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Problem Solving Strategies

Some years ago I was booked to deliver the keynote address at an International Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. My host asked if there was anything I’d like in my room. They expected me to say wine or fresh fruit or a favorite food. Instead I said, “Yes, if anyone has a guitar that I could borrow during my stay, I’d appreciate it.” Surprisingly they complied! I was really pleased to have a guitar to relax with during my off camera times.

Then an idea occurred to me. My 3 hour seminar is going to have a break in the middle so people can visit the Expo in the hallways. The guitar might be a great tool to bring them back from the break. So at the end of the break instead of repeated announcements that the seminar was resuming, I got on stage and started playing and singing popular rock and roll tunes! We cranked up the volume, opened the doors to the hallway and in no time all 800 people were back in their seats and singing along with me in English.

What a treat that was! Here’s how the idea evolved: I posed the question, “What is the need?” Answer: to bring people back from the break efficiently. Then I asked, “What is the usual approach?” Answer: repeated announcements and urging over the loudspeaker. “How does that work?” Poorly.

Here’s the twist: Instead of just asking, “What is a better way?” Instead I asked, “What would be more fun and make them WANT to come back into the room?” The music was appealing and fun so they all came back without any urging from us. It wasn’t about getting people into the room, it was about causing them to WANT to be in the room.

In solving any problem the first step is to identify the need or problem. What is the problem?

Is it: A danger or emergency? Not enough money? Not enough time? Too much time? Not enough support from others? Wrong or inadequate tools? Unsure of what to do? Lack of interest? Illness or injury or damage to equipment? Not able to do what is being requested of you? (Why? Knowledge, tools, skills, permission, legality?)

The problem could be any or even many of these, but until you have defined what the problem really is, then you’re not yet ready to solve it. Let’s say that the problem is that a coworker is wasting supplies and taking too long to do their job. 

Now that we know the problem we need to root out the cause of it. I like to use the SPITS format for this.

S – Situation. Is this just a temporary problem that is due to the current situation? Or is it something more permanent than that? Is this a pattern or a situation?

P – Person. Is the problem the person? Are they not trained for this task? Are they having some personal difficulties that complicate their ability to perform? Are they not aware of their errors? Should another person be handling this instead?

I – Interpersonal. Is this problem a symptom of a difficulty between people? Maybe this is a subtle form of sabotage (“I’ll show you!”) Or maybe there is a conflict that needs to be resolved.

T – Technical. Could the source be wrong tools, wrong information, or something mechanical or digital that is interfering?

S – System. Perhaps the system you are following is the source of the waste and inefficiency. Many former processes no longer work for current needs and should be replaced.

By simply identifying the source or nature of the problem many potential solutions are eliminated. E.g. If the house is on fire then more insurance won’t solve your problem.

During my years in the U.S. Army I was trained as a combat medic and hospital corpsman then later went of Officers Candidate School and transferred to Infantry Training. As a medic I was taught this simple lesson for dealing with injuries: 1st Protect Life! then Preserve Life, and then Assist Healing. That’s not how they said it but it boiled down to keeping the person alive, then getting them to safety and assuring that they can recover from the injury. The mantra was: Stop the bleeding! (Without blood they’ll die), Clear the airway! (Make sure they can breathe), Protect the wound! (Bandage and cover the injury), and finally Treat for shock! (Shock is the trauma effect of the injury and it is a priority for recovering well.)

With battlefield injuries it is often apparent where the damage is and the source is usually known. In day to day life it’s not that obvious. So finding out what the need is and what is causing it should be our first concern.

Once we know What the Problem Is and What the Source may be then we are in a position to address it. Here are some general rules of thumb that will help you find more and better solutions.

  1. Fix the customer or the person first. If you’re not in a situation where there is immediate danger then focus on the participants first. Listen to what they are saying, listen for what they are feeling, try to probe to the actual underlying concerns or fears or confusion.
  2. Determine what is needed. Is it money, materials, assistance, a new work-around, saving time or what?
  3. Set Priorities. Do the most important things first. Put out the fire first and then address the damage. If a customer is upset, deal with their upset first and then correct the problem.
  4. Isolate the problem. What is the problem really? Why does that matter?
  5. What is the source of the problem? Is it Situation, Person, Interpersonal, Technology or Tools or Information, or System caused?
  6. What action is needed? Sometimes doing nothing is appropriate, at other times much action is needed. Only do what is required in order to reach the right outcome.
  7. Take action immediately or delegate action to the appropriate person who can act on it.
  8. Assure that your solution truly did correct the problem. Check again to assure that the priority needs were addressed.

We will address creativity in problem solving in another article, but be sure to look beyond the usual solutions and “suspend the system” that you usually follow just long enough to assure that there is not a better way. There are some things you cannot control but you can at least minimize the damage they have done. Other things may be fully within your grasp when you follow a good procedure to isolate and solve the problem.

Jim Cathcart