Problem Solving and Decision Making

Guidelines and 'go to's'


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The Rational Approach

Much of what people do is solve problems and make decisions. Often, they are "under the gun", stressed and very short for time. Consequently, when they encounter a new problem or decision they must make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. It's easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, it's often useful to get used to an organized approach to problem solving and decision making. Not all problems can be solved and decisions made by the following, rather rational approach. However, the following basic guidelines will get you started. Don't be intimidated by the length of the list of guidelines. After you've practiced them a few times, they'll become second nature to you -- enough that you can deepen and enrich them to suit your own needs and nature.

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Define the problem

This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the problem is. Instead, seek to understand more about why you think there's a problem.
Define the problem: (with input from yourself and others). Ask yourself and others, the following questions:

  • What can you see that causes you to think there's a problem?
  • Where is it happening?
  • How is it happening?
  • When is it happening?
  • With whom is it happening? (HINT: Don't jump to "Who is causing the problem?" When we're stressed, blaming is often one of our first reactions. To be an effective manager, you need to address issues more than people.)
  • Why is it happening?

l Write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of:

"The following should be happening, but isn't ..." or 

"The following is happening and should be: 

 As much as possible, be specific in your description, including what is happening, where, how, with whom and why. - Sample 1 for three columns

Defying complex problems

If the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating steps 1-7 until you have descriptions of several related problems. - Sample 2 for three columns

Verify understanding of the problems

It helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with a peer or someone else. - Sample 3 for three columns

Prioritise the problems

If you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then prioritize which ones you should address first.

Tips to get started

  • Understand your role in the problem:
  • Look at potential causes for the problem
  • Write down what your opinions and what you've heard from others.
  • Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem
  • Select an approach to resolve the problem
  • Plan the implementation of the best alternative (this is your action plan) image and text block

Let's do it!

  • Carefully consider "What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?"
  • What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
  • How much time will you need to implement the solution? Write a schedule that includes the start and stop times, and when you expect to see certain indicators of success.
  • Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
  • Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your action plan.
  • Communicate the plan to those who will involved in implementing it and, at least, to your immediate supervisor.
  • Monitor implementation of the plan
  • Monitor the indicators of success: 

If the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider: Was the plan realistic? Are there sufficient resources to accomplish the plan on schedule? Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan? Should the plan be changed?

Verify if the problem has been resolved or not.

One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to resume normal operations in the organization. 

Lastly, consider "What did you learn from this problem solving?" Consider new knowledge, understanding and/or skills.