A product manager, call her Susan, claims that sales have dropped off because the development team has not released the necessary app update, because the design folk has not provided them with the assets, because the customer support team has not investigated what features prospects need, because… Poor Susan. I bet she feels trapped in an Orient-Express nightmare.
Ask anyone in the workplace if solving problems is a part of their daily routine and they answer ‘yes’ looking like a wet weekend.
No one likes problems. No one likes the feeling of being stuck. Thankfully, there is an ocean of creative tested-and-tried problem-solving techniques for tackling any workplace issue.
Here comes the most valuable advice: ‘Breathe in and … breathe out’
Sorry for being obvious and, probably, annoying. After all, you’re trying to solve your serious problem, and now this ’breathe in, breathe out, bla-bla-bla…’
The truth is that people tend to do a few mistakes facing a problem. First, they get afraid or uncomfortable and wish it would go away. Second, people feel that they need to come up with an answer and it has to be the right one. Third, they look for someone to blame. Long story short, they are under a tremendous amount of stress. Yeah, facing a problem becomes a problem.
There is the reason why we shouldn’t be stressed out and take an issue as a Problem-which-will-ruin-all-my-career-and-life-as-well: stressed-out people strive for binary problem-solving, limiting the options available to them. In tough moments, we jump to tried-and-tested approaches rather than exploring better and more efficient options.
On second thought, keeping calm and breathing slowly is no longer as foolish as it was in the beginning, isn’t it?
Ask compelling questions, as many as possible
Asking compelling questions is a pre-problem-solving stage that allows brains to play out different scenarios and broaden decision-making process. Imagine that you are a five-year-old kid and try to warm up your problem-solving imagination with countless questions: ‘what if’, ‘why not’, ‘can we’, ‘how about’, etc. What rules should we break? What beliefs should we drop? Is there a precedent that took place in another department or company? The motto of this technique is ‘Look at things from a different perspective’.
Don’t believe yourself, examine context instead
Many problems arise and remain unsolved because we are too lazy to zoom out from the content of the issue and explore the overall context of the situation.
If prospective customers download your app and disappear after a trial period, for instance, examine the context of the industry instead of generating more traffic to your website:
- Has your business industry changed?
- Is your app disconnected from customer needs?
- Does your sales strategy need to be improved?
If your employee continues to show up late for work despite your call-down, try to understand the context of their life before responding strictly:
- What non-work-related issues do they face?
- What is (literally) getting on the way of their work?
- How can your company help them solve their problems?
In other words, take a broader viewpoint before narrowing in on the specific issue.
Storm your brains like there’s no tomorrow
Good old brainstorming session. One of the most effective ways to find the best solution is to generate as many ideas as you can. A quick note for you to consider: don’t forget that nonjudgmental, friendly environment is a very large part of a fruitful brainstorming session.
Here’s a detailed, step-by-step guide to successful brainstorming:
Step 1. The ‘How might we…’ question or HMW.
- Start the brainstorm session with a ‘How might we…’ question. HMW questions should be open enough to inspire creativity and generate as many ideas as possible. At the same time, they should be focused enough to keep everyone on the same page.
Step 2. Note everything.
- Each member of the brainstorm session writes their ideas on stickies. Following that, gather all the ideas on a board group common ideas. If the team can’t produce enough amount of ideas, repeat this session with the same HMW question.
Step 3: Discuss ideas with the phrases ‘I like…’, ‘I wish…’ and ‘What if…’, ‘I wonder…’ and ‘How to…’
Step 4. Select ideas in the most convenient way. For instance, allow the participants to vote on stickies. Also, you can sort ideas into categories like ‘The rational choice’, ‘The most likely to delight everyone’, ‘The hardest to implement’, ‘The long shot’, etc.
This approach enables you to save the ideas that may seem crazy at first but can make sense in the long run.
Step 5. Then, figure out problem-solving strategies, come up with an action plan and assign responsibilities to team members.
The Round-Robin brainstorming technique
Not satisfied with the traditional solution? Many team members just sit around and listen, hoping that someone will fix things? The most energetic folks prevent others from talking entirely? Test out the Round-Robin technique built around the concept that every participant is involved in the brainstorm session actively. The rules are pretty simple:
- People take turns to contribute ideas, feeling free to ‘pass’ if they don’t have a thought to share in that round.
- The session is over when everyone passes.
The Silent brainstorming technique
Recall the recent brainstorm or meeting to take part in. Those members who are the most confident or most forceful are likely the ones whose ideas got picked up and taken forward. Sounds similar? And sometimes active involvement replaces the quality of arguments.
If that happens, why not to conduct a silent brainstorm? Online? Right in your team messenger? The silent brainstorming process involves specific steps like developing ideas individually and sharing them without sitting at the same table. Moreover, team members can join the online brainstorm from anywhere in the world. Working online increases anonymity, enhances parallel thinking and boosts idea diversity.
Wear the Six Thinking Hats
Remember the Sorting Hat trick that helps magicians find one of the four Hogwarts houses that matches them best? Speaking of problem-solving hats, Edward de Bono came up with a no-brainer, yet effective way to tackle challenges by wearing different hats, or in other words, utilizing different perspectives.
Here’s the list of ‘hats’ that may help you become a problem-solving ninja:
- White Hat: The neutral White Hat works with facts and figures that are known or require solving. Wear this hat when a problem has just emerged. ‘The facts, just the facts.’
- Red Hat: When wearing the emotional and intuitive Red Hat, you can reveal your gut reactions to an idea, express your emotions freely and share fears, likes, dislikes, loves and hates.
- Black Hat: Use the cautious Black Hat when you want to get the critical viewpoint. This judgment hat helps decrease the chances of making a poor decision.
- Yellow Hat: The sunny and positive Yellow Hat helps identify the value and positive sides of ideas and counterbalance the judgmental thinking of Black Hat.
- Green Hat is all about creativity, possibilities, alternatives and fresh ideas. It’s great opportunity to contribute new concepts and new perceptions. This is a hat each participant should wear.
- Blue Hat: The organizing Blue Hat manages the thinking process and ensures that the Six Thinking Hats follow the guidelines.
This problem-solving method helps shift perspectives quickly—without sticking to the only one perspective.
The 5 Why’s Technique
The 5 Why’s Technique is an easy-to-use method for uncovering the root of an issue. All you need is asking ‘Why?’ five times. Start with an issue and ask why it happened. Make sure your answer is based on unbiased facts. Continue the process of asking ‘Why?’ four more times. Eventually, you reach the root of the issue. Now you can try to find a solution.
No matter how hard you try it’s extremely hard to avoid personal feelings or opinions. Resist the urge to solve problems emotionally. Plus, it might feel easier to answer ‘I don’t know’ than admit some aspects of the issue (that can be related to you). Nevertheless, if you want to get to the heart of the problem, you should look at things objectively.
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Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)
FMEA is an advanced problem-solving technique that’s widely used in big companies like Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. It helps companies prevent potential issues. Using this method, you analyze each component of your strategy and predict how and when it can fail. In other words, you try to find the so-called ‘failure modes’. Then you determine the effect of each failure mode and the likelihood of its occurrence. Eventually, list the actions you have taken (or you are going to take) to ensure that the issue does not reoccur in future.
Walk away, or the Wanderer technique
Know what? Sometimes the best way to solve an issue is to stop trying. Become a wanderer and just walk away from the problem, at least temporarily. Drink a cup of coffee. Watch the recent Beyonce’s clip. Choose a new t-shirt with a funny slogan. Scroll Instagram news feed. Hear your Muse. In other words, you should loosen up your mind. The key here is catching the moment when to let go of trying to solve the problem.
Leave room for imagination
If none of the above-mentioned problem-solving techniques bring you fruits, here comes the time for creativity. Is there any method that often helps you solve various non-work-related issues? Maybe, it’s time to put it into action in the workplace.
For instance, let’s take a look at the man you probably never heard of – Yoshiro Nakamatso. He was one the most famous inventors with almost 3300 patents to his name. If you wear a digital wristwatch, like to karaoke with friends or know what a floppy disk is (gosh, how old I am!), say thank-you to Yoshiro Nakamatso. What’s more, he was an author of one of the craziest problem-solving technique–the Calm Room.
The Calm Room is actually a bathroom tiled in 24-karat gold. You may ask, why gold? Because it blocks out radio waves and television signals that are harmful to solving problems and making decisions, as stated by Yoshiro, as well as oxygen. ‘If you have too much oxygen in your brain, inspiration will not strike,’ he has said. ‘To starve the brain of oxygen, you must dive deep and allow the water pressure to fill the brain with blood.’ Zero-point-five seconds before death, he came up with the solution to his problem.
It’s up to you if you choose to go for the Calm Room method. Otherwise, get creative and make sure you leave room for imagination while problem solving.
To sum up, there are key things to remember about handling challenges in the workplace. First, problems happen all the time. Second, and the most important, workplace challenges provide us with information about the things that need to be fixed. The ultimate goal of a good problem-solving technique is to make us and our companies more ‘conflict-friendly’ and ‘conflict-competent’.
You can put into action any of above-mentioned problem-solving techniques to get the solution you seek. Here’s a quick look at them:
- Keep calm to avoid high and dry problem-solving approaches and explore better and more efficient options
- Ask compelling questions, as many as possible
- Zoom out from the content of an issue and explore the overall context of a situation
- Adopt unusual brainstorming methods: the Round-Robin or Silent brainstorming
- Don’t stick to the only perspective with the Six Thinking Hats
- Test out The 5 Why’s Technique
- Prevent potential issues with Failure Mode and Effects Analysis
- Finally, leave room for imagination while problem solving
Some techniques, however, are more effective than others, depending on the context. The key here is mix and match different methods to uncover the one that works best for you.