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By ITS Education Asia

[Problem Solving Guide-Home]

The following Action Plan covers the main features of the problem solving process. You can use it as a guide in tackling the problems you encounter. Remember that these stages often mix and overlap. You may have noted additional points which are relevant to your particular situation.

Recognising and overcoming problem solving blocks

There is a large range of blocks which can hinder your problem solving. To avoid their effects you need to

  • be constantly aware of the factors which can hinder problem solving
  • learn specific techniques for overcoming different types of block
  • apply these techniques when you recognise that a block is hindering your problem solving.
Action Plan

Involving others in solving the problem

Some problems are solved more effectively in a group. The more times you answer 'yes' to the following questions, the 'more appropriate it is to tackle the problem as a group:

  • Can the problem be defined in many different ways?
  • Is information from many different sources required?
  • Is it a very specialised problem?
  • Does the problem have implications. for many people?
  • Isthere likely to be many possible solutions?
  • Is it a complex problem with many different aspects?
  • Will a solution need to be agreed by others?

The deciding question will always be: Are suitable and relevant people available to work together in solving this problem?' There are a number of techniques designed specifically for solving problems as a group, including brainstorming and Synectics.

Recognising and defining the problem

This is a key stage in solving problems effectively. To recognise problems efficiently you need to

  • be aware of the areas in which problems may arise.
  • establish specific methods of detection

- monitor performance against agreed standards 

- observe staff to detect behaviour which may reflect an underlying problem.

- listen to staff so that you are aware of their concerns

- regularly review and compare current and past performance and behaviour to detect gradual deterioration.

To define problems effectively you need to distinguish between open-ended and closed problems and analyse them differently.

Closed problems:

  • identify and record all aspects of the deviation from the norm
  • analyse the information to identify- possible causes
  • identify the real cause
  • define in a similar way to open-ended problems. ­

Open-ended problems

  • identify all the possible objectives that you may want to achieve - in terms of 'How to ...?'
  • select the 'How to ...?' statements which most accurately represent your problem
  • for each one, list the characteristics of the current and desired situations.
  • add details of any obstacles which may prevent you achieving the desired situation

Deciding if and when to act

Not all problems are important enough to merit the resources required to solve them. Even when they do, it's sometimes better to wait rather than to act immediately. Answering the following questions will tell you if the problem requires action and whether it would be best to act now or wait.

  • Will the problem solve itself?
  • Are the effects significant enough to merit the resources that may be required to solve the problem?
  •  Is the problem diminishing? (wait)
  • Are the obstacles diminishing? (wait)
  • Will the cause subside? (wait)
  • Is the problem having serious effects? (act)
  •  Is the problem growing? (act)    
  • Are the obstacles growing? (act)
  • Is there a deadline? (act)

Finding possible solutions

Open-ended problems usually have many possible solu­tions while closed problems have one or a limited number of ways to overcome the cause. To find possible solutions you need to follow these stages, which form a cycle:

Identify the relevant information - Initially based on your problem definition:

  • What information is needed?
  • Why is it needed?
  • Where can it be obtained?
  • How reliable will it be?
  • How can it be obtained?

Collect and record the information

This is a systematic process, starting with the information which will take the longest time to collect. Checking the accuracy of the information is vital.

Represent the information.

Create a model of the problem. This helps to give it structure and helps in your search for solutions. At this stage it maybe necessary to look for other possible causes of closed problems.

Define criteria of effectiveness

This gives direction to your search for solutions and involves listing the characteristics of an 'ideal' solution:

  • What benefits are you seeking?
  • What obstacles/causes have to be dealt with?
  • What are the constraints on the situation?
  • What will be acceptable to those involved or affected?
  • What level of risk is acceptable?

Some of these factors can only be defined once you have found possible solutions.

Construct courses of action to solve the problem

This involves finding ways of achieving the criteria of effectiveness you have defined. There are five sources of ideas:

  • past experience. of similar situations
  • logical deduction from the facts
  • other people
  • published sources
  • creative idea generation techniques.

The possible solutions are modified and refined to take account of factors which could influence their effectiveness, eg

  • What could go wrong?
  • Are there. factors over which you have no control?
  • Could the objectives change?
  • Could the obstacles become more intractable?
  • Could. new obstacles arise?
  • Could this solution create an opportunity that can be exploited at the same time?

Evaluating your solutions

Deciding which of the possible solutions will be most effective in solving the problem is a systematic process which can be divided into stages:

Involve others

  • when you have a formal obligation to consult them
  • when you require additional information to help in the evaluation
  • when you require their expert skills when you need their commitment.

Define the ideal solution:

  • results required
  • benefits in terms of the objective
  • dealing effectively with obstacles/causes
  • acceptance of the solution by other people
  • constraints
  • limits of resources
  • minimum results acceptable
  • maximum disadvantages that can be tolerated.

The results required are given numerical values according to their relative importance. Where, the outcome is uncertain you need to calculate probabilities.

Eliminate unviable solutions,  - those which do not meet the constraints.

Evaluate the remaining solutions, -  estimate how well each one fits the ideal solution.

Assess the risks associated with this solution, -

  • Is the information used in the construction and evaluation of the solution accurate?
  • If not, could this put the success of the solution in jeopardy, and how?  
  • What could happen if the implementation does not go as planned?
  • What are the chances of these things happening?
  • What would be the effects?
  • How severe would they be?

If the risks are unacceptable and cannot be reduced sufficiently by adapting the solution it must be rejected. Continue this process until you find an acceptable solution.

Make the decision to implement the solution. Until you commit yourself to taking action you cannot proceed any further and the problem will remain unsolved.

Getting your solution accepted

To encourage people to accept your solution, and to gain their commitment to its successful implementation, first you need to draw up a plan for implementing the solution.

Identify areas of possible opposition by considering

  • how the solution could adversely affect the people involved
  • what they expect or need from the solution and what it will give them
  • their feelings about the nature of the problem and your solution
  • their relationship with, and perception of, you
  • what the solution requires of them.

Prepare a presentation which optimises the chances of your solution being accepted and supported, eg

  • incorporate measures to counter opposition
  • get people involved and interested
  • appeal to their self-interest
  • justify your proposed use of resources
  • explain your solution effectively
  • be prepared to make concessions.

Deliver your presentation effectively, whether in a meeting or a report, eg

  • choose the right moment
  •  make it clear and easy to understand
  • show your enthusiasm for the solution.

Persevere until you succeed, either by improving your presentation or your solution, presenting it to someone else, or by looking for a different solution.

Implementing your solution

To ensure that your solution is implemented successfully, and achieves the results you expect, you need to

Plan and prepare to implement the solution:

  • draw up a plan of action

- the actions required

- a schedule of actions

- the resources required (what and when)

- measures to counter adverse consequences

- management of the action

  • review the plan to ensure that it is adequate and accurate
  • select, brief and train those involved to ensure that they have the appropriate information, skills and qualities required to implement the action successfully.

Implement and monitor the action:

  • supervise the action
  • monitor its-implementation and effects
  • keep it on track by countering unexpected delays, faults and obstacles.

Review and analyse the success of the action:

  • compare the outcome of the action with the expected results
  • identify any discrepancies (positive or negative) and analyse them to identify the causes
  • take further action if necessary eg to correct a shortfall or to maintain current results.


  • have confidence in your ability to learn
  • practice being methodical and using the appropriate techniques
  • be patient with your progress
  • analyse your mistakes and learn from them
  • if your working environment is not conducive to effective problem solving, either try to change it or learn how to avoid its effects
  • don't be afraid to ask for help in the form of advice or training


Improving your problem solving skills requires

  • a methodical approach
  • continuous practice
  • perseverance
  • confidence in being able to succeed.

Good luck!

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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