7 Step Problem Solving

Have you ever wanted to involve the team or a group of peers in collaborative problem solving but worried about the chaos that would ensue? Have you wished there was a simple problem-solving structure you could use that wouldn’t take forever, but would give everyone the chance to get involved? Help is at hand ….

Here’s a typical team discussion responding to the news that they are being relocated to a smaller office space:

“We should have been consulted about this”

“I want a window desk otherwise I can’t work properly”

“Have we got enough desks anyway?”

“How do we want to work in the future – won’t some people be working from home?”

“What is the issue here guys?”

“Why have senior management put us in here?”

“Why don’t we just have hot desking”

“No, it would be better if we rotated the desks to keep it fair”

“I think we should refuse to move”

“What about offering to go open plan with finance?”

“I can’t believe this is happening now, with everything else I have to deal with?”

There is nothing wrong with any of these contributions but it feels chaotic because they are in an unhelpful order. Here’s a simple 7 step problem solving sequence which can be used by everyone, avoiding the seven common mistakes that teams make in solving problems together.



1. Define the Problem


This takes time!  Often people fail to solve a problem because the problem has never been clearly defined or because different people have a different understanding of the problem and are in fact trying to solve different problems!

If it is a problem that is having a direct impact on the people in the room it is worth giving everyone a chance to share the emotional impact it is having on them

So, in summary, the problem is that we will be working from a smaller office with not enough desks to accommodate everyone in the team at the same time?




2.  Agree the Goal


If you know where you want to get to, you are much more likely to get there!  A clear purpose statement, a visible record of your goal, helps to keep you focused on the desired outcome.  Without this, people often become confused about where they are heading or different people start working towards a different understanding of the goal.

“So, sounds like we all agree the overall goal is to share space fairly with all the teams in the building. We also need to give everyone in our team a comfortable, quiet place to sit and a desk space that can accommodate a laptop and space to spread papers out.”



3.   Identify the Root Cause


This phase is a critical point within the problem-solving process, as it may only be possible to solve the problem and implement change if you know the root cause. Sometimes the root causes of a problem will be evident. When they are, you can move through analysis quite rapidly. However, root causes are often not obvious and may be multiple, therefore a deeper level of analysis based on objective evidence and data is required. If you don’t pinpoint this then your solutions will not ‘stick.’

“This situation has come about because of the recent expansion of the Sales Team and rising rent for the building which makes it uneconomic to rent additional office space in our current premises”



4.  Generate Solutions


Generate as many alternative ideas that may solve the problem as you can. If you can’t think of actions that will solve the problem completely, think of small actions that will at least help things along. People often make the mistake of not generating enough ideas – being happy to go with the first one or two suggestions. Sometimes the best ideas come out after time to play with ideas.

“So, we’ve got twenty separate ideas here. Let’s all agree which one’s we want to include in our plan”



5.  Evaluate and Select Solutions


Which are likely to have the greatest knock on effect.  Are they realistic, practical?  Will any of the solutions impact negatively on other departments? What’s the risk assessment? Are the resources available? Some solutions may be eliminated at this stage.  Some may be definitely selected and others may be kept in question for further discussion or as backup solutions in the last resort. If you’re brainstorming then ring the ones everyone favours, cross out those that the majority don’t support, and leave blank the options that can be adapted or ‘packaged’. If you brainstorm on to post-its then you make it easy for stage 6.

“So we have six immediate solutions that we all think have some merit – and some more extreme solutions that we can come back to if nothing else seems to work.”



6.  Rank Solutions as Short-Mid-Long Term


This could involve selecting several solutions to be carried out in parallel or with one preceding another in time.  It could also mean selecting a first-choice solution and secondary solutions which will only be put into play if the first choice fails.

“OK, we have agreed that initially we will allocate desks to Rashid and Karen because they are here everyday. The rest of us (including me) will operate a ‘hot desk’ first come first served method. We will also take long conversations out of the room and use the coffee bar next door for informal meetings. If that doesn’t work after four weeks we’ll look again at more substantial home working options. If after six months it isn’t working we’ll approach the executive team with a review of the commercial impact that the reduced space has had.”



7.  Action Plan


This stage involves getting very concrete and specific about who will do what, starting when and completing by when.  It means identifying who else and what other resources will be involved in implementing the solution.

“So to check everyone is clear what we’ve agreed: Rashid will set up a diary system so we know who’s going to be here when. Sam will check with the coffee bar and see about negotiating a discount …”




And I didn’t mention Step 8 –

8. Double check that your Solutions will lead you to your Target!


This final stage is a cross check to make sure that you have not lost sight of the original goal and that your chosen solutions and action plan will, if successful, lead you to your goal. You may need to return to add to your solution options if they have not taken you far enough.

Good luck using this and passing it on to colleagues. Remember it works with individuals as well as teams.


Posted by Shona Ward



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