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Knowing How to Manage Means Knowing How to Solve Problems

An article contributed

by Drake Beam Morin, the global leader in strategic human resource solutions


Knowing How to Manage Means Knowing How to Solve Problems

Anyone who has been in a management position even briefly knows that easily eighty percent of your job is handling problems as they arise. The most effective leader will seek out problems before they occur. But effective problem solving requires more than just the ability to anticipate problems and willingness to take charge and offer solutions. Problem solving is a complex process.

The first step towards effective problem solving is admitting that there are such things as problems, not just "challenges." Strong leaders learn this quickly. It's good to think of a problem as your opportunity to exercise certain skills and thus challenge yourself, but problem is an old word with definite meanings that apply to work, home and many other facets of life. For the sake of your own gratification it's good to remember that some things you've had to solve in the past were real problems. They were not solutions waiting to happen; they required hard work and at least some methodical thinking on your part, and it was not a foregone conclusion that you would find a solution.

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving is a process involving the coordination of knowledge, experience, attitude, intuition, and abilities. By generating a variety of options, the process develops a solution to address and eliminate an existing problem within an organization. It may involve one person, or a team of individuals under your charge, or fellow managers, with varying skills and talents collaborating to find a solution.

Remember that every problem is unique. Situational variables surrounding problems are different. Problems that may appear similar at first, when examined more closely reveal themselves to be quite different due to differences in time, place, conditions, and individuals involved. Dealing with routine problems in the same way is a mistake. It can create still more problems.

Responses to Avoid when Faced with a Problem

  • The Informal Response. This simply means applying the same actions to similar problems. This usually results in treating the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself.

  • Appealing to Authority. That is, following an expert's advice automatically, without evaluating the appropriateness of that advice. Beware! The decision to bow to an expert's advice can happen before you know it, out of haste or inexperience. Remember, usually the expert is not responsible for the outcome, you are.

  • "A Priori" Reasoning. This occurs when the most obvious or superficial solution is chosen with the assumption that it must be the correct solution. If a solution appears obvious to you, it may be because that solution affords you some special benefit you yourself are not entirely aware of.

The Four Steps of Problem Solving

Analyze the Situation
First, gather all pertinent information. There are three types of information: essential, helpful, and useless. Essential information is that information you must have in order to fully understand the problem. Helpful information is that which aids you in getting a firmer grasp on the problem but is not critical to your understanding of it. Useless information is those facts that might appear important but in fact only distract you from the true nature of the problem.

To determine the true nature of the problem, ask yourself these questions: What is the significance of the problem's impact on the organization? Where is the problem located? What time frame is involved?

Generate Options
There are two methods of generating options to solve a problem: process-based and creative visualization. The process-based method can involve any or all of the following techniques.

  1. Listing (an organized list of known facts surrounding the problem that gives you a sense of what kind of information you need).

  3. Flow charts (a graphical representation of a series of questions and answers following a "yes" or "no," or "if...then" logic).

  5. Frequency of distribution (questions that address aspects of the problem that make it different from the normal situation).

  7. Mapping, charting, patterning (writing down known facts and looking for connections among them).

  9. Deconstructing (breaking the problem down into smaller parts).

Creative visualization can involve such techniques as brainstorming (a group of people generating possible solutions without regard to logic or attention to critical detail), simplifying (removing a problem from its larger sphere and relocating it on a smaller scale; for example, a problem that spreads over several departments is confined to one), exaggerated objectives (seeing the situation in an ideal state and looking for solutions as if there were no outside constraints), and new perspectives (bringing in someone from outside the situation, who stand a better chance of seeing what those in the midst of the problem are missing).

Select the Best Option
In seeking the best option among those generated, you should look for a balance between the ideal and the feasible. This means making compromises between certain criteria: the quickest, the easiest, least expensive, and that which suits a given time span.

To arrive at such a balance, first remove all obvious "no's" from your list of options. Do not consider any solutions until all options have been generated. Also, be aware of "rules of thumb," or, the way things are usually done in the organization. Such rules can sometimes prevent you from choosing the best option. Rank your options. And finally, consider the consequences of your best options.

Implement your Option
Always be aware that once an option is chosen, it isn't simply a matter of plugging it in and standing back to see what happens. You need to first look for weak spots in the planned option and try to anticipate problems with the solution based on your knowledge of the weak spots. Also, try testing your solution for simplicity. The first options generated are usually complicated. Try to simplify them. Look for ways of combining certain aspects of the solution. Employees directly involved in the workings of your planned solution can be valuable help in seeking out these possible combinations, as well as looking for ways to make the solution more cost-effective. Be sure to work out all the logistics of the solution.

Finally, keep good notes on the process as you go through it, from beginning to end. This is your written record of how you approached the problem, step by step. Detailed notes of how you solved one problem can aid you when you approach the next problem.

The information contained in the above article is based on techniques taught in Problem Solving: Finding the Best Options, one of over 70 technology-based titles available through the DBM Knowledge Communication Library. The titles in this library are designed for professional skill development using self-paced, simulation-based, interactive learning.

Drake Beam Morin is the worldwide leader in providing strategic solutions that help organizations align their workforces to meet changing business needs. Known for over 30 years for its innovative and effective career transition services, Drake Beam Morin provides services in employee selection, development retention and transition. With more than 200 offices in over 40 countries, Drake Beam Morin is a subsidiary of Harcourt, Inc., a $2 billion publishing and education company.


For further information, contact Drake Beam Morin, at DBM. A Harcourt Professional and Corporate Development Company

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