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Published on March 31, 2020

5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving

5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving

Problem solving is the process of reviewing every element of an issue so you can get to a solution or fix it.

Problem solving is a series of steps that you work through, covering multiple aspects of a problem until you can find a solution. Whether that’s in a group collaboratively or independently, the process remains the same, but the approach and the steps can differ.

To find a problem solving approach that works for you, your team, or your company, you have to take into consideration the environment you’re in and personalities around you.

Knowing the characters in the room will help you decide on the best approach to try and ultimately get to the best solution.

5 Problem Solving Steps

No matter what the problem is, to solve it, you nearly always have to follow these steps. Missing any of these steps can cause the problem to either resurface or the solution to not be implemented correctly.

Once you know these steps, you can then get creative with the approach you take to find the solutions you need.

1. Define the Problem

You must define the problem before you start, whether you’re solving it independently or as a group. If you don’t have a single view of what the problem is, you could be fixing something that doesn’t need fixing, or you’ll fix the wrong problem.

Spend time elaborating on the problem, write it down, and discuss so you’re clear on why the problem is occurring and who it is impacting.

2. Ideate

Once you have clarity on the problem, you then need to start thinking about every possible solution. This is where you go big and broad as you want to come up with as many potential solutions as possible.

Don’t just take the first idea; build out as many as you can as the more you create, the more likely you’ll find a solution that has the lowest impact on the team.

3. Decide on a Solution

Whichever solution you pick individually or as a team, make sure you think about the impact on others if you implement this solution. Ask questions like:

  • How will they react to this change?
  • Will they need to change anything?
  • Who do we need to inform of this change?

4. Implement the Solution

When you implement the solution, be prepared for feedback, and plan for this. When you roll out the solution, request feedback on the success of the change made.

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5. Review, Iterate, and Improve

Making a change shouldn’t be a one time action. Spend time reviewing the results of the change to make sure it’s made the required impact and met the desired outcomes.

Make changes where needed so you can further improve the solution implemented.

4 Techniques to Encourage Problem Solving

Each individual or team is going to have different needs and may need a different technique to encourage problem solving. Try one of these to stimulate the process.

1-2-4 All Approach + Voting

The 1-2-4-All is a problem solving approach that can work no matter how large the group is. Everyone is involved, and you can generate a vast amount of ideas quickly.

Ideas and solutions are discussed and organized rapidly, and what is great about this approach is the attendees own their ideas, so when it comes to implementing the solutions, you don’t have more work to gain buy-in.

As a facilitator, you first need to present the group with a question explaining the problem or situation. For example, “What actions or ideas would you recommend to solve the company’s lack of quiet working areas?”

1

With the question clear for all to see, the group then spends 5 minutes to reflect on the question individually. They can jot down their thoughts and ideas on Post-Its.

2

Now ask the participants to find one other person to discuss their ideas and thoughts with. They can be in threes if the numbers aren’t even.

Ask the group to move around to find a partner so they can mix with new people.

Ask the pairs to spend 5 minutes discussing their shared ideas and thoughts.

4

Next, put the group into groups of two or three pairs to make groups of 4-6. Each group shouldn’t be larger than six as the chances of everyone being able to speak reduces.

Ask the group to discuss one interesting idea they’ve heard in previous rounds, and each group member shares one each.

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The group then needs to pick their preferred solution to the problem. This doesn’t have to be voted on, just one that resonated most with the group.

Then ask for three actions that could be taken to implement this change.

All

Bring everyone back together as a group and ask open questions like “What is the one thing you discussed that stood out for you?” or “Is there something you now see differently following these discussions?”

By the end of the session, you’ll have multiple approaches to solve the problem, and the whole group will have contributed to the future solutions and improvements.

The Lightning Decision Jam

The Lightning Decision Jam is a great way to solve problems collaboratively and agree on one solution or experiment you want to try straight away. It encourages team decision making, but at the same time, the individual can get their ideas and feedback across.[1]

If, as a team, you have a particular area you want to improve upon, like the office environment, for example, this approach is perfect.

The approach follows a simple loop.

Make a Note – Stick It on The Wall – Vote – Prioritize

Using sticky notes, the technique identifies major problems, encourages solutions, and opens the group up for discussion. It allows each team member to play an active role in identifying both problems and ways to solve them.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a fantastic visual thinking tool that allows you to bring problems to life by building out the connections and visualizing the relationships that make up the problem.

You can use a mind map to quickly expand upon the problem and give yourself the full picture of the causes of the problem, as well as solutions.

The goal of a mind map is to simplify the problem and link the causes and solutions to the problem.

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To create a mind map, you must first create the central topic (level 1). In this case, that’s the problem.

Next, create the linked topics (level 2) that you place around and connect to the main central topic with a simple line.

If the central topic is “The client is always changing their mind at the last minute,” then you could have linked topics like:

  • How often does this happen?
  • Why are they doing this?
  • What are they asking for?
  • How do they ask for it?
  • What impact does this have?

Adding these linking topics allows you to start building out the main causes of the problem as you can begin to see the full picture of what you need to fix.

Once you’re happy that you’ve covered the breadth of the problem and its issues, you can start to ideate on how you’re going to fix it.

Now start adding subtopics (level 3) linking to each of the level 2 topics.

This is where you can start to go big on solutions and ideas to help fix the problem.

For each of the linked topics (level 2), start to think about how you can prevent them, mitigate them, or improve them. As this is just ideas on paper, write down anything that comes to mind, even if you think the client will never agree to it!

The more you write down, the more ideas you’ll have until you find one or two that could solve the main problem.

Once you run out of ideas, take a step back and highlight your favourite solutions to take forward and implement.

The 5 Why’s

The five why’s can sound a little controversial, and you shouldn’t try this without prepping the team beforehand.

Asking why is a great way to go deep into the root of the problem to make the individual or team really think about the cause. When a problem arises, we often have preconceived ideas about why this problem has occurred, which is usually based on our experiences or beliefs.

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Start with describing the problem, and then the facilitator can ask “Why?” fives time or more until you get to the root of the problem.

It’s tough at first to keep being asked why, but it’s also satisfying when you get to the root of the problem.

As a facilitator, although the basic approach is to ask why, you need to be careful not to guide the participant down a single route.

To help with this, you can use a mind map with the problem at the center. Then ask a why question that will result in multiple secondary topics around the central problem. Having this visual representation of the problem helps you build out more useful why questions around it.

Once you get to the root of the problem, don’t forget you must be clear in the actions to put a fix in place to resolve it.

The Bottom Line

To fix a problem, you must first be in a position where you fully understand it. There are many ways to misinterpret a problem, and the best way to understand them is through conversation with the team or individuals who are experiencing it.

Once you’re aligned, you can then begin to work on the solutions that will have the greatest impact.

For the more significant or more difficult problems to solve, it’s often advisable to break the solution up into smaller actions or improvements.

Trial these improvements in short iterations, and then continue the conversations to review and improve the solution. Implementing all of these steps will help you root out the problems and find useful solutions.

More Tips on Problem Solving

Featured photo credit: You X Ventures via unsplash.com

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Ben Willmott

Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home

Why You Can’t Focus And How To Fix It 8 Essential Project Management Skills for Productive Work 5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving How to Break a Bad Habit in 21 Days (Or Less) How to Compartmentalize to Live a Stress-Free and Successful Life

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020

How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Workplace

We all crave constructive feedback. We want to know not just what we’re doing well but also what we could be doing better.

However, giving and getting constructive feedback isn’t just some feel-good exercise. In the workplace, it’s part and parcel of how companies grow.

Let’s take a closer look.

Why Constructive Feedback Is Critical

A culture of feedback benefits individuals on a team and the team itself. Constructive feedback has the following effects:

Builds Workers’ Skills

Think about the last time you made a mistake. Did you come away from it feeling attacked—a key marker of destructive feedback—or did you feel like you learned something new?

Every time a team member learns something, they become more valuable to the business. The range of tasks they can tackle increases. Over time, they make fewer mistakes, require less supervision, and become more willing to ask for help.

Boosts Employee Loyalty

Constructive feedback is a two-way street. Employees want to receive it, but they also want the feedback they give to be taken seriously.

If employees see their constructive feedback ignored, they may take it to mean they aren’t a valued part of the team. Nine in ten employees say they’d be more likely to stick with a company that takes and acts on their feedback.[1]

Strengthens Team Bonds

Without trust, teams cannot function. Constructive feedback builds trust because it shows that the giver of the feedback cares about the success of the recipient.

However, for constructive feedback to work its magic, both sides have to assume good intentions. Those giving the feedback must genuinely want to help, and those getting it has to assume that the goal is to build them up rather than to tear them down.

Promotes Mentorship

There’s nothing wrong with a single round of constructive feedback. But when it really makes a difference is when it’s repeated—continuous, constructive feedback is the bread and butter of mentorship.

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Be the change you want to see on your team. Give constructive feedback often and authentically, and others will naturally start to see you as a mentor.

Clearly, constructive feedback is something most teams could use more of. But how do you actually give it?

How to Give Constructive Feedback

Giving constructive feedback is tricky. Get it wrong, and your message might fall on deaf ears. Get it really wrong, and you could sow distrust or create tension across the entire team.

Here are ways to give constructive feedback properly:

1. Listen First

Often, what you perceive as a mistake is a decision someone made for a good reason. Listening is the key to effective communication.

Seek to understand: how did the other person arrive at her choice or action?

You could say:

  • “Help me understand your thought process.”
  • “What led you to take that step?”
  • “What’s your perspective?”

2. Lead With a Compliment

In school, you might have heard it called the “sandwich method”: Before (and ideally, after) giving difficult feedback, share a compliment. That signals to the recipient that you value their work.

You could say:

  • “Great design. Can we see it with a different font?”
  • “Good thinking. What if we tried this?”

3. Address the Wider Team

Sometimes, constructive feedback is best given indirectly. If your comment could benefit others on the team, or if the person whom you’re really speaking to might take it the wrong way, try communicating your feedback in a group setting.

You could say:

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  • “Let’s think through this together.”
  • “I want everyone to see . . .”

4. Ask How You Can Help

When you’re on a team, you’re all in it together. When a mistake happens, you have to realize that everyone—not just the person who made it—has a role in fixing it. Give constructive feedback in a way that recognizes this dynamic.

You could say:

  • “What can I do to support you?”
  • “How can I make your life easier?
  • “Is there something I could do better?”

5. Give Examples

To be useful, constructive feedback needs to be concrete. Illustrate your advice by pointing to an ideal.

What should the end result look like? Who has the process down pat?

You could say:

  • “I wanted to show you . . .”
  • “This is what I’d like yours to look like.”
  • “This is a perfect example.”
  • “My ideal is . . .”

6. Be Empathetic

Even when there’s trust in a team, mistakes can be embarrassing. Lessons can be hard to swallow. Constructive feedback is more likely to be taken to heart when it’s accompanied by empathy.

You could say:

  • “I know it’s hard to hear.”
  • “I understand.”
  • “I’m sorry.”

7. Smile

Management consultancies like Credera teach that communication is a combination of the content, delivery, and presentation.[2] When giving constructive feedback, make sure your body language is as positive as your message. Your smile is one of your best tools for getting constructive feedback to connect.

8. Be Grateful

When you’re frustrated about a mistake, it can be tough to see the silver lining. But you don’t have to look that hard. Every constructive feedback session is a chance for the team to get better and grow closer.

You could say:

  • “I’m glad you brought this up.”
  • “We all learned an important lesson.”
  • “I love improving as a team.”

9. Avoid Accusations

Giving tough feedback without losing your cool is one of the toughest parts of working with others. Great leaders and project managers get upset at the mistake, not the person who made it.[3]

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You could say:

  • “We all make mistakes.”
  • “I know you did your best.”
  • “I don’t hold it against you.”

10. Take Responsibility

More often than not, mistakes are made because of miscommunications Recognize your own role in them.

Could you have been clearer in your directions? Did you set the other person up for success?

You could say:

  • “I should have . . .”
  • “Next time, I’ll . . .”

11. Time it Right

Constructive feedback shouldn’t catch people off guard. Don’t give it while everyone is packing up to leave work. Don’t interrupt a good lunch conversation.

If in doubt, ask the person to whom you’re giving feedback to schedule the session themselves. Encourage them to choose a time when they’ll be able to focus on the conversation rather than their next task.

12. Use Their Name

When you hear your name, your ears naturally perk up. Use that when giving constructive feedback. Just remember that constructive feedback should be personalized, not personal.

You could say:

  • “Bob, I wanted to chat through . . .”
  • “Does that make sense, Jesse?”

13. Suggest, Don’t Order

When you give constructive feedback, it’s important not to be adversarial. The very act of giving feedback recognizes that the person who made the mistake had a choice—and when the situation comes up again, they’ll be able to choose differently.

You could say:

  • “Next time, I suggest . . .”
  • “Try it this way.”
  • “Are you on board with that?”

14. Be Brief

Even when given empathetically, constructive feedback can be uncomfortable to receive. Get your message across, make sure there are no hard feelings, and move on.

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One exception? If the feedback isn’t understood, make clear that you have plenty of time for questions. Rushing through what’s clearly an open conversation is disrespectful and discouraging.

15. Follow Up

Not all lessons are learned immediately. After giving a member of your team constructive feedback, follow it up with an email. Make sure you’re just as respectful and helpful in your written feedback as you are on your verbal communication.

You could say:

  • “I wanted to recap . . .”
  • “Thanks for chatting with me about . . .”
  • “Did that make sense?”

16. Expect Improvement

Although you should always deliver constructive feedback in a supportive manner, you should also expect to see it implemented. If it’s a long-term issue, set milestones.

By what date would you like to see what sort of improvement? How will you measure that improvement?

You could say:

  • “I’d like to see you . . .”
  • “Let’s check back in after . . .”
  • “I’m expecting you to . . .”
  • “Let’s make a dent in that by . . .”

17. Give Second Chances

Giving feedback, no matter how constructive, is a waste of time if you don’t provide an opportunity to implement it. Don’t set up a “gotcha” moment, but do tap the recipient of your feedback next time a similar task comes up.

You could say:

  • “I know you’ll rock it next time.”
  • “I’d love to see you try again.”
  • “Let’s give it another go.”

Final Thoughts

Constructive feedback is not an easy nut to crack. If you don’t give it well, then maybe it’s time to get some. Never be afraid to ask.

More on Constructive Feedback

Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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