Managers are faced with a never-ending flow of problems – deviations from the norm. During the course of a week, hundreds of spontaneous, minor problems are usually tackled with the minimum of fuss, using years of accumulated knowledge and experience. At times, however, a major problem will arise. On such occasions, the wise manager uses a classic problem-solving strategy, one of which is outlined here. When you have a serious problem to grapple with, try following these nine steps…


1. Identify the symptoms.

When you sense that trouble is brewing in your organisation, it’s usually the symptoms of a problem that surface first – bickering among employees, equipment breakdowns, changes in behaviour patterns, uneven performance, poor attendance at staff meetings, missing petty cash, litter… These symptoms can indicate a major problem lurking below the surface.

2. Define the problem.

You’re aware of the symptoms – now try to define the problem. Be warned, however: it’s not always easy to pinpoint.

For example, when two employees are continually bickering and cannot get along together, a supervisor might believe that he or she is confronted with a problem of conflicting personalities. After checking, the supervisor finds that the real problem is that he or she has never clearly outlined the functions and duties of each employee – where their duties begin and end. What appeared on the surface to be a problem of personality conflict was actually a problem of an organisational nature. Only after the true nature of the problem has been recognised can the supervisor do something about it.

Try to state the problem in a single sentence; this will help you to identify the actual nature of the problem. Indeed, it could be that you are trying to deal with more than one problem. Remember, don’t confuse the symptoms, the causes, and the problem.

3. Specify your objectives.

Be clear about what you are setting out to achieve in tackling the problem. Compare the existing situation with the desired state: where you are now and where you would like to be. Then state the transformation necessary to move from one state to the other.

4. Analyse the problem.

First, get the facts. Ask questions of all parties; use your eyes and ears – without prejudice; and read for guidance in policy handbooks, precedent files, or the journals. You might never have all the facts but it is essential to have enough of them.

Second, order and simplify your information. Distill and reorder the material to get at the core of the issue, the real problem.

Third, check your facts for accuracy and relevance. Discard where necessary.

Finally, assess the data without prejudice, preconceived ideas, or emotion.

5. Generate alternative solutions.

Problem solving requires a choice of options. To find the best option, you must consider several possible solutions. By formulating many options, you will be less likely to overlook the best course of action.

If necessary, use brainstorming and creative thinking techniques to foster the free flow of ideas.

6. Evaluate the various alternative solutions.

Evaluate the options you have now generated. List the advantages and disadvantages of each. Mentally test each option by imagining that each has already been put into effect. Think of the consequences – anticipated and unanticipated – of each alternative. Focus on the two or three that look most promising. The focus now shifts to decision making.

7. Choose the best solution.

You may now have come up with 34 ways to skin a cat – but you want the best way. In making your final selection, you could call upon previous experience, advice from others, intuition, experimentation, or such scientific tools as linear programming or simulation modelling. Compare your short listed options, perhaps even allocate values or points to each, and arrive at a final decision.

Remember, the best solution will normally be the one with the most advantages and the fewest disadvantages. Indeed, often the best solution will be the one that is least undesirable.

8. Take the necessary action.

Now is the time to plan carefully how best to implement your decision. You will need an action plan. Since most decisions affect or involve people, you should communicate and consult with those affected to gain their support. Decide on what has to be done, how, by whom, and when. What might go wrong? How will the results be reported or checked?

Routine follow-up checks will ensu

9. Monitor the results of your solution.

re that you have solved the problem. Check the symptoms again – have they disappeared or at least been reduced? Set up control measures to compare actual with planned results. Take corrective action where necessary. If the problem has in fact not been solved, you’ll need to repeat the process, this time from a completely new perspective.


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