In my efforts to solve a problem I have often begun by identifying the one issue that affects me and focus on the individual tasks that led to the problem attempting to use logical and critical thinking. I have hit upon the realization that this focus works well with simpler problems that need immediate clarification but it has proven appropriate that problems that are more difficult and require a more long-term and elaborate answer requires the use of a Systems Thinking approach. My failure to seek broad, long-term solutions has me stamping out grass fires while my house burns down.
I have adopted Daniel Aronson ideas on systems thinking to aid in keeping “the big picture” when developing solutions. Critical and creative thinking processes are required when solving problems using systems thinking but I see the concentration shift from breaking down and examining individual tasks to studying how various system tasks shape both that system and the other systems in which it interacts. When using systems thinking, essential in arriving to an amicable and effective end state are the realizations that must be shared by the solution seekers. To which all players must realize that their roles affect other stakeholders and the desired outcome.
Each seeker should study how past solutions have added to a problem and therefore any steps to correct a current problem should be evaluated for negative results and creation of other problems. Crucial too is the required realization that the desired end outcome is affected by outside influences which may not be obvious, controllable or correctable. Regarding the Army’s seven step problem solving process I make the following contribution and observations based on my “tacit” experience acquired during my career and specifically in completing capstone courses on decision making and development of thinking skills.
1. Identify the problem.
This is where I find that people have to be hit in the face before they acknowledge a problem exists. In most instances awareness of a problem exists but is met with apathy unless someone is significantly impacted. But once ownership is taken a great idea is to concisely define the problem and state your desired outcome. Only then can I begin to look for solutions. If I don’t know where I am are going how will I know when I get there?
2. Gather information.
Paraphrasing Confucius and Donald Rumsfeld’s thought on the unknown, finding out what I don’t know and then searching for someone who does is always my first choice. I then use that shared knowledge and direction to ensure I am considering the right information and possibly additional differing views of the problem on my path to a solution.
3. Develop Criteria
In my development of tests to judge a solution I like to ensure every solution can be judged in using the same standard. I believe “there is more than one way to skin a cat,” so I want each solution to be fairly judged against the same criteria and not against other solutions. Having several solutions gives me flexibility in later steps. I have often used Substance, Relevance, Timeliness, Simplicity, and gotten good results.
4. Generate Solutions.
During this step I have used a variety of methods to come up with solutions. Using established methods and techniques helps to capture and hopefully solidify ideas. Fishbone, Flow Chart, Cause and effect, are a few of many available. I use these same techniques later in step 6. I think at this point whatever method you may select the main goal is to get ideas flowing. My preferred method is brainstorming, by trying different and sometimes combinations of techniques I have found what works best for me. Also important in this step is establishing an open and non-judgmental environment where no solution team member holds back any idea no matter how “out there” it may seem. That idea might be the one that leads to an innovative answer.
5. Analyze possible solutions.
Though each step is working off the ones that come before it I find this step to be the most dependent on the effort and results of all the previous steps. The old axiom “trash in – trash out” becomes apparent if I half-stepped through the proceeding steps. If I have spent the proper time and effort on steps 1-4 I discovered this one is the easiest to complete.
6. Compare Possible Solutions.
In this step I go back to the techniques I mentioned in step 4. My preference is to use a Cause and Effect matrix that helps me to develop action alternatives and the outcome results of each solution. I also revert to my “go-to” test criteria and determine which solution best meets the exact or multiple criterion I feel are the most important to the particular situation.
7. Make and implement solutions.
During the make phase of this step, frequently my role is as one who played a major role in completing the previous phases and is now presenting a plan for verdict and usually I am advocating an individual alternative. In this phase it is imperative for me to communicate and advise decision makers with confidence. If I am tentative in my recommendations buy in and implementation may not happen. After decision my “implement” role includes facilitating and coordinating the intent of the plan. Lastly it strikes me that even though I know thinking and decision making skills are keys to success I am always amazed that most want to pick the lock.