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Problem Solving Techniques 

Because problems are unavoidable, managers spend a good portion of their time seeking problem solving techniques. Some problems are simple and routine or ready made solutions may work great, but some others are complex and require a structured and customized approach.

The first steps to solve a problem are:

 - the awareness that the problem exists
- the "need" and the "desire" to solve the problem 
- the availability of resources, knowledge and skills to solve it.

A useful tool to analyze the problem and analyze the root causes is the fish bone diagram. Once the problem is clearly identified together with the criteria and the desired change/outcome the team needs to identify alternatives and solutions. 

This section provides a few problem solving techniques that structure the identification and the selection of alternatives that meet the defined criteria and fulfill the objectives.

Idea Generation Techniques 

Free Association
is a  method that is used to draw ideas from the "minds stream of consciousness". During the application of this method one idea is used to generate another, which is then used to generate a third idea, and so forth until a useful idea is found. According to Taylor there are two different versions of the Free Association Technique: plain, unstructured free associations, and  mixed or structured, free associations. In unstructured association, ideas are listed as they naturally occur, one "block" idea building upon another block. This approach is usually called "brainstorming" as ideas are generated out of the "clear sky". Structured free association in contrast, attempts to increase relevance of ideas to the problems.

Here are the steps on how to do it.

1. Write down a symbol (number, word, object etc.) that seems to be directly related to the problem or some aspect of it.
2.Write down whatever is suggested by the first step, ignoring all concerns for its relevance to the problem. Develop at least 20 associations.
3. Review the list of associations and select those that seem to have special implications
for the problem.
4. Using the above selected associations, develop ideas that seem capable of solving the problem. If none of the ideas seem useful, go back to step 1 and repeat the process, using a new symbol.

Another approach to implement this problem-solving strategy is to use colored cards. The problem statement is written on chart and  discussed within the group to make to make sure it is clearly understood. After the clarification of the problem statement, each group member silently and independently writes ideas on each colored card and then passes it on to the person on their right.
After 20-30 minutes the facilitator/moderator ends the idea-generation process. Many times facilitator stick/pin the cards on the board at this stage of the exercise.I would reccommend to sort and categorize the cards on the table through group-discussions. This makes it easier for participants to move the cards around after each discussion or analysis. Once the categories are sorted and finalized stick/pin title cards on the board as headings for different columns. Each column/color represents a category of ideas.

Another technique developed at Battelle Institute, Frankfurt is the Brainwriting Pool.

1. Present the problem statement to the team/group.
2. Ask them to silently write down their ideas on a sheet of paper. Encourage them to list at least four ideas. As soon an team member has four ideas, the sheet is placed in the middle of the table (the pool) and exchanged for another sheet. (If the technique is being used to develop previews ideas the listing stage is avoided).
3. Participants continue to add ideas to the sheet taken form the pool,exchanging it for a new sheet whenever additional stimulation is needed.
4. After 3-40 minutes, the process is terminated and the idea sheets are collected for evaluation.

Alternative Selection Technique 

One of the simplest and the most basic of problem-solving techniques is the  Advantage-Disadvantage Technique.

The implementation process involves listing of all the available alternatives, examining the strengths and weakness of each, and then selecting the one that  best fulfills the problem objectives.

1. List all the alternatives proposed by the group during the idea-generation session.
2. For each alternative, create a a table containing three columns. Over the first column, write down "Criteria", over the second columns "Advantages" and the third "Disadvantages".
Under the "Criteria" column, list all the relevant criteria associated with all of the alternatives. For example: budget, time, job responsibilities, training etc.
3. For each criterion, place a check mark  to show either advantage or disadvantage.
4. The same process must be repeated for all the proposed alternatives.
5. Tally the total number of advantages and disadvantages for each alternative.

Select the alternative receiving the greatest number of advantages.

The advantages of the above techniques are that they stimulate individual and collective input, objective and creative thinking and more importantly are an important vehicle for employee empowerment.

Problem Solving Techniques Related Articles:

Decision Making Skills

Nominal Group Technique 

Fishbone Diagram

Decision Making Steps

Decision Making Tips 

Group Decision Making

Split Second Decision Making

Rational Decision Making Process

Outstanding Leaders consider themselves a work in progress
 Dr Franklin C. Ashby 

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