Consulting 3 – Solving Problems

Dr. Brian Monger




5. IMPLEMENT                                     2. DETERMINE ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS

4. DEVELOP  ACTION PLAN                               3. CHOOSE   BETWEEN  ALTERNATIVES


This technique is commonly known as the Harvard Case Study Method of Problem-Solving; it is also known in the military as the Staff Study Method.  It is a structured, step-by-step process of considering and analyzing the various alternatives available to solve a problem, and honing in on the one best solution.  Let’s take a look at the six elements of this method.

1.  Central problem

2.  Relevant factors

3.  Alternative courses of action or solutions, with advantages and disadvantages of each

4.  Discussion and analysis of alternatives

5.  Conclusions

6.  MakeRecommendations

Defining the Central Problem

Defining the single central problem in a particular situation is the single most difficult, most important task in consulting problem-solving.  If you correctly identify the main problem in a situation, you can find many different approaches to solving it.  But if the wrong problem is identified, even a brilliant solution will not correct the situation.

One of the major errors that new consultants make in defining the central problem is to confuse the symptoms with the problem.  Frequently a consultant will be on a case with many different problems; in fact, there usually is more than one problem.  The object then is to locate the main problem in the situation, the one that is more important than any other and is therefore “central.”

Once you have identified the central problem, you should write an initial draft of what the problem is.  Try to keep this statement as simple as possible by making it as short as you can – a one sentence central problem is usually best.

Also be careful not to word the problem as if it were the solution, by assuming one particular course of action is correct before you analyze it.  Remember, too, that your goal is to develop as many different courses of action as possible.  Try not to word your statement so that only two alternatives are possible.  Usually, however, you can reword the problem statement so that you open it up to more than two courses of action.

In your statement, include important specifics about the problem.

Be careful about making your problem statement too long, by incorporating various additional factors.  Even if these factors are relevant, they will make the problem statement unwieldy, awkward, and difficult for any reader to understand.

With these cautionary notes in mind, begin formulating your problem statement.  Phrase it as a question, beginning with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “how,” or “why.”

List Relevant Factors and  Variables

Even though there will be many different factors and variables in any situation, you are to determine and list only those that are relevant to the central problem you have decided upon.

In this task you will be listing “factors” – not just facts.  You may include estimates, computations, assumptions, and even educated guesses, in addition to facts.

List Alternatives

In this section you will list every alternative, solution, or course of action that could possibly solve the central problem.  Then list the advantages and the disadvantages of each one.  It is at this point that frequently you must go back and modify your central problem statement.  You may think of a solution that is excellent, but not a solution to the central problem as you originally wrote it.

Analyze the Alternatives

The focus of this section should always be to compare, and discuss in detail, the relative importances of the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action.

List Your Conclusions

List the conclusions that you arrive at as a result of your discussion and analysis.  Do not add any explanations; they belong in the previous section.  Also, don’t list conclusions based on information extraneous to your analysis.

Make Recommendations

State the results of your analysis and your recommendation on what your client should do to solve the central problem you have defined.  As with your conclusions, do not include extraneous information or explanations; always remember that explanations go in the discussion and analysis section.  If you are presenting this orally, your client can always ask additional questions; if this is a written report, your client can always contact you for addi tional information.  However, if you have done the analysis correctly, there will be no need to explain your recommendations; your reasons will be obvious from your discussion and analysis.

A conclusion is written in the passive tense – “Marketing research should be done.”  Recommendations are written in the imperative – “Initiate marketing research.”  If a conclusion on your list read, “A new consultant should be hired,” the recommendation would be, “Hire a new Consultant.”


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