Solving Complex Business Problems

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:19 PM EDT

Your intelligence, common sense, and education all help you solve problems. However, if you're attempting to undertake complex problem-solving, such as reorganizing the business or diagnosing a persistent, large scale, seemingly insoluble challenge, you need a systematic process approach that involve peoples beyond yourself. Complex situations are not challenges to be undertaken as a solo sport.

What You Need to KnowI manage a large team. Surely it is better to allow people to solve problems in their own way?

In many situations, it's good to allow people to understand and then solve problems on their own. However, as an organization grows in size, so does the need for more sophisticated techniques. Complex problems are more effectively solved by using proven techniques of problem solving—ones that are plainly mapped out and used uniformly. A consistent, standardized approach to solving problems in your organization ensures that, whether talking about customer service or production quotas, others can get actively involved in solving the problem at any stage because they can understand the way in which the problem area is being explored.

As problems can vary so much, surely it is not possible to use the same problem-solving technique in each case?

While problems are always different, there are some common approaches and processes for solving them. Problems can be diagnosed the various elements can be mapped, and the solutions arrived at using the same basic steps—whether you're talking about a manufacturing roadblock, a difficulty in recruiting new associates, or an IT systems failure.

Wouldn't a very structured approach stifle creativity?

Creativity can actually flourish through a structured process that encourages finding new and alternative ways of resolving a situation. The key is to encourage widespread active participation and allow everyone to contribute in a way that suits them best while working within the structure. The secret is to put your innovative thinking into the creativity and quality of the solution, and not to spend your intellectual capital on the originality of the problem-solving process.

What to DoHone In on the Problem

Before you can tackle a problem, you need to see it in its entirety—in breadth, depth, and context. To do this, focus on:

  • recognition. Can you see or feel the problem? Is it isolated, or part of a bigger problem?
  • symptoms. How is it showing itself?
  • causes. Why has it happened?
  • effects. What else is being affected by it?

Next, split the main problem up into smaller problems in order to determine whether you are the best person (or team) to deal with it. If not, alert those better-equipped to handle it as soon as you can: if you delay, it is likely that you will be making their task that much harder. If, however, you are the right person to take on this issue, ask yourself some additional questions, including: Do you have the right resources? How long might the process take? What are some of the obstacles? What's the anticipated benefit? Once you get answers, move on to the next step.

Gather Data Effectively

There are two important questions here: what do you need to know, and how are you going to get it? Data-gathering techniques include:

  • workflow analysis;
  • surveys, questionnaires, other existing data sources;
  • flow charts;
  • group and/or one-on-one interviews.

Depending on the problem under discussion, you may find it helpful to brainstorm the issue with your team or some trusted colleagues. This route is particularly useful if the problem is not one that you have dealt with before. To get the best from brainstorming, remember the five golden rules:

  • explore with no evaluation or judgment by others early in the process;
  • build on the ideas of others;
  • strive for quality and diversity of thinking;
  • encourage wacky ideas;
  • include many others and encourage participation.
Explore Options and Possible Solutions

Thinking beyond the obvious and the conventional can play an important role in understanding the perspectives of a problem and their implications. Look at what others have done in the past, and don't ignore what may seem a crazy idea. Cast a wide net when exploring solutions, so that there is a richness of ideas and possible options.

Evaluate Priorities and Decisions

Take time to identify the most appropriate solution from your range of options. Take some quantitative measurements. Determine the costs and benefits of the suggested solutions. If, for example, you feel that outside investment is needed to solve a particular problem, calculate the payback period. You can then gauge whether your senior management team will accept it. Always understand that each possible solution has consequences, some of which may cause additional problems themselves.

Select the Best Solutions for the Situation and Context

The chosen solution needs to meet some key criteria. Do you have the necessary people, money, and time to achieve it? Will you get a sufficient return on investment? Is the solution acceptable to others involved in the situation? You should draw up:

  • a rationale of why you've reached your particular conclusion
  • a set of criteria to judge the solution's success
  • a plan of action and contingencies
  • a schedule for implementation
  • a team to conduct, be responsible for, and approve the solution
Implement the Solution and Make It Happen

Implementation means having action plans with relevant deadlines and contingencies built in, also referred to as a "Plan B." Any implementation needs constant review, and the implementation team needs to be sure it has the support of relevant management.

Evaluate the Solution

This is where the two most important questions are asked:

  • How well did it work?
  • What did we learn from the process?

Canvass people's opinions regarding the effectiveness of the process and its outcome. Ask for areas of improvement that could be incorporated into a second phase.

What to AvoidYour Team is Too Narrow in Scope

Don't limit your team to the people you like or even to those nearest the problem or those at a high level. Try to get representatives from different parts of the business to give a different angle on the problem. Remember to include people who are affected by the problem without rank or status, inside and outside your company. They may be suppliers or customers, or hourly employees.

You Tackle Problems That Lie Beyond the Control of Your Team

You and your associates may be well aware of problems and challenges that affect you, but you may not be able to realistically affect them—at least until you garner more political support. Take on challenges within your province, and build broader support for taking on others beyond your immediate scope.

You Jump to Conclusions

Sometimes people leap to solutions before truly understanding the depth or scope of the problem. This can, somewhat surprisingly, especially be the case among smart, experienced professionals and managers who have seen it all before. The challenge to problem solvers, especially capable, experienced ones is to see the problem with fresh eyes and an open mind. Assuming either causes or solutions cheats the process and denigrates the likely outcome.

You Don't Gather Enough Data

A little bit of information can be a dangerous thing. Many times problem solvers attack their problem with too little information about either about the problem itself or some of the proposed solutions. This can be because information-gathering takes some effort. Arguably, if all the necessary information were easily at hand, the problem would not have occurred or ballooned to its current proportions in the first place. The other challenge is that some people believe they have "data" when they are unwittingly analyzing unrepresentative anecdotes, casual impressions, and other non-factual information masquerading as problem-solving information. To solve problems, to reach good solutions, you need first-rate information. Bad data will likely lead to bad resolutions, and that ain't good.

You Don't "Right Size" the Problem

People often work on problems that are too general or too large; and that means they don't end up with a solution that has much impact. From a systems perspective, you can't change an entire system, but you can improve parts of the system which, if well conceived, can help the overall system. Keep your admirable problem solving ambitions in check. Start small. Gain successes—and credibility—and build on your success.

You Don't Support Fully the Conclusions Reached or the Solution Identified

Some problem solving exercises seem totally divorced from the operations they were supposed to support. After the careful, painstaking analysis, the meetings, the deep thinking, the discussions and debates, the brainstorms, and all the other hard work, well, nothing. Nothing happens. Nothing changes. It's as if the exercise never happened; except many people invested (wasted?) considerable time on the effort. Make sure your hard work sees the light of day. Follow up. Press, lobby, and rally for successful implementation of your solution, and stay with the process so that it works as you envisioned it.

Remember that:

  • Often the exciting part of problem solving is identifying innovative solutions. But it's important to focus on the full picture, from problem identification through to final implementation and evaluation. Your ideas are only as good as the results you get.
  • Creativity can often derail a problem-solving process. Getting the balance right between understanding the problem and finding imaginative solutions requires strong facilitation.
  • Your solution will have an impact on other parts of the business, or the client. Make sure you think through the implications of the proposed solution and the implementation plan.
Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Browne, Neil and Stuart Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking. 8th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.

de Bono, Edward. Six Thinking Hats. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Higgins, James. 101 Creative Problem Solving Techniques: The Handbook of New Ideas for Business. Rev. ed. New Management Publishing, 2005.

Jones, Morgan. The Thinker's Toolkit: 14 Powerful Techniques for Problem Solving. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Web Sites:

"First Steps in Solving Open-Ended Problems":

"Problem Solving" Free Management Library: