Problem Solving and Decision Making (Solving Problems and Making Decisions)

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Sections of this topic

    Problem Solving and Decision Making (Solving Problems and Making Decisions)

    © Copyright Carter McNamara,
    MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Test – What is Your Personal Decision-Making Style?

    Guidelines to Rational Problem Solving and Decision Making
    Rational Versus Organic Approach to Problem Solving
    and Decision Making

    General Guidelines to Problem Solving and Decision

    Various Methods and Tools for Problem Solving and
    Decision Making

    General Resources for Problem Solving and Decision

    Also consider
    Related Library Topics

    (Also see the closely related topics Decision Making, Group-Based Problem Solving and Decision Making and Planning — Basics.)

    What is Your Personal Decision-Making Style?

    There are many styles of making decisions, ranging from very rational and linear
    to organic and unfolding. Take this online assessment to determine your own

    Your Decision-Making Style

    Do you want to improve or polish your style? Consider the many guidelines included

    Guidelines to Problem Solving and Decision
    Making (Rational Approach)

    Much of what people do is solve problems and make decisions. Often, they are
    “under the gun”, stressed and very short for time. Consequently, when
    they encounter a new problem or decision they must make, they react with a decision
    that seemed to work before. It’s easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle
    of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, it’s often useful
    to get used to an organized approach to problem solving and decision making.
    Not all problems can be solved and decisions made by the following, rather rational
    approach. However, the following basic guidelines will get you started. Don’t
    be intimidated by the length of the list of guidelines. After you’ve practiced
    them a few times, they’ll become second nature to you — enough that you can
    deepen and enrich them to suit your own needs and nature.

    (Note that it might be more your nature to view a “problem” as an
    “opportunity”. Therefore, you might substitute “problem”
    for “opportunity” in the following guidelines.)

    1. Define the problem

    This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the problem
    is. Instead, seek to understand more about why you think there’s a problem.

    Define the problem: (with input from yourself and others). Ask yourself and
    others, the following questions:

    1. What can you see that causes you to think there’s a problem?
    2. Where is it happening?
    3. How is it happening?
    4. When is it happening?
    5. With whom is it happening? (HINT: Don’t jump to “Who is causing the
      problem?” When we’re stressed, blaming is often one of our first reactions.
      To be an effective manager, you need to address issues more than people.)
    6. Why is it happening?
    7. Write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of “The
      following should be happening, but isn’t …” or “The following
      is happening and should be: …” As much as possible, be specific in
      your description, including what is happening, where, how, with whom and why.
      (It may be helpful at this point to use a variety of research methods.

    Defining complex problems:

    If the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating steps 1-7
    until you have descriptions of several related problems.

    Verifying your understanding of the problems:

    It helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with a
    peer or someone else.

    Prioritize the problems:

    If you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then prioritize
    which ones you should address first.

    Note the difference between “important” and “urgent” problems.
    Often, what we consider to be important problems to consider are really just
    urgent problems. Important problems deserve more attention. For example, if
    you’re continually answering “urgent” phone calls, then you’ve probably
    got a more “important” problem and that’s to design a system that
    screens and prioritizes your phone calls.

    Understand your role in the problem:

    Your role in the problem can greatly influence how you perceive the role of
    others. For example, if you’re very stressed out, it’ll probably look like others
    are, too, or, you may resort too quickly to blaming and reprimanding others.
    Or, you are feel very guilty about your role in the problem, you may ignore
    the accountabilities of others.

    2. Look at potential causes for the problem

    • It’s amazing how much you don’t know about what you don’t know. Therefore,
      in this phase, it’s critical to get input from other people who notice the
      problem and who are effected by it.
    • It’s often useful to collect input from other individuals one at a time
      (at least at first). Otherwise, people tend to be inhibited about offering
      their impressions of the real causes of problems.
    • Write down what your opinions and what you’ve heard from others.
    • Regarding what you think might be performance problems associated with
      an employee, it’s often useful to seek advice from a peer or your supervisor
      in order to verify your impression of the problem.
    • Write down a description of the cause of the problem and in terms of what
      is happening, where, when, how, with whom and why.

    3. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem

    At this point, it’s useful to keep others involved (unless you’re facing a
    personal and/or employee performance problem). Brainstorm for solutions to the
    problem. Very simply put, brainstorming is collecting as many ideas as possible,
    then screening them to find the best idea. It’s critical when collecting the
    ideas to not pass any judgment on the ideas — just write them down as you hear
    them. (A wonderful set of skills used to identify the underlying cause of issues
    is Systems Thinking.)

    4. Select an approach to resolve the problem

    • When selecting the best approach, consider:
    • Which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?
    • Which approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now? Do you have
      the resources? Are they affordable? Do you have enough time to implement the
    • What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?

    (The nature of this step, in particular, in the problem solving process is
    why problem solving and decision making are highly integrated.)

    5. Plan the implementation of the best alternative (this is your action plan)

    1. Carefully consider “What will the situation look like when the problem
      is solved?”
    2. What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving
      the problem? What systems or processes should be changed in your organization,
      for example, a new policy or procedure? Don’t resort to solutions where someone
      is “just going to try harder”.
    3. How will you know if the steps are being followed or not? (these are your
      indicators of the success of your plan)
    4. What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
    5. How much time will you need to implement the solution? Write a schedule
      that includes the start and stop times, and when you expect to see certain
      indicators of success.
    6. Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
    7. Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your
      action plan.
    8. Communicate the plan to those who will involved in implementing it and,
      at least, to your immediate supervisor.

    (An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continually
    observation and feedback.)

    6. Monitor implementation of the plan

    Monitor the indicators of success:

    1. Are you seeing what you would expect from the indicators?
    2. Will the plan be done according to schedule?
    3. If the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider: Was the plan
      realistic? Are there sufficient resources to accomplish the plan on schedule?
      Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan? Should the
      plan be changed?

    7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not

    One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to resume
    normal operations in the organization. Still, you should consider:

    1. What changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future?
      Consider changes to policies and procedures, training, etc.
    2. Lastly, consider “What did you learn from this problem solving?”
      Consider new knowledge, understanding and/or skills.
    3. Consider writing a brief memo that highlights the success of the problem
      solving effort, and what you learned as a result. Share it with your supervisor,
      peers and subordinates.

    Rational Versus Organic Approach to Problem


    A person with this preference often prefers using a comprehensive and logical
    approach similar to the guidelines in the above section. For example, the rational
    approach, described below, is often used when addressing large, complex matters
    in strategic planning.

    1. Define the problem.
    2. Examine all potential causes for the problem.
    3. Identify all alternatives to resolve the problem.
    4. Carefully select an alternative.
    5. Develop an orderly implementation plan to implement that best alternative.
    6. Carefully monitor implementation of the plan.
    7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not.

    A major advantage of this approach is that it gives a strong sense of order
    in an otherwise chaotic situation and provides a common frame of reference from
    which people can communicate in the situation. A major disadvantage of this
    approach is that it can take a long time to finish. Some people might argue,
    too, that the world is much too chaotic for the rational approach to be useful.


    Some people assert that the dynamics of organizations and people are not nearly
    so mechanistic as to be improved by solving one problem after another. Often,
    the quality of an organization or life comes from how one handles being “on
    the road” itself, rather than the “arriving at the destination.”
    The quality comes from the ongoing process of trying, rather than from having
    fixed a lot of problems. For many people it is an approach to organizational
    consulting. The following quote is often used when explaining the organic (or
    holistic) approach to problem solving.

    “All the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally
    insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing”
    proves on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some
    higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening
    of outlook, the insoluble lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its
    own terms, but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

    From Jung, Carl, Psychological Types (Pantheon Books, 1923)

    A major advantage of the organic approach is that it is highly adaptable to
    understanding and explaining the chaotic changes that occur in projects and
    everyday life. It also suits the nature of people who shun linear and mechanistic
    approaches to projects. The major disadvantage is that the approach often provides
    no clear frame of reference around which people can communicate, feel comfortable
    and measure progress toward solutions to problems.

    Additional Guidelines for Problem Solving and Decision Making

    Recommended Articles

    Ten Tips for Beefing
    Up Your Problem Solving Tool Box

    Problem Solving
    Techniques (extensive overview of various approaches)

    Questions to Ask Before Selecting a Solution to a Business Problem

    Additional Articles

    Problem-solving and Decision-Making:
    Top 5 Tips to Improve Concentration
    Problem Solving and Decision Making – 12 Great Tips!
    Problem Solving


    Styles and Problem Solving (focus on creativity)

    Problem Solving
    About Causes, Focus on Solutions

    Ten Tips for Beefing Up Your Problem-Solving Tool Box
    Tip: Four Question Method for Proactive Problem Solving

    Tip — How to Bust Paralysis by Analysis


    Powerful Problem-Solving
    Problem Solving Techniques
    Guidelines for
    Selecting An Appropriate Problem Solving Approach

    Factors to
    Consider in Figuring Out What to Do About A Problem

    A Case for Reengineering
    the Problem Solving Process (somewhat advanced)

    Courseware on Problemistics (The art & craft of problem dealing)
    Key Questions to Ask Before Selecting a Solution to a Business Problem
    Adapt your leadership style
    Approach to Problem Solving

    Make Good Decisions, Avoid Bad Consequences
    Priority Management: Are You Doing the Right Things?

    General Guidelines for Decision Making

    Decision Making

    We Sometimes Fool Ourselves When Making Decisions (traps we can fall into)

    of Most Common Decision-Making Mistakes (more traps we can fall into)

    When Your Organization’s Decisions are in the Hands of Devils
    Flawed Decision-making is Dangerous
    Problem-solving and Decision-Making:
    Five Tips
    for Making Better Decisions

    Says People Make Better Decisions With a Full Bladder

    What Everyone Should Know About Decision Making

    Various Tools and Methods for Problem Solving and Decision Making

    (Many people would agree that the following methods and tools
    are also for decision-making.)

    Benefit Analysis (for deciding based on costs)

    Bono Hats (for looking at a situation from many perspectives

    Decision Making (to collect the views of experts and distill expert-based

    Decision Making (rigorous action planning via examining opposite
    points of view)
    Fishbone Diagram —

    Steps to build Fishbone Diagram

    (for groups to learn by watching modeled behaviors)

    Analysis (for choosing among many choices)

    Principle (for finding the options that will make the most difference
    — (20/80 rule”)

    for solving seemingly unsolvable contradictions

    Rational Decision Making
    SWOT Analysis (to analyze from strengths, weaknesses,
    opportunities and threats)

    Work Breakdown Structure (for organizing and relating
    many details)

    General Resources for Problem Solving and Decision Making

    Ultimate Problem-Solving Process Guide: 31 Steps and Resources
    list of various tools
    list of tools

    Decision Making Tools
    Decision-making software: tools and tips


    Decision Making and Problem Solving

    and Reflection

    Mental Models
    (scan down to “Mental Models”)

    Research Methods
    Systems Thinking

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