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How to solve a problem (in seven easy steps)

If someone were to ask you how you go about solving a problem or making a difficult decision, how would you reply? Would you say that you go about the task by the seat of your pants? Or would you stop, think about it for a good while, and simply say that you didn't exactly know?

In order to achieve success in your organization, the ability to solve problems in an organized, structured, and timely manner is absolutely crucial, regardless of your rank within the company. This article provides a structured approach to problem solving, one that can be applied no matter the situation.

The seven steps to structured problem solving are outlined below:

1. Identify and clearly define the problem

This is of course your first step. After all, a decision only exists because of a problem. The first thing that must be done is to clearly identify what the problem is; what is it doing (or not doing) for your business; who is affected by it; and what the desired state should be.

2. Establish your objectives and priorities

Rarely is there a time when you've got only one problem to deal with. Once you've determined what the new problem is, the next step is to prioritize it in relation to the other ones currently on your plate. Determining this priority involves three considerations: urgency, current overall impact, and future impacts on your business.

3. Consider possible causes

It is important to look for the root cause(s) of your current problem. Doing so will undoubtedly help you determine what the underlying problem really is.

4. Develop alternative solutions

Before deciding on a solution, draw up a list of feasible alternatives that will meet your needs. Perform this step within your time and budgetary constraints.

5. Evaluate the alternatives and communicate them with the stakeholders

Now that you've determined your set of alternatives, you will need to evaluate the pros and cons of each one on the basis of the following three conditions: i) your level of certainty on the potential outcomes; ii) your level of uncertainty on the outcomes; and iii) your best estimate of the risk involved with the outcome of each alternative.

Another important aspect of this step is to ensure you've communicated your alternatives to the relevant stakeholders who are affected by the outcome. You will most likely need their buy-in here.

6. Choose the best alternative and implement it

After examining the alternatives on the three conditions listed above, select the one which best addresses the problem defined in the first step and be sure to check that the selected alternative is the one which best meets your objectives and priorities. Again, communicate this decision to any relevant stakeholders.

7. Measure the results

The final step is to observe the results of the implementation. Was the decision the right one to make? Can it be improved? You cannot assume with full certainty that once the decision is implemented the outcome will fully meet the desired objective. This is why you must use a system of control and evaluation to ensure the outcome is at least consistent with the desired results -- some optimization after the fact is therefore not out of the ordinary. This follow-up phase is therefore a necessity.

Of course the execution of these seven steps will vary based on the amount of time, money, and/or resources that you have available. However, by using this structured approach to solving problems, you stand a better chance of realizing your objectives and achieving success.

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