Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes


Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

Laurence J Peter

Chances are you are here because you have a problem that is currently on your To-Do list, maybe even looming large at the top.

You have probably already tried to solve it or make a decision as to what needs to be done, and not had much success.

So what do you do?

You have to do something, even if it is just to make the decision not to take any action.

Where do you start?

What do you do next?

This topic will help you to step back from a problem so you can get it into context, and then it will help you to see a clear set of steps that form a process that will help you to work your way to a solution.

Some problems are simple and stand-alone: in a school maths exercise or a cryptic crossword clue, for example, there is a right answer and there are wrong answers. In the real world, there may be an unstable environment, or far more factors to consider, which may render any solution right or wrong on a sliding scale. For example, if the problem you are struggling with is deciding which car to buy, these are just some of the things you might have to consider:

  1. Fuel – petrol is cheaper per unit but diesel does better mileage, so which should I go for?
  2. Seats – there are only two of us now, but will there be more in the near future?
  3. Road Tax – at present, this car falls into band X, but might the government change the banding?
  4. Re-sale value – at the moment it is quite good, but will Jeremy Clarkson critique the car on Top Gear, so its resale value plummets to that of an old stale sandwich?
  5. Image – am I, (or my spouse/partner) prepared to be seen at the office car park/pub/school gates in a Skoda/Kia/Vauxhall?

As you can see, there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions and today’s best answer could be a total disaster tomorrow, because neither you, nor I, nor even Jeremy Clarkson, know what he is going to say next month on the TV!

Problems? What problems?

One final word before we get into the topic in earnest. If you are a manager and you think you don’t have any problems in your organisation, think again...

Only four per cent of an organisation’s problems are known by top management, nine per cent are known by middle management, 74 per cent by supervisors and 100 per cent by employees.

Sidney Yoshida

In the UK, there was a TV documentary at the turn of the millennium called ‘Back to the floor’. The basic idea was to take senior people and make them go back and do a shop-floor job for a week to see what problems affected the bulk of their people.

In Episode 4 of the first series, General Sir Hew Pike became a junior officer in the Armoured Corps. To his amazement, he discovered that the single biggest ‘problem’ wasn’t the million-pound tank, or the difficulties of battlefield communication, and it wasn’t the darkness or the discipline... It was the shoddy quality of the standard issue trousers!

Do I need a method to solve my problem?

Perhaps you are wondering whether you should be getting on with solving your particular problem, rather than bothering about some long-winded method of solving it. Well, if your problem really is that simple, then yes, just go solve it... but

  • The ‘method’ and tools suggested here aren’t that long-winded
  • Your problem may look simple but there may be more to the problem and the solution than meets the eye; this topic will help you to be sure
  • ‘Ready, aim, fire!’ or ‘Fire! Ready? Aim?’