• Dave Bates

How do you solve problems in business?

5 questions I use regularly to help solve problems

A photo of a wooden brain teaser puzzle that serves as an example of a complex problem someone needs to solve.
Problems as puzzles - CC0 Photo by kieran on Unsplash

I was recently asked to respond to the question "how do you solve business problems?"


Here are the 5 high-level framework questions I use to solve problems both in business and in life:

  1. What’s the scope of the problem we need to solve?

  2. What does a “solved” problem look like?

  3. By when do we need a solution and how iterative can it be?

  4. How do we communicate what’s happening?

  5. How do we finish solving the problem well?

I invite you to read on and learn more about what's behind each question.



1. What’s the scope of the problem we need to solve?


A problem’s scope includes the people involved as well as the impact the problem has caused or will cause if no action is taken.


On the people side, I find it helpful to start by asking who is directly affected by the problem.


In business, this might be a customer or an employee who has to deal with the situation. It also extends to people we might not normally think to include. In some case, for example, management or stakeholders might need to be aware of the problem’s existence and the efforts we’re taking to limit risk or impact if the problem occurs.


Scope also includes making a clear threat assessment. We can divide this into categories that include:

  • Evaluation of an impact in progress (quantifying the damage that is happening or has already happened)

  • Assessment of the risk of future impact (what’s the likelihood it will occur and what is the expected severity of an impact if it does)

To successfully gauge the scope of the problem, the person or team solving it must look deeper to uncover root causes. This is valuable because solving a surface level problem can give the team false confidence that the issue is resolved.


A lower-level issue that remains unsolved can create a recurrence of the problem. In some cases, it can lead to an increased risk or realized risk because the initial solution actually amplifies the issue.


Techniques such as the “5-whys” method and others are helpful tools for quickly identifying possible root causes.



2. What does a “solved” problem look like?


With a clear eye toward who is involved with the problem and an understanding of the way it will impact the business, we have the basic tools to begin looking at possible solutions.


There are likely to be at least a few alternatives to solving the problem and its root causes. A team that’s well prepared to solve problems has a framework for creating options.


For example, if a problem is unlikely to occur and have a low impact if it does, a team might actually create bigger problems by focusing on a solution. A framework that recognizes and plans for managing things like organizational debt allows effective prioritization.


Most problems can’t simply be ignored or deferred.


Their solutions range from a tactical “bandage” to a “permanent” solution – and everything in between. Helping a team develop criteria driven solutions allows them to quickly apply risk probability and impact to possible solutions and rank them based on the situation at hand.



3. By when do we need a solution and how iterative can it be?


When done well, a set of risk-based action plans provide the team with a solid starting point and a roadmap.


Cultivating the discipline of thinking in iterations helps the team discover actions they can begin to take immediately instead of waiting to define a complete and comprehensive solution.


It is important to note that this is not a substitute for exercising care. Iterative thinking is not synonymous with compulsive or reactive action.


Instead, iterative problem solving aims to strike a strong balance between knowing what first steps will likely be universally helpful and then taking them in parallel with development of the next action steps.



4. How do we communicate what’s happening?


Effective communication is an essential element in problem solving.


Teams should be clear about who is responsible for sharing information with clients, employees, management, and other stakeholders.


Individuals and teams that incorporate a basic communications plan as part of their problem-solving framework create space to work the problem and solution.


When we’re clear on who needs what information – and take the time to provide it appropriately – we are able to satisfy expectations and increase satisfaction in the people we’re serving with our solutions.



5. How do we finish solving the problem well?


When we begin to solve problems, we nearly always encounter new or different information. Sometimes, that means the situation is actually worse than we understood it to be at the beginning.


With a risk-based and iterative approach to solving, the framework allows an individual or team to make adjustments along the way. It also reduces the risk of burnout due to stress and fear.


Problems often occur at inconvenient times. It can lead to fatigue and a desire among stakeholders to do the most expedient thing to “just make it go away”.


An effective leader recognizes this risk and is prepared to help stakeholders, team members, and other affected people to understand why it is important to continue down the problem-solving path.


With strong leadership, a risk-based approach, and an adaptive framework, we have the best chance at facilitating through solutions to even the most challenging business problems.



If you're a leader of a growing business:

  • What approach do you take to solving business problems?

  • How might you incorporate a more risk-based into your problem-solving framework?

  • Who is objectively helping you navigate the process of tuning your problem-solving approach so you don't have to do it alone?


If you are leading leading a technology-based business that's in or headed toward the growth stage, we should talk. Call 919-925-0784 now and leave a message so we can schedule a time to chat.




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