How to… be an effective problem solver

You only have to key in the term ‘problem-solving’ into the search field of’s job section to discover how basic a skill requirement it
is for employers. Yet research by the Chartered Management Institute last year
revealed more than three-quarters of employers believe that graduates lack
problem-solving know-how, which affects the performance of young executives.

Even the most successful organisations are beset by difficulties of varying
degrees, which if dealt with inadequately, can magnify, leading to
inefficiencies, low employee morale and the loss of millions. Problem-solving
is not an inherent talent but one that can be learned and, once appropriated,
will earn you kudos in senior management circles. If you become a particularly
adroit problem-solver, it could well boost your earning capacity or secure you
a seat at the strategy table.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, but following a template such as the one
outlined below should always lead to a better, if not, the best solution.

Where do I start?

First off, identify and then clearly define the problem and its impact – a
concise physical description will allow other stakeholders to corroborate your
viewpoint. Use only facts, not supposition when detailing the problem. Failure
to document it accurately may mean you attempt to provide a solution to the
wrong problem – a meticulous guide to the delineation of a problem can be found
in the New Rational Manager by Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe.

Investigate probable causes

Once defined, the next phase is to thoroughly investigate the causes so you
don’t end up merely treating the symptoms. Start at the place the problem was
first noticed. When did the problem first arise? What has changed since then:
has new machinery been installed or new working arrangements introduced?

Collect as much related information as possible. Where several interlinking
systems give rise to a large number of suspect factors, assess each one
separately to reduce the number of variables to a manageable amount when
drawing up a list of probable causes. Once you have interpreted all the data
you will then need to devise a means of testing and cross-checking for the root

Identify workable solutions

Having diagnosed the cause, five key questions will form the basis of how
the problem will be solved: who, what, where, when and how? There is unlikely
to be a single correct way of solving a problem, so it is crucial to
specifically detail the desired outcome and how the improvement will be
measured. Be realistic – any solution must have feasible time and budget

Weigh up the consequences of implementing each solution and rank them
accordingly. Set a level of priority to the task-based on its adverse impact.
Decide upon start and fulfilment dates, whether to assign an individual or team
to the task and whether it will be tackled on a full- or part-time basis. If
it’s full-time, you may wish to use an off-site location to minimise the risk
of disruption. Monitor and review the situation to affirm the solution is

What else can assist me in my quest?

There’s no shortcut to developing your analytical thinking, but it is widely
recognised that an MBA will improve your problem-solving skills and ability to
make complex decisions. Methodologies such as Force Field Analysis, JM Juran’s
remedial or diagnostic journey, and W Edward Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle
which tackles problem-solving in four phases are worthwhile. Software
programmes such as Synectics ThoughtPath can also help bring order to your

Remember HR has a dual role in problem solving

Unless a team is entirely dysfunctional, groups will stand more chance of
solving problems successfully than individuals. In addition to developing their
own problem-solving abilities, therefore, HR professionals have a major role to
play in bringing structure to problem-solving procedures elsewhere within an
organisation. This could involve facilitating brainstorming sessions, creating
teams and fostering temporary dynamic relationships to help solve a problem and
making sure the solution is implemented.

Where can I get more info?


– Effective Problem Solving, Steven Kneeland, How To Books, £9.99, ISBN

– Problem Solving in Groups, Mike Robson, Gower Publishing, £25, ISBN

– New Rational Manager, Charles H Kepner and Benjamin B Tregoe,
Kepner-Tregoe, £38.31, ISBN 0936231017

– Change Activist – Make Big Things Happen Fast, Carmel McConnell, Momentum,
£9.99, ISBN 1843040271


Home page of ThoughtPath, an idea generation software programme developed by
Synectics Inc. Its six modules include Guided problem-solving and
Problem-solving, as well as features to evaluate and refine concepts. It can
also be used for human resource planning.

The online site of training provider The Mind Gym offers a host of mini online
exercises dubbed ‘workouts’ to stimulate your thinking in areas such as
creative problem-solving, and dealing with information and difficulties. The
company also offers 90-minute training programmes delivered at the client’s

If you only do five things…

1 Clearly define the problem and its

2 Collect all relevant information

3 Define the goal to be achieved

4 Monitor the consequences

5 Study for an MBA

Expert’s view: Carmel McConnell on problem-solving

Carmel McConnell is an expert on leadership development and the social role
of business and author of Change Activist – Make Big Things Happen Fast and
Soultrader – Find Purpose and You’ll Find Success. She also founded and runs
the child poverty initiative Magic Breakfast. (

Do you have a preferred method of solving problems?

My preferred method of solving problems comes from project management and
total quality management (now evolved into Six Sigma) that follow simple steps.
It is also a good idea to overcome that pesky ego/pride thing and save time by
asking colleagues for help. Many problems also reoccur in the workplace – so
save precious time by investigating whether there is any history of the

What are the characteristics of effective problem-solvers?

Creative people often make great problem solvers. But it is important to
distinguish between problems that require a logical question sequence, and
those that require a more creative approach. They tend to be either:

– Action oriented: tackling problems before they become monsters

– Persistent: keep going even when the key answer person goes on holiday for
five weeks

– Feedback-rich: involving others in creating an answer that works for

– Happier: they deal with stuff and move on.

What’s your assessment of HR’s problem-solving capabilities?

HR is best at problem-solving as change activists – people taking action
outside their comfort zone, in line with their beliefs – seeking to consult
with an eye on the business results, not everyone’s feelings.

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