During college I got a job working as a bindery assistant in a print shop. I was in charge of finishing, packaging, and delivering all the printed materials that our company produced. We printed and numbered thousands of invoices and business forms which we then stapled into covered booklets. As a convenience to our customers, we would write the range of numbers of the blank forms contained in each booklet on the cover.
The problem was that we would use a felt-tipped pen to do this, and after writing the numbers on several hundred books, our writing would become very sloppy. Sometimes we would miscount and write the incorrect numbers on the booklet covers. To correct our mistake, we would cross out the incorrect numbers and rewrite the correct ones. This would make the booklets we delivered to our customers look messy and unprofessional.
I created a few label templates using Microsoft Excel, which would calculate the correct form numbers and print out nicely-formatted labels. We could simply stick these to the booklet covers. This solution not only looked much more professional, it saved the print shop time and money as well. This was a simple fix to a simple problem. But it was this problem-solving ability that helped me get promoted from the lowest position in the print shop to one of the highest. I worked myself up from a bindery technician making seven dollars an hour, to the position of production manager making over fifteen dollars an hour.
Developing and applying my problem solving ability served to double my income and bring a significant promotion in less than a year’s time. You can get better work and income as you develop your ability to effectively solve problems. Problem solving can be broken down into the simple steps of identifying the problem, determining the causes of the problem, inventing solutions to the problem, and then implementing these solutions to get rid of the problem.
As you consider which skills to learn in order to improve your professional opportunities, add effective problem solving to your list. Everyone has problems and welcomes solutions to them. Businesses have problems which cost them lots of money. Your ability to solve these problems will help them save or make more money. If you establish a reputation as a money-saving problem solver, companies will want to hire you.
And consumers have problems. Every day they purchase products and services which they believe will solve their problems. You will discover many opportunities when you identify problems people face and then offer products or services to solve them. This lesson will discuss problem solving skills that can increase your marketability and income.
What is a Problem?
A problem is defined as: “A source of perplexity, distress, or vexation. The word originates from the Latin term meaning an obstacle.” (See Merriam-Webster.com) Some problems that many businesses and organizations face may include:
- Not enough income to pay for expenses
- A deteriorating public image
- Rising costs of fuel, supplies or materials
- Political instability and war
- Environmental pollution and regulations
- Finding and retaining talented workers
- Trying to please investors/shareholders
Some problems that individuals face may include:
- Not enough income to pay expenses (Do you see a trend?)
- Cost and availability of healthcare
- Foreclosed homes
- Rising costs of advanced education
- Difficult family relationships
- Unsatisfying, poor-paying jobs and careers
Complete this exercise if you want to improve your problem solving ability: List your top ten problems, then list the top ten problems that either your employer or your customers face. If you’re currently unemployed, try to list the top ten problems one of your potential employers may face. You’ll refer back to these lists later in the lesson.
As you can see, there is no lack of problems surrounding you, your business, or your employer. This exercise is not meant to discourage you. It’s meant to help you see that the opportunities to help solve problems are infinite! Now, let’s look at how to turn problems into opportunities.
What IS Problem Solving?
You understand what a problem is and that problems create many opportunities. Businesses, organizations and people look for solutions to their problems. Just about every product or service you see represents a solution to a problem:
- Mobile phones solve the problem of not being able to communicate with people regardless of their locations.
- Computers solve the problem of not being able to create, store, replicate, and share information quickly and inexpensively.
- Cars, airplanes and other transportation methods solve the problem of getting ourselves across great distances in a short amount of time.
- Healthcare professionals help solve problems we have with our bodies.
- Programmers and technicians solve problems with our computers or machinery.
The more complex a problem is, the more money people are willing to pay to have it resolved. If you want to receive more money for the work you do, you will either need to solve more problems, or solve more difficult problems than you do now. Let’s look at a simple problem solving method.
How to Solve Problems
Problems usually come from more than one cause. There are many variables which can combine to create problems. Sometimes you can solve a problem quickly, but in many instances it may take a lot of time and study to correct it. Generally, there are a few things that need to happen for both simple and complex problems.
1) Identify the Problem
Don’t dismiss the seemingly simple step of defining the problem. Many people just complain and don’t take time to define their problems more specifically. “My job stinks!” and, “I can’t get a job!” are not effective problem definitions. Understand that a well-defined problem is half solved! Look at these examples of poorly-defined vs. effectively-defined problems:
Poorly-Defined: I hate my job!
Effectively-Defined: I don’t receive the amount of money, recognition, or appreciation I deserve for the work I do.
Poorly-Defined: Our sales are bad!
Effectively-Defined: Gross sales for our two top products are down 10% compared to this time last year.
Poorly-Defined: I can’t get a job!
Effectively-Defined: I’ve submitted 20 online applications and told my network of friends I’m job hunting, but no one has called to discuss or offer me a position.
Poorly-Defined: We don’t have enough money to pay our bills!
Effectively-Defined: We need $500 more each month to cover our mortgage, utilities, food and car payments.
Notice that poorly-defined problems usually take the form of complaints. More effectively-defined problems include specific descriptions of the situation. This specific information gives you a starting point for solving the problem. The poorly-defined problems (the complaints) immobilize you. They make you think you can’t do anything about them. Effectively defining problems empowers you and positions you to resolve them!
Earlier, you listed your top ten problems and the problems your employer or customers face. Now take your list of problems and define each one of these problems with more specific details. Remember that effectively defining problems enables you to solve more of them. Now, consider this: How do you feel about your problems after you’ve taken time to define them more effectively? Do they seem more manageable?
2) Determine What’s Causing a Problem
Another element of problem solving is determining what’s causing or contributing to the problem. If you’ve taken the time to effectively define a problem, then you’ve probably uncovered details which reveal possible causes of the problem. I’m repeating this because it is so important to understand: a well-defined problem is half solved! Understanding some basic laws of nature will help you identify the causes of a problem.
Sir Isaac Newton described natural phenomena observed in nature with his Laws of Motion. One states that everything remains in its current state or path of motion unless it’s acted upon by some outside force. Another one of Newton’s observations is that for any and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Science and philosophy discuss the concept of causality, or trying to determine the relationship between events and their effects. What all this talk of science and philosophy means is that when anything happens (good or bad), there are reasons for it. Nothing occurs ex nihilo (out of nothing). With some study, experimentation and inquiry, you can find out the cause or reasons for anything! After you find out the causes or reasons for anything, then you can take measures to change or control it.
It seems obvious that applying these principles of nature to problem solving is appropriate when you’re trying to determine why a car, computer, or machine isn’t working. What about when you’re trying to discover why a certain client, supervisor, or customer is behaving a certain way? People’s behavior is not subject to these material laws. How can you solve “people” problems then? There are psychological explanations for peoples’ behavior as well; they have a motivation or reason for anything they do. We’ll discussed this in the lesson on persuasion. The point to remember is that you can find out the causes of problems as an important step in solving them.
Identifying the cause of a problem will depend heavily on asking effective questions. Revisit the section on asking effective questions to reinforce this skill. The easiest way to begin identifying the cause of a problem is to ask:
“What is causing the problem?”
That’s an obvious question, but many people fail or forget or refuse to ask it. Too often, we accept problems or circumstances as they are and don’t take time to think about them. We often choose to complain about problems instead of doing anything productive to resolve them. Asking this first question “What is causing the problem?”…will lead to other questions that help discover the source of a problem. Get into the habit of asking these types of questions to better identify the possible causes:
- What is causing this?
- When has this happened before?
- Why is he/she behaving that way?
- Why am I acting this way?
- Why did he make that same mistake again?
- What went wrong?
Challenge: Who or What’s to Blame? Now refer to your list of problems (where you defined your problems more effectively) and simply ask, “What is causing this?” for each of the problems you’ve listed. See if you can identify–or at least guess–the primary cause of each problem.
Now that we talked about defining your problem, and discovering the potential sources of that problem, you need to…
3) Determine the Solution
When you have effectively defined a problem and its causes, you can then determine how to solve it. Remember the natural and psychological laws we referred to earlier–that there is a cause for any problem that occurs, or a reason for the way people behave. Problems can be simple (a single cause) or complex (multiple causes and variables). You can fix or reduce a problem by affecting its cause(s), no matter how difficult it may be. If you change or get rid of the things that are causing the problem, you get rid of the problem. While that seems like common sense, it’s not common practice.
Identifying a solution to a problem doesn’t necessarily mean that particular solution is practical or cost-effective. As you try to find solutions to problems, brainstorm as many solutions as possible so you can eliminate those which are less practical or too expensive to implement.
Let’s look at a few examples of problems in the workplace and what some possible solutions might be.
Problem: Employees won’t follow the new operating procedure.
Cause(s): They don’t know how to do it or they don’t have any incentive to follow it.
Possible Solutions: Develop a training program for employees to learn the new procedure. Reward & recognize employees who follow the procedure. Discipline or terminate employees who will not follow the procedure!
Problem: Our largest customer has not ordered any products from us in the last two months.
Cause(s): We delivered their last order two days late. They buy from our competitor now.
Possible Solutions: Offer them a new discounted pricing structure if they order from us. Offer them free 2-day shipping on future orders. Find another customer to offset the lost revenue.
Problem: I keep getting job interviews, but no actual job offers.
Cause(s): I may expect too high of a salary and/or employers may think I’m over-qualified.
Possible Solutions: Resign myself to working for a smaller salary. Convince potential employers that I’m committed to and passionate about this work and industry. That’s why I’ve been in it for so long!
Challenge: Solutions, Solutions! Now, take your list of problems which you defined effectively and listed possible sources of the problems. You should brainstorm several possible solutions to the top-10 problems that you’ve been working with throughout this lesson (your own and those of your employer/customers). You should have already identified the possible causes for these problems, so finding a solution means determining how to eliminate or change the cause(s) of each problem.
The last step, after effectively defining and identifying causes and possible solutions to your problem is to…
4) Select and Implement the Solution
Defining a problem, its causes, and possible solutions won’t actually solve the problem. Your problem solving skills need to result in plans and actions to remedy the difficulty.
Select the most realistic or cost-effective option from your list of possible solutions to the problem. Set those plans in motion: create a new process, procedure, product or service. You may need to get permission from your supervisor at work before you change anything. If your solution is a new product, you may need to get financing before your business can develop and market it.
Just understand that to solve problems, you have to actually do something (apply a solution). There are people who simply have ideas about how to solve problems, and there are people who actually solve problems. Which will you be?
Now, let’s summarize this information about problem solving:
- Great problem solving skills begin with effectively defining the problem. The more detail you can provide to describe a problem, the closer you will come to finding a solution.
- Remember that a well-defined problem is half solved!
- “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A problem occurs because some factor–or combination of factors–create it. When you determine the causes of a problem, you are empowered with knowledge to change or control it.
- A solution to a problem is simply an intervention, or putting a stop to the causes of that problem. You should invent several solutions to a problem because some of them may not be practical or cost-effective.