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A Project Manager's Short Guide to Effective Problem-Solving in 6 Steps

~ By Duncan Haughey

Young Indian man in a white shirt and a business suit sitting on some steps with a laptop, smiling and typing

For project managers and business analysts like you, effective problem-solving remains an ever-important soft skill that requires you to combine creative thinking and strong analytical skills. The simple six-step process outlined below will help you master effective problem-solving — a skill that will provide you with the ability to bring a new perspective to problems, helping you to design, and implement, effective solutions.

Step #1: Identify the Problem

First, make sure you're dealing with the real problem, not just its symptoms. In information technology, we use root cause analysis to trace back to the origin of a problem. Take the time needed to do this tracing and discover the real reason for a problem by looking at it from different angles. Here are a few tools that can help:

  • Cause and effect diagrams: These diagrams help you gain a solid understanding of what's actually causing the problem.
  • Drill-down technique: This technique helps you split problems into decreasingly smaller parts to gain an increasingly more in-depth understanding of the cause.
  • 5 whys: This approach helps you drill down to a problem's root cause by asking why five times.

Ultimately, all problems fall into three basic cause types:

  1. Physical cause: Equipment has had a material failure and stopped working.
  2. Human cause: Someone made a mistake or forgot to do something.
  3. Organisational cause: A system or process was flawed and/or failed.

Step #2: List All Possible Solutions

Once you understand the problem, it's time to think about possible solutions. If your problem is simple, the solution will often be clear straightaway. But more complex problems may require a formal approach to finding solutions. Here are some potential techniques you could employ:

  • Hold a brainstorming session with your team to identify and explore answers to the problem.
  • Use mind mapping to focus your mind, gain clarity and quickly identify solutions.
  • Ask a coach to employ the GROW model to help you identify the obstacles preventing you from achieving your goal.

Step #3: Evaluate the Solutions

Once you have your list of solutions, evaluate each one by asking a few questions:

  • What are the pros and cons?
  • Which measures will resolve the problem and prevent it from re-occurring?

Step #4: Pick the Best Solution

Weigh the solutions against a good outcome versus risk. Here are a few questions you should be asking to help guide this process:

  • What options can you discard straightaway?
  • Which option will have the best outcome at an acceptable risk level?
  • What is your best option?

Step #5: Document the Selected Solution

Once you've identified the best solution, write it down. This action helps you think through the solution thoroughly and identify any implications of implementing the solution. This step is especially useful when solutions are complex, when they require organising, to ensure a specific process order is followed or when you don't want to rely solely on your memory.

Step #6: Create a Contingency Plan

Circumstances may (and often do!) change, so create a plan of what you will do for any foreseeable futures. Don't be caught unprepared when and if things change.

What Would You Do?

Here are three scenarios you may encounter as a project manager. Faced with these situations, what would you do? Click the down arrow to see answer.

Answer: Assess the situation to see whether there are any parts of the project you can work on until your colleague returns. If not, you should try to contact someone on the colleague's team who can help.

Answer: Regardless of the level of your customer's displeasure, it is your responsibility to ensure they're treated with dignity and respect. You can do this by showing genuine concern for their problem. You're responsible for turning a negative situation into a positive one. In the event you're unable to turn this situation around, you may need to escalate to your line manager and to another level within the customer's organisation.

Answer: Stop work immediately, and evaluate the mistake. Is it small enough to resolve without taking too much time away from the other project work? If so, resolve the mistake and move forward. If there's no other option but to use extra time, which could mean you miss the deadline, then advise your line manager. You may need to reschedule your team and ask them to work overtime to meet the deadline.

As is usually the case, there's no single right answer to each problem, and the answers provided in the example scenarios are just one possibility. Other solutions exist and may, in some cases, even provide a better outcome.

How would you tackle the problems outlined in these scenarios? We'd love to hear about your solutions — tell us about them in the comments!


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