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July 28, 2023

Figure it out: 9 problem-solving strategies for managers

Project Management
Agnieszka Sienkiewicz

“Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here” – John “Jack” Swigert.

In 1970, the Apollo 13 crew faced a number of serious obstacles — of which the loss of oxygen, which left them with under two hours of power generation remaining. NASA Mission Control had to quickly figure out how to keep their astronauts alive, and eventually, the results of these joint problem-solving efforts by engineers on the ground allowed three astronauts to safely return to Earth. 

In life — be it private or professional — we also face challenges, perhaps even on a daily basis. Knowing how to solve problems is extremely important, so if you’re interested in a complete, end-to-end process for developing solutions, here are nine effective problem-solving strategies we put together for you.

What are problem-solving strategies?

However obvious this may sound; to solve a problem means to produce solutions, then choose the best out of your alternatives. And to find the ultimate solution, you must first produce a plan of action, or strategy. Which may be different from the way you typically go about problem-solving; nonetheless it’s quite effective. 

Just like you can find many solutions to the same problem, you can also use different problem-solving strategies with different action plans associated with them.

Importance of (using) problem-solving strategies

Resolving business challenges is an important outcome of the successful application of problem-solving strategies; but there’s more to it.

No matter the nature or magnitude of a problem, or decision you need to make, the stress can be palpable. Naturally, you want to do something about it — you want to resolve it; which is where problem-solving strategies come in. Knowing that there’s a suitable strategy to help remedy a situation can significantly reduce your anxiety and overall distress.

Another important aspect to keep in mind when it comes to problem-solving strategies is personality. We all have different personalities and aptitudes, which means we think differently. For that reason, it’s better to have several strategies to choose from, as some may resonate better than others. Consequently, these will prove more effective.

Likewise, some problem-solving strategies are more likely to help you achieve your goals when used specifically for certain situations or challenges. In other words, not every approach will work for every type of problem. Knowing at least a few different problem-solving strategies can increase your chances to find the right solution and achieve better outcomes.

And finally, problem-solving strategies promote critical thinking, creativity, and oftentimes — collaboration within or across teams. All of these are essential skills in personal and professional contexts.

Steps in the problem-solving process

When facing a business problem such as handling complex dependencies or conflicting schedules — how do you solve it? Do you grind it for days or jump straight into thinking about potential solutions?

The very process of problem-solving isn’t new; it includes a set of specific steps to guide you through the entire solution-discovery journey. Problem-solving strategies, on the other hand, reinforce this sequential approach so you can make the most out of each step.

1. Defining and analyzing the problem

The first step in problem-solving is problem analysis and definition. At first, you know what the symptoms are, but you also want to know what triggers them. So, you gather the necessary data by using your observational skills and talking to colleagues. Be mindful, however, that some of the information you will gather might be more of an opinion than a fact; make sure to differentiate between the two. The goal of this step is to formulate the problem specifically and determine the underlying cause (or causes). 

For example, your organization is struggling with high employee turnover (problem formulation). As a hiring manager, you discover that new hires often leave after the trial period, due to a poor onboarding experience and lack of adequate support (problem causes).

The process of collecting data from individual stakeholders is also important for breaking down a problem into smaller key elements. On one hand, this can get you to determine the causes of a problem; on the other hand, it will later enable you to generate more accurate solution alternatives.

Corresponding strategies and tools:

2. Generating alternative solutions

Now that you know why the problem has arisen, you want to generate possible solutions (on your own, or alongside involved individuals). For the time being, focus on the solutions alone — you can evaluate them later. The alternatives you will manage to produce should be consistent with your organizational goals, regardless of whether they’re short or long term.

Corresponding strategies and tools:

  • Algorithm
  • Mind map
  • Brainstorming
  • What-if scenarios
  • Divide and conquer
  • Means-end analysis

3. Evaluating and selecting an alternative

Once you have a list of potential solutions for your business or organizational problem, then you can pick the best alternative. Look at the solutions you and your colleagues have shortlisted, and evaluate them without bias. Which of them are relative to the goals you established, and which are most likely to produce the desired results? When selecting the alternative, consider all organizational constraints and the consequences it may bring forth. 

For example, a new solution could lead to a decrease in resource capacity due to implementing a buddy system that aims to help onboard new hires.

Corresponding strategies and tools:

  • Brainstorming
  • Decision matrix analysis

4. Implementing and monitoring new solutions

By now, you (and your colleagues) know what the real problem is, and how to remedy it. At this point, you’re ready to implement the solution and observe how the situation unfolds. Take the time to collect feedback from those affected by the solution, and seek their acceptance. 

What if the solution fails to produce the expected results? What if you encounter new challenges that will require you to change your original approach? In such a case, you’ll need to reassess the changes, then follow the problem-solving process steps (again) to create a new list of solutions, or to update the existing one.

Corresponding strategies and tools:

  • Trial and error

Effective problem solving-techniques to try

There are many different ways to approach problem-solving. Each suitable for different types of problems, or stages of the problem-solving process. The strategies you’ll find below are suggestions to help you get started. You may need to experiment with several strategies before you find a workable solution for your specific problem.

Algorithm

If you’re looking for a structured and procedural approach to problem-solving, an algorithm might be just what you need. An algorithm is a problem-solving strategy that provides you with step-by-step instructions that — if followed to the letter — can help you achieve your desired outcome. You can think of an algorithm as a cooking recipe (or function in a code) that describes instructions in high detail. An algorithm will return the same result every time you execute it.

One benefit of this strategy is that it produces very accurate results. But it might not always be the best approach to problem-solving. That’s partly due to the fact that detecting certain patterns can be incredibly time-consuming. Still, if you need to deal with a group of similar problems, algorithms can help you figure out the common denominator, and find a workable solution for these problems.

Heuristics

Heuristics is a general problem-solving strategy; opposite to the algorithmic approach as it uses intuition and (judge)mental shortcuts (the “rule of thumb”) instead of a systematic approach. For that reason, heuristic approaches are less time and energy-consuming than algorithmic problem-solving. For example, hiring managers can apply heuristics when considering a pool of candidates. By following their intuition and experience, they can quickly choose whom to offer the job to.

The four heuristic types: anchoring, availability, affect, representativeness.

In certain cases, and despite these characteristics, heuristics may not be the best way to make rational decisions. Especially, in the cases where you need to process a lot of information, work under pressure, or lack the data needed to generate a solution. Taking a shortcut might be the most tempting thing to do under these conditions; it could also send you off course.

Work backward

Working backward is a useful heuristic problem-solving strategy. To work backward means to begin solving the problem by identifying the steps needed to achieve the end result. It’s like reverse engineering; where you’re focused on a solution to a problem, instead of a software or system. For example, if the product you manage has received several negative reviews lately, you can ask yourself “What has happened which has led to this situation?” Then, you can work backward, step by step.

Kipling (5W1H) method

This strategy is about asking a series of six questions in order to understand a problem better. The questions come from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “I keep six honest serving men.” The six questions are:

  1. “What” – What is the problem?
  2. “Why” – Why is the problem important?
  3. “When” – When did the problem arise, and when do you need to solve it?
  4. “How” – How did the problem happen?
  5. “Where” – Where is the problem occurring?
  6. “Who” – Who does the problem affect?

As a manager, you can use the Kipling method to identify all relevant factors and ensure you fully understand thr problem — before you start looking for solutions.

5W1H and 5 Whys

You can use the Kipling and 5 Whys problem-solving methods interchangeably or together, because both of them help you identify existing problems. But keep in mind that there’s a significant difference between these two methods. 

The Kipling method asks about various key details regarding the problem; “Why” is just one of these questions. The 5 Whys method, on the other hand, repeats the “Why” five times. The goal is to get granular with the reasons behind the problem, asking one “Why” after another. If a problem is too complex and requires a more comprehensive analysis, you can combine both methods for a more solid outcome. This way, you get a higher chance to better understand the problem and find a solution.

The 5Whys problem solving strategy illustarted in a form of a reverted pyramid.

Trial and error

When you have several possible solutions, and would like to test them in order to see which one works best, a trial-and-error strategy can be helpful. Using this approach, you can try different solutions until you find the right one. For example, you may need to figure out how to allocate your shared resources for the upcoming project phase. By testing various setups and comparing outcomes, you can identify the best solution. We recommend using what-if scenarios that will allow you to safely carry out your tests, without impacting your original plan.

Brainstorming

The problem you face is not necessarily a problem on its own. Your team or the other managers can provide valuable hints or help with solutions that you did not even consider. Consequently, the more people you gather to help solve a problem, the more potential solutions you get to produce together. The more, the merrier. 

The brainstorming strategy not only helps overcome critical challenges, but also stimulates creativity and encourages collaboration among your colleagues.

Divide and conquer (and combine)

This problem-solving strategy is about breaking down large complex problems (“divide”) into a set of smaller, more manageable subproblems that are similar to the original problem. You look into each subproblem individually and try to solve it one by one (“conquer”). Then, you merge those solutions back into one in order to create a solution to the original, larger problem (“combine”).

A graph representing individual steps in the Divide and Conquer strategy.

Divide and conquer and Means-end analysis

Means-end analysis is a problem-solving strategy where you consider the obstacles standing between the problem state and the end-result (solution) state. In other words, it helps you get from A to B by examining the obstacles along the way and finding solutions to them. Elimination of these obstacles produces the smaller subgoals you need to achieve. And when you achieve all these subgoals, i.e., when all of the obstacles are out of your way, you’ve reached your main goal (point B, or the solution state).

The means-end analysis is a version of the divide-and-conquer strategy. The difference between the two is this: divide and conquer is recursive — when using this method, the subproblems you solve are always of the same type.  Means-end analysis, on the other hand, is more flexible and less recursive; that’s because the subproblems you’re trying to solve don’t need to be similar type-wise.

Walking the path always traveled: pitfalls to problem-solving

Problem-solving strategies are helpful, nonetheless they cannot guarantee that you’ll find the solution you seek. Why is that? What could possibly stand in the way between you and your solution?

Many things; for instance, your mindset.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Imagine yourself identifying and dismantling a problem into the tiniest particles. Then, applying the same true and tried method over and over again, expecting to achieve your goal. Instead, you’re failing to resolve the problem every time and getting stuck, running in circles. What happens in such situations is that you persist to solve a problem in the same way you did before. The only difference is that this method doesn’t seem to be working this time.

Such a mindset is called functional fixedness. It’s a state where you’re unable to see a method, object, or tool that could be used for something else than what it was designed for.

In Apollo 13 mission, ground engineers had to overcome functional fixedness and figure out how to literally fit a square peg in a round hole. Their solution to this problem involved basic materials, such as spare plastic bags, tape, and air hoses.

So, if you ever get stuck overcoming your challenge, it’s a good idea to step back and think about why your strategy isn’t working. Perhaps, there’s another, better approach you haven’t considered yet. Don’t be afraid to try different strategies or combine a few together; there’s no obviously-right or obviously-wrong way to solve problems.

Problem-solving strategies: summary

There are many different strategies you could use to solve a business problem. Typical problem-solving strategies include trial and error, applying algorithms, and using heuristics. When you need to solve a large, complex problem, it often helps to break the problem into smaller subproblems that you can then solve individually. The sum of these subsolutions can then get you to the general solution for your large problem. When trying to find a solution, be aware of major roadblocks including your very own mindset.

Also, whenever you face a problem in the workplace, keep in mind that apart from strategies, you also have a variety of tools at your disposal. While neither of them will solve the problem for you, they will help you gain the necessary insights into the situation. BigPicture PPM software will provide you with the data you need to clearly identify the problem. Then, it will let you test different solutions so you can pick the best one. And finally, it will allow you to monitor your initiative all the way through the entire project lifecycle.

Best part? BigPicture is used by NASA; but you don’t need to be a ground control engineer to benefit from it! 😉 Find out what BigPicture can do for you, get a 30-day free trial that you can start today.

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