Problem Solving: How Defining Problems Generates Better Solutions

December 29, 2021 by Amanda Reill

Problem Solving: How Defining Problems Generates Better Solutions

Problem Solving: How Defining Problems Generates Better Solutions

“It isn’t that they cannot find the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem.” – G.K Chesterton

Whether you’re in an ongoing conflict with a loved one, failing to perform at work, or struggling to get your child to do their homework, all of us will inevitably face problems. When we’re deep in a personal battle and wondering how to come out victorious, it can be difficult to know our best weapons. In the end, we may find that we’re using the wrong weapons entirely.

Our growth as individuals is largely dependent on the benefits we derive from problem-solving. But what if the key to solving some of our greatest frustrations actually lies in properly defining the problem? By doing so, we can discover whether the weapons we have previously used did not work because we were fighting the wrong enemy. 

Re-defining our problems and finding more creative ways to solve them has the potential to free us from a lot of heartache, and equip us with the right strategies and weapons in the future.


What exactly is the problem?


Simply defined, a problem is any unwanted situation that stands between you and a desired outcome. Others have defined it as any disturbance from normality that hinders progress. Unlike puzzles and riddles that can be fun to solve, real-life problems tend to be mentally, financially, and emotionally taxing. Depending on how you approach it, a problem can either present you with an opportunity for growth or serve as the thing that stymies your development as an individual or business.


Rather than being overwhelmed by a problem (which often just causes us to stew), encourage your client to see it as a riddle. Help them identify the “symptoms” of the problem they feel they have. For example, let’s say the problem is: my boss doesn’t respect me. The symptoms might be that the boss seems dismissive in conversation, doesn’t give me additional responsibilities, and never follows up when she says she will. 

After putting together a list of evidence to what the client perceives to be the problem, try to take a look at the issue from other angles. Take inventory of other potential causes. Could there be a personal issue distracting the boss from work? Could it be that there are other ways your client could be demonstrating their value? Could it be that your client is misinterpreting their behavior?


Oftentimes, solving the problem isn’t possible until you properly define the problem. But other times, the true problem may reveal itself through the problem-solving process.


Problem-solving and its processes


Problem-solving is a systematic approach to exploring an unwanted result to better understand the problem, and then find a lasting solution for it. As a coach, you will take your client through the various stages of this process, starting with the first and most important step of defining or identifying the problem. This process requires a lot of questioning, analysis, and reasoning. Some helpful questions you can take your client through are below:


  • How did this problem start?
  • How long has it been going on?
  • Who has it affected?
  • What data can you generate to help you better understand the situation?
  • If work-related, how has this affected your business or output?


Another highly effective method for working out the root cause analysis of a problem is the 5 Whys. This interrogative technique is perfect for exploring and drilling down to the hidden cause of the problem you’re trying to solve. Essentially, this technique calls for you to ask “why” several times (an average of five times) until you’ve arrived at the root cause of the problem in question. 

According to Sakichi Toyoda, who developed the methodology for the manufacturers of Toyota, “repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear."


The problem-solving process can be a bit tedious, but there is no shortcut through the route of research, questioning, analysis, and planning. The sequence of steps outlined below will enable your client to generate an appropriate solution for most challenges: 

  1. Clearly define the problem
  2. Define your goals
  3. Conduct a root cause analysis
  4. Generate possible solutions
  5. Analyze each solution
  6. Choose the best option
  7. Develop action plan
  8. Evaluate results


So, you want to be a problem solver


Usually, riddles come with clues. In real-life situations, emotional reactions are the clues, and these can sometimes be confusing. A problem solver’s job is to sift through these seemingly disconnected reactions and responses and get down to the root of the problem. To enable them do that effectively, they will have to be:

  1. An innovative thinker. True problem-solvers are creative thinkers. They think differently and like to explore new ways to address issues. Encourage your client to stay open-minded and be willing to not only think outside the box, but to do away with the box completely and cast a new mold. 
  2. Inclusive/cooperative. One that welcomes the ideas and contributions of others is open to learning from them. Not only that, they are willing to defer to the opinions of experts on the matter.
  3. Excellent at communicating. This involves active listening and empathy. It is important that your client shows a genuine desire to understand the concerns of the business, and be able to explain the rationale behind the resolution when determined.
  4. Highly analytical. A good problem-solver is able to critically analyze and come up with solutions based on research and a firm understanding of the situation.


Embrace the trouble


Trees yield fruit because they are rooted. Take away the root and you no longer have any fruit. If the fruit smells bad, you can be frustrated by it, or you can figure out what’s wrong with the tree. 

When problems arise, direct your client to take a deeper look into the situation to determine the root cause. By using the problem-solving process to do so, they can find an effective solution. 

When you think about it, every invention known to mankind was as a result of innovative or creative problem solving. Without problems, personal growth and technological advancement would have been non-existent. Accepting that problems and problem-solving are inevitable aspects of our lives will only enrich it. Rather than seeing them as mere obstacles, help your client to redefine problems as an invitation for growth.

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