How to solve problems like a pro.

Adem Turgut
5 min readJan 7, 2023

Problems are an inevitable part of life, and it’s important to remember that they won’t solve themselves. In this post, we’ll explore techniques for effectively solving problems.

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

The hard truth about problems

Problems are a fact of life.

While you may be able to foresee and prevent a specific problem from occurring, the universe is chaotic and random. You don’t know what you don’t know. It is impossible to plan for everything. Eventually, a problem will arise, and you will need to deal with it.

Once you have accepted this fact, the occurrence of a problem becomes like rain. You expect it to happen and have a method of dealing with it when it does.

Your problems won’t solve themselves.

It can be tempting to take the path of avoidance when facing “difficult” problems (more on this later). This can be very tempting for non-urgent issues. However, the problem lingers and often compounds. I have seen people continually side-step and dodge an issue until, one day; they can’t.

Problems are not difficult. They are just problems.

Two people can face an issue with an entirely different perspective. One person may be overwhelmed with anxiety and dread, thinking this is an impossible challenge. Another person, however, may view the same problem as manageable, even easy.

A problem, in and of itself, does not prescribe difficulty. You decide how big of a challenge you are facing.

How to Solve a Problem

Challenge your opinion

When facing a problem, it can be tempting to tell yourself things like:

  • I don’t know to solve this problem.
  • I won’t solve this problem.
  • This problem is too hard to solve.

These are opinions. But it is easy to fool yourself into thinking these are facts. If this happens, you are pre-conditioning yourself to fail. You have already told yourself that you will not solve the problem, so why not opt for avoidance? After all, you can’t fail if you don’t try.

Instead, reframe your thinking:

  • I don’t to how to solve this problem yet.
  • I will solve this problem
  • This problem can be solved.

Instead of priming yourself for failure, angle towards success. There are a few reasons for doing this. First, it just feels better. Dread and fear are replaced by ambition and confidence. Second, it forces your mind to think about possible solutions (instead of only the problem and excuses for avoiding the issue).

Define the scope of your problem

Talk to stakeholders and document what they know about the issue. Try to maintain consistency when talking to stakeholders. For example, have a list of standard questions to ask each person. This will allow you to compare and contrast the information that you collect.

What data is available? Is there an error message? A log? Can the problem be reproduced? Collect and store whatever data is available. Also, tag all your data (including information from stakeholders) with timestamps, locations and other information to help draw connections between your data points.

Also, ensure that you clearly understand what a “solution state” looks like. That is, what will things be like when the problem is solved? This can often be determined by understanding how things were before the problem started. In most cases, people simply want to return to a normal state when things “worked”.

Important: If the problem is large and widespread, break things down into smaller components. This will allow you to prioritise and rank components of the problem. You will also be able to identify dependencies and a critical path to solving the wider problem.

Know your timeline and your resources

All problems are solvable, given enough time and resources. You need to determine what you have to work with. That is:

  • How quickly the problem needs to be resolved; and
  • The resources that are available for solving the problem.

The urgency for a solution is (usually) inversely proportional to the severity of the problem. Therefore, you need to understand the severity of the problem. This can only be achieved by talking to stakeholders. This may include your management, colleagues and your customers. Following on from the chapter above, it helps to break larger problems into smaller components. This allows you to assign a different severity to each component.

Having established urgency, you can then take one of three paths:

  • Work on solving the problem immediately.
  • Decide when you will solve the problem (and block out time in your schedule to do so).
  • Delegate the problem to someone in your team.

The path you take will depend on the resources available to you. Specifically, your skills, the skills of your team and availability.

Understand the root cause

Urgent problems can be stressful. This can lead to panic. Panic can lead to a desire for shortcuts. When it comes to problem-solving, shortcuts often mean one thing, guessing solutions and hoping for the best. This is ineffective for a few reasons:

  1. Unless you are lucky, the solution that you guess will be wrong.
  2. Each “guess” will waste time and create rework.

Instead, follow the US Navy principle, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. That is, take your time and be methodical. In the context of problem-solving, this means finding the root cause of the issue.

Three popular techniques for identifying the root cause of a problem include:

  • The Five Whys technique involves repeatedly asking “why” something happened to get to the root cause of a problem.
  • The Change Analysis technique involves analysing changes to identify potential root causes of a problem.
  • The Fishbone Diagram (also known as the Ishikawa Diagram or Cause and Effect Diagram) is a visual tool used to identify the potential causes of a problem.

Ask for help

Too many people (in my experience) think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. This is distorted thinking. The opposite is true. Asking for help is a sign of strength and confidence. It also helps build relationships with others, as it signals respect and value that you place in another person’s opinion. Who doesn’t like being asked for advice?

The most valuable benefit of getting help is it often injects t a fresh perspective on the issue. Sometimes, a problem that initially seems very complicated has an easy solution that becomes apparent simply by looking at the issue from a different angle.

--

--

Adem Turgut

CEO of SolveXia (Enterprise Process Automation), Writer and Efficiency Enthusiast