Basic problem-solving techniques

Problem-solving

July 27, 2022

Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos was visiting one of his warehouses in 2004 when he was hit with a problem: an employee had injured his finger on a conveyor belt. 

Bezos was determined to find out what caused the accident so it wouldn't happen again. He gathered his team and immediately started trying to find the root cause of the accident by brainstorming on a whiteboard. When the team was finished discussing how the employee got hurt and why he had placed his bag on a conveyor belt: the answer revealed itself. 

The employee simply needed somewhere to put his bag because there were no tables in the warehouse. When he used the conveyor belt as a table, he was injured. Bezos then knew to stop the incident from happening again. The company would provide tables for employees to use when they needed a place for their bags.

Simple. 

This is an excellent example of solving a problem with a simple technique and a conviction that even the most complex problems have simple causes—all you have to do is find them. 

This piece will break down basic problem-solving techniques you can use to solve simple and complex problems. 

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

The importance of zooming out—and zooming in

Take a look at this image.  

Do you see a blue vase, two white faces… or both? 🤔

American novelist Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the testament to first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in our minds simultaneously and still function. Seeing a blue vase and two white faces in the image at the same time is an example of this. 

It's a great analogy of the most effective way for humans to solve problems: taking a deep dive into the details of the problem while simultaneously zooming out and remembering the big picture. 

Most problems, especially complex ones, have a lot of moving parts. Creating a detailed work plan helps us break down problems into pieces, making them easier to handle. Here's an example: 

Each of the activities has its own timeline based on analysis and responsibility. However, if we zoom out on the entire work plan, it's clear that each activity and timeline is part of the bigger goal: getting to the final major review at the beginning of August. 

Next time you face a problem, remember to zoom in—and out. 

⚡ Prezent Pro-Tip: Focus on smaller details and remember the bigger picture simultaneously with these three tips ⬇️

  1. Take a breath. Every time you feel stuck, take a breath and count to three. It'll help you refocus on the problem. 
  2. Create space. Push your chair away from the table (just a few inches is enough) to create physical and mental space between you and the problem. This will help you think. 
  3. Focus on the core question. Zoom out and go back to the core question—what problem are you really trying to solve?

The best practices for focused work-planning

There are two types of work plans—the good and the bad. 

Bad work plans are easy to spot. They're usually long and full of complex details and responsibilities. They can confuse even the most focused teams and cause employees to lose sight of their goals and the problem they must solve. 

A good work plan is a focused, smarter alternative to traditional, long-winded work plans. They are rooted in four core principles: 

  1. They are hypothesis-driven. Unless a clear hypothesis is proven, no analysis can be done. A solid hypothesis grounds a work plan and saves time reading through piles of data
  2. They work backwards from a dummy chart. Focused work plans are rooted in visualization. Unless a team member can visualize the final output, no work is done 
  3. They are driven by sequences. The order of a focused work plan matters. Analysis and data sources should be done before timelines are set in stone. This ensures the foundation for solving problems is handled earlier in the process. 
  4. They are designed for short stints. The best-focused work plans are built for two to three weeks of talks. If the problem is more complex, multiple focused plans can be pieced together, so the team doesn't get overwhelmed. 

An example of the steps involved in building a focused work plan

A focused work plan for Blockbuster's problems  

Let's bring a focused work plan to life with the core question Blockbuster CEO James Keyes asked himself when trying to save the business: How can Blockbuster increase the profitability of its stores?

A main source of profit for Blockbuster was the number of products purchased in store. We can use this as the starting issue to build a focused work plan, from hypothesis to end product: 

  • Hypothesis Customers will buy candy and popcorn if stores stock it.
  • Analysis. Blockbuster perceived its customers would relate home movies to movie theatres, so they would want popcorn and other snacks. The other theory was these snacks were impulse purchases. 
  • Source. Analysis was based on surveys about customers watching movies and other retailer interviews.
  • Responsibility + timing. A team member is then assigned the task and given set deadlines
  • End product. A clearly defined chart shows three segments' revenues based on the likelihood of buying candy and popcorn in-store. 

Here's the final result of the mock work plan:

By visualizing the problem and following clear, thorough steps, Blockbuster has an effective plan for proving its hypothesis that selling more snacks will increase profitability. This simple formula can solve most problems, and the clear timeline can help energize teams and keep them on track.

Best practices for successful focused work planning

  1. Keep the end product in mind. Work backward from the end product to stay focused.
  2. Create clear deadlines. Timing is important. Set clear deadlines for drafts and final deliverables and push your team to stick to them. 
  3. Limit focused work to two to three weeks. If the problem is more complex or you need more time, string together multiple work plans instead.

How to master the 80-20 principle

The Pareto principle, more commonly known as the 80-20 principle, can be applied to many areas of a business. 

From problems to customers and profitability, the principle is the majority of output (80%) is caused by just 20% of inputs. 

Image source

For example, the Pareto Principle states that 80% of company profits will come from 20% of its customers, and if those customers are prioritized, the business can improve revenues and efficiency. 

Like all heuristic theories, the Pareto Principle has hidden issues to look out for before it's applied:

  • It's not a rule. The Pareto Principle is a theory, so it can't always be applied to problems or hypotheses at face value. Use it as a guide and reinforce it with data
  • It's about efficiency, not effectiveness. The principle can help businesses be more efficient or profitable by focusing on the right inputs. What it won't do is steer us in the right direction about how to do it. 
  • It can be biased. The 80-20 principle is biased towards past activities, customers and profit margins. Applying the rule can make it hard for businesses to try something different and step outside their comfort zones. 

Despite its flaws, the 80-20 principle is an ideal way for businesses to improve efficiency and test out hypotheses to focus on what matters.

Expert Corner: Suchi Srinivasan shares her favorite problem-solving techniques

Suchi Srinivasan has spent years at companies like McKinsey and Dell Technologies, solving complex problems for her clients. 

Along the way, she has learned most problems are very clear in scope, but breaking them down into smaller parts helps to visualize the larger issue. 

"As I've grown in my career with years of experience, I found the problems I now encounter are much more complex. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time actually trying to uncover the real problems. 

"What is it that's actually a problem, what is a symptom, which piece of the problem will lead to the most impact? Asking those kinds of questions gets to the heart of the problem or the real question, which then allows the team to make progress."

Srinivasan has a four-part checklist that helps her correctly identify problems before moving on to the solutions phase: 

  1. Context. Understand the detailed background and every piece of the situation to get the full context of the problem
  2. Situation. Explain the current situation the problem exists in
  3. Goals. Take a step back and consider the goals of your problem-solving plan. These perceived goals will help you measure your problem-solving success
  4. Analysis. Conduct thorough analysis and repeatedly ask "why" to get to the root cause of the problem

Once these elements are identified, Srinivasan says you'll be ready to move on to the next part of the problem-solving process. No matter how complex the problem is, Srinivasan says breaking the problem down while remembering the bigger picture allows you to outline an accurate problem statement. You can do this in four steps:

  • Step 1: Ask clarifying questions to understand the problem's cause and clear up any grey areas.
  • Step 2: Structuring your problem into a statement by creating as many components as necessary. This makes it easier to solve each one individually.
  • Step 3: Gather the facts. Understand what the influencing factors are and what the foundation of the problem is. Keep asking "why" to break through any bias. 
  • Step 4: Once you have reached the solution, attempt to make it as actionable as possible. 

Finally, Srinivasan suggests intentionally and continually asking "why" until the problem becomes clearer. 

"By repeatedly asking why, the answer reveals itself," she says. 

The best way to solve problems is to start with the basics

When you are faced with a problem, solving it can be daunting. 

Break the problem down into manageable pieces and tackle each one individually to help you find the root cause. A focused work plan will help you visualize the problem and manage each piece separately while sticking to a timeline. 

Most problems have a simple solution. These basic problem-solving techniques will help you get there by zooming out, focusing on the bigger picture and asking "why" until the answer reveals itself. 

Want to learn more about solving problems? Check out Prezent's detailed article on how to structure problems here.