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Mastering a Problem-Solving Mindset

One summer about 20 years ago, my family faced a puzzling situation: our butter consumption had mysteriously spiked. My parents were now having to deal with the financial burden of buying copious amounts of the condiment each week. After all, there is also only so much butter you can put on a cashier’s desk before receiving disapproving looks.

Finally, my mother had enough and decided that she would get to the bottom of this mystery of the disappearing butter. She summoned the whole family and had each of us lay out a detailed account of our butter consumption. We complied- describing our butter use cases and agreeing to reduce our intake accordingly.

Several weeks had passed since this intervention, but we continued to remain puzzled by the butter supply issues until one day when we finally discovered the source of the problem. We had just come home from a family outing and saw a scene we will never forget: our 4-year-old Belgian Shepherd leaning against our kitchen counter and demolishing a block of butter in one fell swoop of his tongue.

I distinctly remember feeling two intense emotions. The first was relief from the torture of uncertainty about the family's butter problem, and the second was of deep disgust at the realization that I had been sharing butter with my dog for weeks.

To deal with this problem, we began trying different ways to store the butter and settled on keeping it in the fridge. It was only later in life I learned that this was a common practice that could have saved my family from a considerable amount of financial and social distress.

This everyday situation is a good, albeit a little far-fetched, example of why problem-solving is important even outside of work. When we say “problem-solving” we usually mean “problem identification and solving”: understanding what exactly is causing a problem and brainstorming and implementing solutions to mitigate that.

But how can you actually “solve a problem”? How can you identify why you have to buy so much butter every weekend? Well, let’s find out! Here is a 5-step-process that will help you solve any problem in a complex environment.

5-Step Process to Solving Difficult Problems

1. Digging Deep

Arguably, the biggest challenge of problem-solving is identifying the issues you are facing. Consider the “dog/butter incident”: brainstorming solutions later was relatively easy and quick compared to the time spent trying to identify the source of the problem. It’s not enough to state “our revenues are declining” or “our NPS is dropping” as this will leave you with zero actionable responses. Instead, you must understand your problem in detail and get to its root cause(s).

Ask “why?” five times (a.k.a. the “5 whys”) to achieve the right level of detail. This will force you to consider the causal reactions on variables that influence the “problematic” outcome metric.

This technique follows a “hypothesis-driven approach”: asking the 5 whys will leave you with one hypothesis of why the problem might occur, which needs to be verified (or falsified) later. There might also be additional root causes for which you could formulate hypotheses to check.

2. Painting the Full Picture

If you work in a complex environment, your problem likely does not stem from just one root cause. It is important to not stop after you have identified one plausible source - start again and go a different route with your why questions to identify other potential causes.

You can do this exercise in a structured way using an “Ishikawa” or “fishbone” diagram. This will allow you to map different causal chains for your problem in a structured way, even in a group setting.

Tip: Make identifying root causes a group exercise! Ask people who are familiar with the problem statement but bring diverse perspectives. This substantially increases the chances of identifying a majority of the potential causes.

3. Quantifying the Impact

After you have a set of most potential sources of your problem, it is time to check which of these could be causing the challenge in question. This is the “hypothesis testing” part of your problem-solving exercise, where you will identify the most important levers to solve the problem. This step involves taking a look at supporting data and interviewing external stakeholders to adjust your list of root causes and hypotheses you have formulated.

Some hypotheses might turn out to be false and eliminated as a potential root cause. Others might need some changes or adjustments as you discover more information after speaking with your clients. Finally, some hypotheses will be validated as the real cause of your specific problem.

The third step aims to end up with a list of root causes that have proven to be the underlying factors of your initial problem statement. At this point, you know who the enemy is. But how can you defeat it?

4. Designing the Solutions

A helpful way of brainstorming solutions to a problem is, once again, bringing various perspectives to the discussion. Ideally, you will create a group setting where people with different backgrounds affected by the problem will brainstorm solutions together. A good technique for this comes from the design thinking method and consists of a four-step-process:

  1. Be clear: Make sure everyone understands the problem statement correctly. The problem must be stated in a way that helps people understand what its negative outcome is and who it affects.
  2. Have empathy: Try to empathize with the affected persona. An exercise that we perform to brainstorm effectively at COMATCH is called “empathy mapping”, where participants list all the things an affected person might feel, say, do, and more, when they are faced with the problem in question.
  3. Brainstorm: Only after fully understanding the problem and the affected persona should you begin brainstorming solutions. In this step, it is crucial to start with an open brainstorming phase where every idea is welcome. The goal is to collect a long list of potential solutions.
  4. Prioritize ideas: Try to condense the list of potential solutions by identifying the least and most promising ones. You can do this by estimating the ratio of an idea’s final impact to the amount of effort required to implement it. At this stage, these are probably rough estimates, but with diverse and numerous perspectives you already have great chances of identifying the most favorable solutions.

5. Testing the Solutions

After determining the most beneficial solutions, you must start testing them out. Once again, when working in a complex environment, there might still be uncertainty about the problem statement and solution at this stage. This is why the derisking process continues with testing of the solutions followed by a build-measure-learn cycle.

Tip: Come up with an “MVP” solution and try to spend the minimum effort to test its core idea on a small scale. This will allow you to observe whether the solution can resolve the problem. If not, test another solution. The final solution identified should then be scaled to tackle the problem on as many levels as possible. 

Going back to the case of my family’s butter-loving dog, you now know that we were unable to rapidly resolve the problem as we could not find its source initially. More often than not, this is also the case with most unresolved problems in a professional environment. Attempts at problem-solving are futile unless you try to understand the problem methodically. Spend time defining the problem statement rather than jumping the gun and hastily trying to find a solution. This effort pays back multifold when you later end up with a targeted and accurate solution to your problem’s root cause.