Managers engage in problem-solving every day! By some estimates, 80% of the time they don't even realize they're doing it. These, of course, are the small problems, the ones that will impact only you.

It’s the other 20%, the ones with farther-reaching consequences that require managers to follow a conscious process.

First, Find Out
How Much Authority
You Have

Probably a lot! Even new managers are expected to solve problems routinely. I would coach them to solve as many problems as they can, especially the small ones.

Take a problem to the boss only if it is a major one or you are really stumped. Always have a couple of possible solutions with you and be able to explain the upside and downside of each – don’t just plunk down a problem and expect your boss to solve it. The message that sends is that you are hesitant, unsure of yourself and reluctant to step up to your responsibilities.


If something is not right and you don’t know why, you have a problem! Assuming for the moment that you have a significant problem, what is the best way to solve it? There are a number of problem-solving tools and techniques and every manager has their own preferences.

I would recommend you use a straightforward, seven-step approach to problem-solving.

But before you start, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is this similar to other problems I’ve faced?

  • How would someone I respect solve the problem?

  • What experts can I call on to help me solve the problem?

  • What are some good sources of information on this subject?

  • If the problem involves someone else, how does he or she view it?

The solution to your problem may just jump out. If it doesn’t, follow the process below.

Problem-Solving Steps

  1. Clearly define the problem. When managers iace a problem, too often they focus on one or two symptoms, not the root problem itself. So be sure to resolve the problem and not just a symptom. If you just address a symptom, the problem won’t be solved and will keep recurring. Write everything down. What went wrong, what are the symptoms, why it is important to solve this problem?

    Note: Solving a big problem is like taking on a project so treat it accordingly: identify tasks, make and adjust assignments, keep track of what’s due and when, and get the appropriate management support.

  2. Analyze the cause. Once you’ve defined the problem and believe you know cause, it’s time to involve the “stakeholders” – people who can do something to fix the problem or who have a vested interest in its solution. Keep them involved in the process until the problem is solved.

    Note: There may be more than one cause. Be sure to uncover them all. Together (either as a group or one-on-one depending on the nature of the problem), discuss the cause. Although you may be unable to reach a consensus, you, as the manager, need to be sure the cause is clearly identified.

  3. Identify alternative solutions. Still involving the stakeholders, brainstorm solutions. Write every suggestion down, discounting nothing. This may require that you investigate some alternatives to test them for feasibility before including them as possible solutions. Be careful at this point not to assume anything!

  4. Assess the alternatives. List all the alternatives that came out of the brainstorming session and evaluate which one (or perhaps more than one) will best solve the problem. Listen carefully for personal agendas of the stakeholders that may cloud their impartiality.

  5. Choose the best solution(s). If needed, break down the solution into tasks that individual stakeholders will be responsible for. Agree on a timeline for implementing the solution, how to prevent the problem from occurring again, and how you will measure the success of the solution once it is implemented.

  6. Implement the solution. Start moving toward the solution. The stakeholders, including you, know what they have to do. It’s a good idea to plan for things to go wrong. Have a backup plan in mind if your solution starts to create problems of its own.

  7. Evaluate if the problem has been solved. Even though it sounds obvious, you need to be clear about how you will know, when and if the problem is solved. Problem solving can take on a life of its own, particularly if there is a stakeholder who was/is unwilling to accept the cause.

Until these problem-solving steps become second nature to you, try using this worksheet (opens new window) and you’ll be comfortable that you haven’t overlooked any steps.

Conflict Resolution
Doesn't Have To Be Confrontational

Everyone has their own personal way of approaching conflict resolution. I don’t know anyone who willingly brings it on, but I do know a lot of people who will do just about anything to avoid dealing with it. As managers, we have to confront conflict, resolve it and get back to a peaceful, productive working environment.

The need for conflict resolution may arise between you and a team member, you and your boss, or between members of your team. Since it’s impossible to anticipate the specifics of conflicts into which you may be drawn, I advise you to adopt Daniel Robin’s “Seven Attitudes to Dissolve Conflict”, which apply to any conflict situations and represent an attitude that is less confrontational.

A Problem-Solving Case Study

Take a real world problem. An employee’s attendance and attitude is having a negative impact your ability to do your job. Follow it through the process. (I chose this problem example because it actually happened to me when first joined a company.)

Use Visualization
To Boost Your Problem-Solving Ability

Visualization is a powerful technique used by the world’s best athletes to condition their subconscious minds for peak performance. Try using visualization to help solve a problem and you’ll find yourself using this trick in a variety of other situations.

  • Find a quiet time and place - probably not in the office. Relax and tell yourself that a solution to your problem exists and all you have to do is find it. Make this your mantra.

  • Close your eyes and picture yourself following the problem-solving steps outlined above. Replicate in your mind the way you feel – increasingly confident, self-assured, in control of the outcome - as you complete each step in the process. Take your time and repeat the exercise as often as you can. (Just as you are falling asleep at night is a good time when you’re relaxed – we hope!)

  • Part way through your problem solving process, begin altering your visualization to picture yourself as you acknowledge the problem has been solved. Feel your sense of accomplishment, enjoy the recognition you are receiving, the respect you have earned. Again, take your time and repeat the exercise as often as you can.

I’m not sure how or why visualization works, but it does. When the technique was first suggested to me, I was more than a little skeptical – until I tried it. Now I’m a fan!

Were You Hired to Be a
Full-Time Problem-Solver?

If your new management position involves business forecasting, planning, new product development or other tasks that require you to solve significant problems routinely, you will probably want to review some more sophisticated problem-solving techniques right away. These might include:

  • Appreciation – extracting maximum information from facts
  • Drill Down – breaking problems down into manageable parts
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams – identifying the causes of problems
  • Flow Charts – understanding process flows
  • Systems Diagrams – understanding the way factors interact
  • SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  • Cash Flow Forecasting – testing the viability of a project
  • Risk Analysis – managing the risks you face
  • Porter’s Five Forces – understanding power in a situation
  • PEST Analysis – understanding the big picture
  • Value Chains – excellence in what really matters to customers
  • USP/Unique Selling Proposition Analysis – finding your competitive edge

You will also find information about sophisticated problem-solving techniques (opens new window) to be helpful as you become better able to recognize problems and deal with them quickly, effectively and thoroughly.

Pick Your Battles

Just because there is a problem doesn’t necessarily mean you have to solve it. Ask yourself what will happen if you don’t solve this particular problem and if the answer is “not much” or “nothing”, move on to something more important unless or until the problem recurs.