Many Problems are Actually Opportunities in Disguise

For most people, the recent earthquake in Puerto Rico can only be characterized as tragic. However, many other problems present opportunities for organizations to streamline processes, increase quality, or improve outcomes. In any problematic situation, an achievement of a goal is obstructed by a barrier of some kind. And, in most cases, the best solution is more complicated than moving a piece of debris out of the roadway.

Problem Solving Processes

There are many formal methods for solving problems, addressing opportunities, and making decisions, but generally speaking, we begin by answering the following five questions:

  1. What, exactly, is the problem?
  2. What are the possible ways the problem can be solved?
  3. Which of the proposed solutions is best?
  4. How will the solution be implemented?
  5. Did the implemented solution solve the problem?

Let’s examine each question and what it takes to become an expert problem solver.

What, exactly, is the problem?

What is standing in the way of achieving the goal at hand? Insufficient funding? Equipment malfunction? Lack of properly-trained personnel? These examples are straight-forward. How can we clarify the complex problems that our Federal agencies face?

Holding a group brainstorming session can help to peel away the layers that may be hiding the cause of the problem, or it may help prioritize a cascade of related issues. You might want to employ data visualization techniques to demonstrate the nature of a problem and to pinpoint its origin.

What are the possible ways this problem can be solved?

The brainstorming part of the problem-solving process calls for unconditional acceptance of any solutions that are offered. Why? Because serving fried chicken with waffles, watching TV from a hand-held device, and recreational space travel were considered irrational and impossible at first. Before beginning analysis of suggestions, solicit opinions from representatives of every position that is impacted by the problem. It may be that the best solution will be comprised of a combination of several ideas.

Which of the proposed solutions is best?

Determining which of the proposed solutions will deliver the best outcome is a crucial part of problem-solving. Aside from addressing the issue directly, getting the problem solved may also necessitate consideration of competing priorities, budget constraints, availability of personnel, alignment with mission objectives, looming deadlines, and potential domino effects. Take time to step back and think about how each of the top proposed solutions will work out in the long term.

How will the solution be implemented?

One way to launch a proposed solution is as a pilot program, which allows time for troubleshooting and making necessary adjustments before a full rollout. Maintaining clear communications of how the solution is employed, what surprises came up, and what was working smoothly from the beginning can become very important to the long-term evaluation of the solution. Education, typically in the form of training, is a key component of successful implementation, as it not only orients directly impacted users but also promotes more global acceptance of the new solution.

Did the implemented solution solve the problem?

Where’s the proof? It is crucial to clearly define the problem so that we can determine if the solution did, in fact, solve the problem. Did other priorities delay or interrupt the solution’s implementation? Is the new process running smoothly, reducing costs, and producing better outcomes? Both initially and at regular intervals, it is essential to monitor the success of an implemented solution.

Are you ready to become an expert problem solver?

Whether it is for your agency, your community, or your personal life, effective problem solving is vital. The skills that are important to problem-solving are also essential for leadership, management, and interpersonal skills: clear communication, active listening, teamwork, deductive reasoning, patience — lots of patience — and perseverance.

Are there any additional traits or processes that you have found essential to successful problem-solving?  Please share them below or through our social media channels.

Thanks to Maureen Caughran, Cindi Johnson, Alison French, and Leslie Keelty for contributing to this blog.

Project & Program Management
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Natalie Komitsky

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