The 5 Steps of Problem Solving

Problem solving is a critical skill for success in business—in fact it’s often what you are hired and paid to do. This article explains the five problem solving steps and provides strategies on how to execute each one.

Defining Problem Solving

Before we talk about the stages of problem solving, it’s important to have a definition of what it is. Let’s look at the two roots of problem solving — problems and solutions.

Problem – a state of desire for reaching a definite goal from a present condition [1]
Solution
– the management of a problem in a way that successfully meets the goals set for treating it [2]

[1] Problem solving on Wikipedia
[2] Introduction to Problem Solving by Robert Harris

One important call-out is the importance of having a goal. As defined above, the solution may not completely solve problem, but it does meet the goals you establish for treating it–you may not be able to completely resolve the problem (end world hunger), but you can have a goal to help it (reduce the number of starving children by 10%).

The Five Steps of Problem Solving

With that understanding of problem solving, let’s talk about the steps that can get you there. The five problem solving steps are shown in the chart below:

problem solving steps

However this chart as is a little misleading. Not all problems follow these steps linearly, especially for very challenging problems. Instead, you’ll likely move back and forth between the steps as you continue to work on the problem, as shown below:

problem solving steps iterative

Let’s explore of these steps in more detail, understanding what it is and the inputs and outputs of each phase.

1. Define the Problem

aka What are you trying to solve? In addition to getting clear on what the problem is, defining the problem also establishes a goal for what you want to achieve.

Input: something is wrong or something could be improved.
Output: a clear definition of the opportunity and a goal for fixing it.

2. Brainstorm Ideas

aka What are some ways to solve the problem? The goal is to create a list of possible solutions to choose from. The harder the problem, the more solutions you may need.

Input: a goal; research of the problem and possible solutions; imagination.
Output: pick-list of possible solutions that would achieve the stated goal.

3. Decide on a Solution

aka What are you going to do? The ideal solution is effective (it will meet the goal), efficient (is affordable), and has the fewest side effects (limited consequences from implementation).

Input: pick-list of possible solutions; decision-making criteria.
Output:decision of what solution you will implement.

4. Implement the Solution

aka What are you doing? The implementation of a solution requires planning and execution. It’s often iterative, where the focus should be on short implementation cycles with testing and feedback, not trying to get it “perfect” the first time.

Input: decision; planning; hard work.
Output: resolution to the problem.

5. Review the Results

aka What did you do? To know you successfully solved the problem, it’s important to review what worked, what didn’t and what impact the solution had. It also helps you improve long-term problem solving skills and keeps you from re-inventing the wheel.

Input: resolutions; results of the implementation.
Output: insights; case-studies; bullets on your resume.

Improving Problem Solving Skills

Once you understand the five steps of problem solving, you can build your skill level in each one. Often we’re naturally good at a couple of the phases and not as naturally good at others. Some people are great at generating ideas but struggle implementing them. Other people have great execution skills but can’t make decisions on which solutions to use. Knowing the different problem solving steps allows you to work on your weak areas, or team-up with someone who’s strengths complement yours.

Want to improve your problem solving skills? Check out our Problem Solving training programs or try these 20 problem solving activities to improve creativity.

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • GBSINGH September 1, 2013, 10:50 am

    I like the contents of the problem solving steps.
    informative.

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