A problem solving tool

I thought it might be useful to share one of the best business problem solving tools I’ve come across; I’ve used it successfully in a number of different environments to solve many different sorts of problems.

The idea is to slow down our thinking and stop us jumping straight from what we think is the problem to the solution, without considering whether this is the right problem or the best solution – the “here’s a problem, here’s a solution – let’s do it” syndrome.

The work needs to be done in sufficient depth for it to give a sound basis for the decision but is not intended to become a long-term project in itself. In my experience a couple of weeks to a couple of months should be adequate depending on the complexity of the problem, the depth of analysis required and access to stakeholders for workshops.

Five Step Problem Solving Tool

1 Identify the question

What is the problem you are really trying to solve? If possible we need to get to the real root of the problem. When I first came across the tool, its inventor usually phrased the question in the form “What is the value maximising strategy for…” I prefer a more flexible approach but it gives a good idea of the level of question you are looking for.

This section is best done working with the project sponsor, the project board and key stakeholders.

After each stage it is a good idea to get the output validated by the project board, senior executives and stakeholders. Not only does this show you are making progress but it also builds up a relationship making it harder for the process to be rejected at the end.

2 Facts and insights

This is the analysis phase, what you are looking for here is to identify all the information that could have a bearing on the problem. This should then be distilled into a small number – not more than a dozen short insights. These are things you could explain to the CEO in a lift “Did you know that…” selecting these can be quite challenging.

I have used analysts or stakeholder workshops to do this phase, either works well. This can easily become the longest phase of the process.

The process is intended to be iterative so at the end of the analysis phase you might find you are trying to solve the wrong problem and need to modify the question.

Again, seek validation of your outputs.

3 Exploring the “What”

This is where we start getting creative. Bearing in mind the insights from the previous phase, we’re looking for ideas as to what we might to solve the problem, ignoring how for now, that comes next. The difficulty here is finding truly different solutions; it is very easy to keep coming up with different versions of the same idea, my advice is to keep pushing the boundaries.

Once you have a good range of ideas, the next step is to decide on the favoured solution – this may be one of the suggested solutions, or more likely a synthesis of parts of several ideas.

This phase works best using workshops of stakeholders from throughout the organisation, though I have used individual interviews with senior managers and compiled the different ideas presented into the option space.

Again this is part of an iterative process and you may need to do more analysis or even modify the question and again it would be wise to validate your solution with key stakeholders.

4 Exploring the How

This section looks at how we might implement the favoured solution to the What question from the last section.

As before we are looking for a wide range of ideas that we can use to select or synthesise a solution from. Again remember this is an iterative process, you may want to modify the solution when you consider how to implement it.

As with the previous phase, workshops work best, with individual interviews as an alternative.

At the end of this step you have a full solution and how to implement it so validation here is very important.

5 Planning the project

All the work we’ve done so far will be useful in planning the project and getting it underway.

We have considered different solutions and implementations and have reasons for our selection, which will form the basis of the business case.

Having a clear agreed solution and a chosen method of implementation will also form the basis of our project plans.

This is a standard project definition phase, carried out by the project manager or project team.

The verification of each step with key stakeholders should make it easy to get approval for the business case and project plans.


I’ve found this to be an easy flexible framework for helping people come to sensible decisions, it can be used for developing strategies or setting up even quite small projects, don’t be afraid to adjust it to your needs.

Think hard about how to run any workshops, what sort of contributions you want from participants and how you will get those contributions – I’ll look at some workshop tools in future posts.

Let me know how you get on.

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