How to become a strategic problem solver in 5 steps

Eddie Kennedy / July 2020 / Industry Perspectives
A line drawing illustrates problem solving. A man with black hair adds the final piece to a life-sized jigsaw puzzle. A green checkmark hovers over the W-shaped puzzle to indicate its completion.

A version of this tutorial originally appeared in the free Primer app.

Problem solving is an underrated talent. It helps you make clear decisions during turbulent, overwhelming times, and many experts identify it as a vital soft skill for job seekers post-pandemic.

To develop your problem-solving acumen, use a structured approach that focuses on the why, what, and how of your issue. Let’s break it down by asking five questions that will serve as a step-by-step guide.

Question 1: Why should I care about this problem?

Write a problem statement, which is a few short sentences describing an issue you’re facing that also affects your audience. Use specific, quantifiable details. Instead of, “We lose money each year due to quality issues,” a better statement would be, “In 2019, we lost $1 million due to quality errors. That’s 5% of our overall revenue.”

You don’t want to define a problem so big that you lack resources to solve it or get so specific that you miss the chance to have a greater impact. Also, avoid prematurely adding in a solution, like “We need to hire a quality assurance consultant.” Solutions come later.

Question 2: What does success look like?

Set an objective that defines what you want to achieve and key results to know when you’ve achieved it. Your objective should focus on a goal, not a solution. “Make our website an intuitive and enjoyable experience for visitors,” is an objective, but “Hire 5 UX designers,” is a solution. Then define measurable key results so you know for sure when you’ve achieved your goal. “Get increased click-throughs,” is vague, but you’ll know when you “Increase click-throughs by 30%.”

Question 3: How might I solve this problem?

Now it’s time to brainstorm potential solutions. Start by finding out as much as you can about your problem. Find out if there’s available research on problems like yours, and look to “parallel worlds” outside your industry where a similar issue has been addressed before.

If you’re holding a group brainstorm, choose one person as the moderator, and others as timekeeper and notetaker. Then brainstorm as many solutions as possible that might address your problem and help you reach your objective and key results. Tell everyone to be expansive in their thinking: Come up with both big and small ideas without self-editing.

Once you have a list of potential solutions, put them in a solution tree to help organise your goals and how you’ll get there (your strategy). Start by writing down your objective. For the sake of an easy example, let’s say your objective is “Increase product revenue.” Create branches from each objective that list solutions you brainstormed, like “Sell more of the same products,” and “Start selling new products.”

Solution tree

A solution tree with 1 objective: increase product revenue; 2 potential solutions: sell more of the same products and sell more new products; and 3 strategies: attract new customers in EMEA, sell more to existing customers, expand to mobile.

Question 4: How should I actually solve the problem?

A prioritisation map helps you winnow your ideas to decide in which ones you should invest effort. Make a graph with a vertical axis labeled “impact” and a horizontal axis labeled “effort.” Then plot out all your potential solutions on the graph.

Prioritisation map

A graph with a vertical axis labeled “impact” and a horizontal axis labeled “effort.” Quadrants inside the axes are labeled 1 Quick wins, 2 Main focus, 3 When there is time, 4 Discard idea.

High-impact and high-effort solutions will likely be the main focus of your work. Ones that are high impact and low effort are quick wins, and good for building stakeholder confidence. Low-impact and low-effort solutions should be deprioritised and only focused on when you have some free time. Low-impact and high-effort solutions are probably not worth your time.

Question 5: How can I take action?

Make a simple plan to solve your problem, avoiding unnecessary detail. You can use an action tracker, which can be a spreadsheet that breaks down who does what and when. In the first column, put all the actions that make up your problem-solving steps. In the second column, note who is responsible for each action and when it should be done.

Action tracker

Illustration of tracker. The first column is labeled Action and has gray lines as if there is text below it. The second column is labeled Owner and has people icons below the header. The third and fourth columns are called Due date and Status.

Discuss and agree on task ownership and due dates with the people responsible so that everyone is on the same page. Share your action tracker with the group and regularly review it together to make sure due dates are met.

Remember that no matter how well you plan, things will change and your plan will have to change too. Be prepared to modify it so you can stay on track and achieve your goals.

Problem solving doesn’t need to be complicated. By following the right steps, you can avoid jumping into solution mode too quickly. Just think of the structure “why, what, and how,” and you’ll start to see your problems in a new way.

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