Learning to become a proficient problem solver is the key to becoming a successful manager or entrepreneur. That is because problem solving is at the heart of the planning process.
Everyone is involved in solving problems every day in his or her personal and business life. In fact, we are problem-solving most of the time, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Some are easy, like should I walk the back stairs to the 30th floor or take the elevator? Others are more difficult. For example, a manager is given the assignment to plan the launch of a new service. She knows the objective: deliver the service to customers. Yet, as soon as she gets started, what does she find? There are numerous obstacles in her way, from lack of money to lack of staff.
In the planning process, managers need a systematic way to identify, evaluate and solve the problems standing in the way of reaching their objectives. Here are 8 steps to smooth the way.
When asked what the first step is in problem solving most people will reply, “Define the problem.” Uh, uh. That doesn’t even come until step 3 in the problem solving process.
The first step is:
BE AWARE THERE IS A PROBLEM. Now that sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? But the fact is, even the CEO and the Board of Directors aren’t always aware there is a problem. Take General Motors. For a while the big-as-a-boat Hummer was a cash cow, but the company misread consumers who were trending toward smaller, more efficient cars. Because it takes so long to design and get a car to market, the company was stuck with a load of Hummers when the price of gasoline hit $4 a gallon. So if you are a manager, keep your antenna up to problems that may be lurking where you least expect them. But also discipline yourself against too early a statement of the problem.
We learned earlier that the first step in problem solving is to be aware there is a problem. So once you acknowledge the problem, what do you do next? No, you’re still not ready to define the problem. First, you must –
GATHER FACTS. When you see or sense a problem, gather as many facts as you can. Be sure to separate fact from opinion. For example, a few years ago Saks Fifth Avenue discontinued its petite department because of poor sales. They posited that petite shoppers preferred to buy clothes in the misses department. But soon Saks was receiving scores of letters from customers complaining they could no longer find clothes that fit. Saks officials then figured out the real reason sales were dropping in petite sizes. The New York Times printed a story headlined “By Demand, Saks Revives Petite Department.” In it the SVP for women’s clothing was quoted, “In the past, the petite assortment has been very suited and very classic in nature, not really addressing the lifestyle needs of the customer.” End of story.
DEFINE THE PROBLEM. Ah, at last we get to define the problem. We acknowledge there is a problem. We’ve gathered all the necessary facts. We can now define the problem that is standing in the way of reaching an objective. In the case of Saks, it wasn’t that petite women preferred shopping in the misses department. The problem was that Saks was offering designs that did not address the lifestyle needs of the petite customer.
I once worked with a company in the insurance business that was getting whipped by the competition. They were convinced that it was because they didn’t have enough sales people. So they enlarged their sales force, and still they couldn’t compete. After gathering all the facts, we learned their problem was not that they didn’t have enough sales people. The problem was they didn’t have enough well-trained sales people.
So, what to do after defining the problem?
GATHER MORE FACTS. Yes, here we go again gathering more facts. Let’s go back to the example of General Motors. We don’t know for sure what GM did, once they discovered the problem that they had thousands of unsold cars sitting in car dealerships. But we can assume they conducted an analysis of the marketplace to learn consumer needs and desires, evaluated the competition and their own resources to determine what kind of car to build that would sell. Oh, and they got a big infusion of cash from the government to keep them going until they solved their problems.
PROVIDE ALL POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS. For GM to return to profitability, it could be to make smaller cars, close dealerships, abandon some models (all of which they have done). For Saks, it could be to launch different lines of clothing to address differing lifestyles needs of their customers. But all of this takes time, money and people. So, the next step is –
ESTABLISH CRITERIA. It’s rarely possible to implement every possible solution to a problem. So, you need to establish criteria, such as the amount of money available, people resources, time frame, etc. Once you’ve established criteria, the next step is –
ANALYZE AND EVALUATE. Based on your criteria analyze and evaluate the best possible solution, and then –
PLAN. Now that you’ve determined the best solution to your problem, develop your plan. Act now.
I’d love to hear from you about how you’ve solved some of your problems.