3 – What?
4 – Good?
5 – How?
6 – When?
7 – Ready?
8 – Go!
9 – Okay?
Each of us reacts differently when faced with a problem. Most often the reaction takes the form of a question — for instance, what should we do? — though for some the reaction is action and for others a feeling. We all want to play to our strengths which leads to a natural tendency to skip steps. The benefit of using a systematic problem-solving methodology is that it helps avoid skipping steps and, thereby, increases the overall effectiveness of the solution. Systematically going through all nine steps will yield the best results.
Problem Solving Methodology
1 – WHY? – The starting point of problem solving is identifying that there is a problem—why something is wrong and why it needs to be corrected. Asking these questions of multiple people, you will discover various perspectives on the problem. Recording these problem perspectives and describing how things should be once the problem is solved informs the WHY of problem solving and establishes the problem-solving objectives. The WHY serves as the purpose of your problem-solving effort.
2 – WHO? – The problem necessarily impacts someone, especially problem solving in business. The second step is determining who. Who does the problem affect? Who can help solve the problem? Who may be affected by the solution? These people form the group of stakeholders who join you on your problem-solving journey.
3 – WHAT? – There are often numerous problem-solving approaches. You will generate ideas, and these ideas comprise what you will consider as possible solutions to the problem. Enlisting a diverse group of people to join you in idea brainstorming is how your problem-solving initiative can lead to new ideas. In this step, problem solving and creativity intersect.
4 – GOOD? – Every idea will generate an emotional response—your first reaction. This reaction happens immediately, without thinking. That idea is great! Or, that idea sucks! This is the step in which each idea is run through your emotional filter to eliminate bad ideas and retain good ones. If you wonder whether problem solving is a soft skill, step 4, which requires an examination of our emotional reactions, implies that the answer is yes!
5 – HOW? – Any promising idea needs to be vetted, and this is the step where you analyze and determine how an idea will actually solve the problem. Ideas are run through a logical filter, out of which comes the most promising ones—your Plan A and Plan B. Step 5 is the time in problem solving for analytical skills and critical thinking. While data analysis may have been required in step 1 to understand the problem, it may also be required in step 5 to assess the efficacy of the proposed solution.
6 – WHEN? – This is the planning step in problem solving, when you sequence all the required actions into a plan. You take all the information collected in step 5 and synthesize that into an action plan that achieves your problem-solving objectives. In short, WHO does WHAT by HOW and WHEN to address WHY.
7 – READY? – Once your plan is formulated you need to check in with all stakeholders to ensure everyone is on board. Depending on the scope of the problem, you will need everyone’s support, time—energy—resources, in many dimensions, physically—mentally—emotionally, to execute the plan and solve the problem. If you’ve kept everyone in the loop up to now, you will be in good shape to get the buy-in you need to proceed. Step 7 is the final decision-making point before moving into action.
8 – GO! – Finally you get to action. This is the step in the problem-solving process where you actually solve the problem! Up to this point it has been all talk. Now you execute the plan and achieve the goal—problem solved!
9 – OKAY? – After step 8 you may think you’re finished, but there’s one last step: the final check-in with all stakeholders to ensure that the problem was actually solved to everyone’s satisfaction. If you took the time in step 1 to document the goals and outcomes, those details will serve as your checklist. Sometimes the unexpected happens and new problems arise in step 9—that takes you back to step 1.
People form teams to solve problems, which is why problem solving is important in the workplace. These nine steps help you organize your problem-solving team to systematically address the problem.
Notice that eight of the nine steps can take the form of a question? Questions stimulate conversations in which your team can share perspectives and discuss ideas. Questions form the basis of the Socratic method, a technique to stimulate dialogue, creativity and critical thinking. Organizing questions in this nine-step sequence will promote the conversations that will guide you and your team on your problem-solving journey.
Problem-Solving Skills and Leadership
What are your problem-solving skills? I am a planner, so my favorite problem-solving step is step 6. Each of us are naturally drawn towards the steps in problem solving that play to our natural gifts and strengths. Having a diverse workgroup with a range of skills makes your problem-solving team more effective—everyone using their unique strengths as your team moves through each problem-solving step. During the step that overlaps with your particular strengths, you can assume a leadership role for the team.
What are your go-to problem solving words, and how are you delivering problem-solving leadership for your team? Answering these questions, you may discover your own personal purpose in problem solving.