What Would Better Problem Solving Do For You or Your Association?
This is the first of three blogs in which Bruce explores some of the major obstacles to efficient and effective problem solving and how to overcome them.
There are many obstacles to solving problems and making better decisions, but one of the biggest hurdles is that people lack a consistent method of problem solving. This blog will provide evidence that finding and using a consistent problem solving methodology is a worthwhile investment of your time.
What happens if you don’t have a consistent problem solving or decision making methodology?
- Procrastination – When someone lacks a consistent method for problem solving, they often put off confronting the problem. It is easier to delay problem solving than confront the truth, when the truth is that the individual has no idea where to begin.
- Wasted Time – When a person spends as much time deciding how to approach the problem as they spend on examining and solving the difficulty itself, then they are wasting valuable time.
- Less chance for an optimal solution – The chances of generating a viable solution are greatly reduced when one starts with an incomplete problem definition, or fails to get to the root cause(s) of an issue.
A Simple and Effective Four-Step Problem Solving Method
A few years ago, while doing some associated research, I found an entertaining web article describing 99 different problem solving methods. The methods ranged from flipping a coin, asking a friend for advice, to four to seven-step methods to thoroughly analyze and solve a complex problem. If flipping a coin strikes you as a less than reliable means for solving crucial association issues, your judgment is sound. Most experts advocate a four to seven-step method. These multi-step methods have been used by thousands of organizational professionals over the years to solve problems and arrive at reliable decisions.
What follows is a simple four-step method that is easy to learn, use, and remember.
A Four-Step Problem Solving Method
Step ONE – Define the Problem
“Are you kidding? I already know the problem.” you may be saying. “Is this really the first step in good problem solving.” Yes, this is the recommended first step. Step back and ask yourself, “Do I really know what the problem is, or am I looking at a result of the problem.”
- Let me illustrate the four-step method with an association example. In this example a customer service issue has surfaced and been identified, by of all people, one of the board of directors.
- A board member called the association director and said, “Doesn’t your staff have any sense of customer service at all? I want you to get that staff of yours better trained and now! They need to get their act together…”
- When the issue was examined (by calling and speaking with the board member, with the director’s permission) they discovered that phones were not being answered in a timely manner. In fact, many calls not only went unanswered, but other callers waited an entire day for a call back. The issue or problem was much more specific that “poor customer service”, it was directly related to call pick-ups and call-back times.
Step TWO – Find the Root Cause of the Problem
Once you have defined the issue or problem, it is time to dig down to the root cause(s) of the problem. In the case of this association, it would be easy to say the cause of the problem is that the association has employees who don’t care about calls or even members.
- A closer examination of the root cause(s) may uncover a shortage of phone coverage during critical times, a lack of clear protocols for answering or returning calls, or even the recognition by association employees that prompt phone pick-up or returning calls in 120 minutes is vital to the ultimate success or survival of the association.
Step THREE – Generate Alternative Solutions
It might be easy, at this point, to choose the first solution that occurs to you or the group, but this should be avoided. First, try to come up with several alternative solutions and discuss them as a group or analyze the alternatives yourself for feasibility or viability.
- Some possible alternative solutions might include:
- Producing a set of mutually agreed upon call-answering and call-back protocols or procedures
- An open meeting to discuss the issue and possible solutions, or
- Formal phone etiquette training
Step FOUR – Decide on the Best Solution and Apply it to the Problem
Now is the time to gather your best evidence as to the viability of each solution that was generated. Use your best sources to judge your solution and try to gather as much feedback as possible from all the stakeholders involved.
- This would be a good time to gather some solutions to similar problems from other associations or contacts in your association sphere. It would also be a good idea to clearly communicate your solution to stakeholders in your association and ask for their feedback on your chosen solution. Of course, you should have the evidence to back up your solution choice.
Could your association or organization use more and better problem solvers?
If your association is full of highly efficient and effective problem solvers, who are so good at problem solving and decision making that there is no room for improvement, you may have wasted your time with this blog.
If, on the other hand, you recognize there may be some room for improvement at your association and you think that improved problem solving could result in more, better, or faster decisions at your association, then consider the following:
- Start a conversation about problem solving at your next staff or team meeting (see additional resources at the bottom of this blog).
- Gauge organizational interest in formal problem solving training that could include methods of problem solving, critical thinking or decision making tools, or the associated skills of writing, interpersonal communication, or presentation skills, to aid in effectively gathering information and eventually “selling” your decisions.
- Encourage your colleagues to:
- Find a viable problem solving method,
- Learn it, and
- Practice it consistently, until it becomes a habit.
Some Additional Resources
Overcoming the Four Dilemmas of Problem Solving and Decision Making, Bruce Winner and Dennis Wade. This free white paper on the four dilemmas shows how to overcome them, and how to implement solutions at your association for little or no cost. Find it at the website of the Los Rios Community College District’s “Association Group”, www.losrios-training.org/ts/. No email or any other contact information is required to download this paper.
www.mindtools.com Go to the problem solving section of this website for 25+ tools and techniques for improved problem solving. It offers a wide range of tools, tips, techniques, exercises and other resources. The site also has some additional resources for sale.
http://www.decisionmaking.net Though the site is not the most visually interesting website, it is packed with time-tested models, advice, and techniques from the founder and President of Edmund Scientific Co, Norman Edmund.
Low Cost Resources
Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, J Edward Russo and Paul J.H Schoemaker. This is a somewhat dated book, but a very solid introduction to problem solving and decision making.
Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam, 2008, Dan is one of my favorite problem solving authors. This book was voted by Business Week and Fast Company as the best innovation book of the year, 2008. It is an original and engaging approach to problem solving and decision making.
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer, 2009. This book is a lighter and more readable examination of how decisions are made from a cognitive perspective as well as a thoughtful examination of snap judgment versus slower and reasoned problem solving and decision making. Some of the anecdotes in the book have been challenged, as to their authenticity, but I found this an insightful read that I’ve referred to on multiple occasions.
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