Good Problem Solving and Decision Making

Steps in Problem Solving and Decision Making

1. Problem Recognition

The problem solving and decision making process always starts with the recognition that a problem exists.  There are many problems that go unrecognised.


  • A discrepancy between existing and a desired state of affairs.
  • A state of difficulty that needs to be resolved; “she and her husband are having problems”; “it is always a job to contact him”; “urban problems …
  • Trouble: a source of difficulty; “one trouble after another delayed the job”; “what’s the problem?”
  • A question raised for consideration or solution; “our homework consisted of ten problems to solve”
  • A question or circumstance that involves difficulty or uncertainty.
  • A problem is an obstacle which makes it difficult to achieve a desired goal, objective or purpose. It refers to a situation, condition, or issue that is yet unresolved.
  • Problems may sometimes be identified because of multiple incidents that exhibit common symptoms.
  • Problems may sometimes be identified because of multiple incidents that exhibit common symptoms.
  • A step in the research process that involves a clear statement of the topic to be studied.
  • An unplanned or unexpected deviation from a predefined standard or expectation.
  • Unknown underlying cause of one or more incidents.
  • A situation that leads to a need or want and that can give rise to an opportunity

A problem can mean fixing “trouble’ or it can be related to an opportunity.  From our perspective the “problem is that we do not have enough information to make the sort of decision we want.  If we were comfortable making a decision the problem would no longer exist.

2. Identify Real Problem

What is the real problem to be solved?

It is very important that the problem should be fully and adequately defined. The underlying hidden issues should also be explored so that they can be sensitively dealt with in the context of the more obvious problem features. If the problem is not carefully identified then it is extremely difficult to find satisfactory solutions. (Sometimes actually identifying the problem is the key to its solution.) Therefore define the stressor or stress reactions within a full context. Ask are there any underlying issues that also need to be addressed?

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.

Defining the problem: (with input from yourself and others)

Ask yourself and others, the following questions:

a. What can you see that causes you to think there’s a problem?

b. Where is it happening?

c. How is it happening?

d. When is it happening?

e. 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.)

f. Why is it happening?

g. Write down a brief  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.

For many people, “Define the Problem” means simply to provide a (written) definition or statement of the problem. There is much more to it than that.

To define means to establish boundaries, to encompass, to enclose, to locate, to isolate, to distinguish, to differentiate, to set apart. To define the problem state (or the solved state) means, at the very least, to do the following:

  • To establish boundaries; to delineate (Locate).
  • To give distinguishing characteristics; to differentiate (Isolate).
  • To state the nature of; to describe precisely (Articulate).
  • To state the meaning of; to provide a definition (Explicate).

Rarely are definitions of the problem state or the solved state crystal-clear up front. Clarity typically develops over time.

Defining complex problems:

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

Verifying your understanding of the problems:

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

Prioritise the problems:

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

b. 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 prioritises 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.

More Questions

  • What has gone wrong? What isn’t working properly? What is?
  • What should be happening that isn’t?
  • What shouldn’t be happening that is?
  • What are the specific symptoms and indicators?
  • Where is it? Is it only there or is it elsewhere too?
  • When is it? Is it only then or is it at other times too?
  • What does it include? What does it exclude?
  • What all is affected by this problem? Who all is affected by it?
  • How big is it? How bad is it?
  • What is it costing? Is it worth fixing?
  • How urgent is it? Can we wait it out?
  • Will it go away of its own accord?
  • What happens if we don’t do anything?
  • What happens if we do the wrong thing?

3. Look at Potential Causes for the Problem

Gather information – Do research

a. 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.

b. 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.

c. Write down what your opinions and what you’ve heard from others.

d. 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.

e. Write down a description of the cause of the problem and in terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom and why.

More Questions

  • Should we look for causes? Were things okay before?
  • Did the problem pop up or sneak up on us?
  • When did things go wrong? What went wrong?
  • What changed right about then or slightly before?
  • Does this change account for the problem?
  • Can whatever changed be corrected?
  • If not, is there a viable workaround or “jury rig”?
  • What do the solutions that are being proposed tell us about the perceived “causes”?

4. Goals and Objectives

Refer to your existing Goals and Objectives or create them to give you a point of reference in decision making.

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • What are we trying to preserve?
  • What are we trying to avoid?
  • What are we trying to eliminate?

More Questions

  • What would things look like if they were going right?
  • What would be happening that isn’t?
  • What wouldn’t be happening that is?
  • What do we want we don’t have? What are we trying to achieve?
  • What do we have we don’t want? What are we trying to eliminate?
  • What do we not have that we don’t want? What are we trying to avoid?
  • What do we have that we want to keep? What are we trying to preserve? What results are we after?
  • What will serve as evidence of success? Failure?
  • How will we know the problem is solved?
  • What is the “should be”? Who says?

4. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem

Many alternative solutions should emerge in the process. In fact it is helpful to have as many alternatives as possible. This process may be time consuming and sometime exhausting but it is absolutely necessary.

a. At this point, it’s useful to keep others involved (unless you’re facing a personal and/or employee performance problem). Use problem solving tools and techniques such as Brainstorm for solutions to the problem.

Apply action possibilities to the goals set in Step 2. Some goals may have to be eliminated because they are unrealistic. Others may have to be modified. Some can be achieved. Be specific in defining the possible solutions. Try to be creative when considering options.

Develop some really crazy ones just to get your mind stimulated. Mix and match various ideas just to see where they lead. All the historic problem solvers from Archimedes to Einstein have been noted for their feats of bringing to bear, on difficult problems, concepts and principles from apparently disparate fields of knowledge.

More questions

  • What are our options?
  • What are their costs? What are their benefits?
  • What are their side effects?
  • How do we decide? How long do we have to decide?
  • Do we have our egos out of this?
  • What are our restraints and constraints?
  • What are all the things we must do?
  • What are all the things we can’t do?
  • Who says? Are they real or imagined?
  • What are we assuming? What are we overlooking?
  • Can we get there from here?
  • What has to give? Resources? Results? Time? Money?

5. Consider the Possible Consequences

What might happen if I put these options into practice?

Consider the consequences of taking certain steps. Imagine and consider how others might respond if they faced a similar situation. Make realistic assessments and do not avoid painful answers. Write down the consequences and face them no matter how difficult that might be in the first instance. It is possible to make considerable progress once reality is confronted. Strength can be drawn from reality. Evaluate the pros and cons. Rehearse strategies and behaviours by means of creative imagination.

6. Select an Approach to Resolve the Problem

When selecting the best approach, consider:

a. Which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?

b. 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 approach?

c. 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.)

There are many tools that may be useful.  These include:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis (eg. Paired Comparison Analysis and Grid Analysis)
  • Decision Trees
  • PMI stands for ‘Plus/Minus/Interesting’
  • Cost/Benefit Analysis
  • Affinity Diagrams
  • Balanced Scorecard
  • Impact Analysis
  • Prioritisation
  • Inductive Reasoning
  • Deductive Reasoning
  • Delphi Method
  • Matrix Analysis (eg the Boston Matrix)
  • Critical Success Factor Analysis
  • ‘Six Thinking Hats’
  • Force Field Analysis

6. What Is The Best Solution Currently Available?

Try to define what you would consider to be the ideal solution, but recognise that this may not be available currently or is impractical in terms of resources available (Time, funds, skills).  There may be no single ideal solution (each has advantages and disadvantages) Determine the best solution available given the circumstances.

Consider the longer term

Short term solutions will only require revisiting again.  A solution to a problem gives you an opportunity to gain more than just a solution to an immediate problem. What solution will give the best future result – a sustainable strategic advantage?

Flexibility – Consider the potential to make adjustments after the decision is made.

More questions

  • What frame of reference is appropriate?
  • What kind or class of problem is it?
  • What are we calling it? How do we have it labelled?
  • What is the structure of this problem?
  • What factors or elements make it up?
  • How do these factors relate to one another?
  • What means-end relationships exist?
  • Are we dealing with some kind of mathematical structure?
  • Are we dealing with some kind of production or state-change process?
  • Is the structure psychological or sociological, that is, are we dealing with people and politics?
  • Is the structure one of events occurring over time?
  • Do we have a model of this structure?
  • Should we construct one?
  • How might we show all this in a picture or diagram?
  • Where in the structure of the problem are the factors I’m trying to affect? Which factors affect or drive those?
  • Which of these factors are truly driving the problem?
  • Do we need to change peoples’ behaviour, the procedures they’re following, the system they’re using, or all of the above?
  • What means are available for affecting the factors we’ve targeted?
  • Training for people?
  • A procedural or methods modification?
  • Process redesign?
  • An equipment change?
  • A systems change?
  • Staffing changes?
  • Resource allocation?

7. Build Consensus and Support

The reality of success is that you will need the support of others (Politics and Power) if the decision is to be successfully implemented.  This is best considered before making a decision.

Consider:  It is not enough for a leader to know what is right, but to have the ability to make it happen.  A great idea will fail if it is not accepted and acted on by those who are needed to make it succeed.  You may have to compromise or forget the whole concept.

  • Who needs to know? When?
  • What is the best way to inform them?
  • Who needs to be involved? When?
  • What is the best way to involve them?
  • Who might support or oppose our definition of the problem? Why?
  • Who might support or oppose our view of the solved state? Why?
  • Who might support or oppose our solution? Why?
  • Whose support do we need to make this thing work?
  • What’s in it for them? What’s at risk for them?
  • Who has to commit to what in order for this to work?

8. Make a Decision

This is often the most difficult step of all. Consult with others; discuss the options facing you; draw on good advice. Having considered all the alternatives then make a decision. Don’t waffle or procrastinate. This will only aggravate the problem rather than solving it.

Just as people are different, so are their styles of decision making. Each person is a result of all of the decisions made in their life to date. Recognizing this, here are some tips to enhance your decision making batting average.

Do not make decisions that are not yours to make.

When making a decision you are simply choosing from among alternatives. You are not making a choice between right and wrong.

Don’t procrastinate but avoid snap decisions. Move fast on the reversible ones and slowly on the less-reversible.

Choosing the right alternative at the wrong time is not any better than the wrong alternative at the right time, so make the decision while you still have time.

Do your decision making on paper. Make notes and keep your ideas visible so you can consider all the relevant information in making this decision.

Be sure to choose based on what is right, not who is right.

Write down the pros and cons of a line of action. It clarifies your thinking and makes for a better decision.

Make decisions as you go along. Do not let them accumulate. A backlog of many little decisions could be harder to deal with than one big and complex decision.

Consider those affected by your decision. Whenever feasible, get them involved to increase their commitment.

Recognise that you cannot know with 100% certainty that your decision is correct because the actions to implement it are to take place in the future. So make it and don’t worry about it.

Use the OAR, O. A. R. approach in decision making. Look at O, Objectives you are seeking to attain, A, the Alternatives you sense are available to you and R, the risk of the alternative you are considering.

It has been said that a decision should always be made at the lowest possible level and as close to the scene of action as possible. However, a decision should always be made at a level insuring that all activities and objectives affected are fully considered. The first rule tells us how far down a decision should be made. The second how far down it can be made.

Remember that not making a decision is a decision not to take action.

To be effective a manager must have the luxury of having the right to be wrong.

Trust yourself to make a decision and then to be able to field the consequences appropriately.

Don’t waste your time making decisions that do not have to be made.

Determine alternative courses of action before gathering data.

Before implementing what appears to be the best choice, assess the risk by asking “What can I think of that might go wrong with this alternative ?”

About 80% of decisions you make are not of long term significance or importance. Establish operating limits and let others make them for you.

When you make decision yourself in lieu of group involvement , you can do it quicker (and perhaps better), but recognise the potential for less commitment by those affected and the greater difficulty in getting them implemented.  As part of your decision making process, always consider how the decision is to be implemented.

As soon as you are aware that a decision will have to be made on a specific situation, review the facts at hand then set it aside. Let this incubate in your subconscious mind until it is time to finally make the decision.

Once the decision has been made, don’t look back. Be aware of how it is currently affecting you and focus on your next move. Never regret a decision. It was the right thing to do at the time. Now focus on what is right at this time.  Discontinue prolonged deliberation about your decision. Make it and carry it through.  Once you have made the decision and have started what you are going to do, put the “what if’s” aside and do it with commitment.

The simple reality is that in making a decision you are trying to predict and influence the future.  You will not know with any real certainty if it will work.  Therefore implement the best decision available and make changes and adjustments as required

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

a. Carefully consider “What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?”

b. 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”.

c. How will you know if the steps are being followed or not? (these are your indicators of the success of your plan)

d. What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?

e. 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.

f. Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?

g. Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your action plan.

h. 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.)

More questions

  • What kind of a time frame are we talking about?
  • Who does what when?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we know if things are going okay or fouled up?
  • What’s our backup or contingency plan?
  • Do we even need one?
  • How do we monitor progress?

10. Monitor implementation of the plan and make adjustments

Monitor the indicators of success:

a. Are you seeing what you would expect from the indicators?

b. Will the plan be done according to schedule?

c. 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?

Verify if the problem has been resolved or not

Did It Work?

Re-examine the original problem in light of the attempt at problem solving. View any possible failures or disappointments as needed feedback to begin the problem-solving process once again.

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

a. What changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future? Consider changes to policies and procedures, training, etc.

b. Lastly, consider “What did you learn from this problem solving?” Consider new knowledge, understanding and/or skills.

c. 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.

More questions

  • How did it go?
  • Did it work?
  • Have any new problems been created?
  • Do they offset the gains from solving the original one?
  • Are we better off or worse off than before?
  • What did we spend? What did we gain?
  • Was it worth it?
  • What did we learn?
  • What didn’t work? Why?
  • What could be made to work better? How?
  • Should our plans be revised? In what ways?

Dr. Brian Monger is Executive Director of the Marketing Association of ANZ –


One thought on “Good Problem Solving and Decision Making

  1. Thank you – worth reading – did I know problem resolution was so complicated? I am not sure! Whenever I have innovated, and I have invented a few creative solutions, it has been inspiration more than the result of a logical exploration although knowledge of the situation and objective(s), brainstorms/team discussions are clearly hugely helpful!

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