# PROBLEM-SOLVING METHOD

### PROBLEM-SOLVING METHOD

The general problem-solving method we will use contains the following four steps:

1. What's the problem?

2. What's the ideal solution?

3. Identify a range of solutions.

4. Implement one or more of the solutions identified.

We will now look at ways to carry out each of these steps.

#### What's the problem?

The first thing you have to do is to know what the issue is. Sometimes you can set off trying to resolve an issue, before you have really understood it. Therefore you need to be aware that the following can happen:

1. sometimes the stated issue is not the real issue

2. sometimes a problem is stated by stating its solution

3. sometimes, even if an issue is stated correctly, you need to pull back and look at the bigger picture in order to arrive at a resolution

Often, a good way to identify an issue is to state it. Simply stating the issue committing it to paper, or talking through it aloud can both crystallize the issue and, sometimes, throw up pointers as to how to move forward.

#### What's the ideal solution?

You may never be able to achieve it, but it's an invaluable thing to know. What would be the best outcome? It's related to our old hoary question, what do you want to do? What's the ideal solution? If there were no restrictions or constraints, what would you do? You'd be surprised how many times you can come out of the issue with a resolution which is not far off the ideal one.

#### Identify a range of solutions

The following are all designed to assist you in identifying possible solutions to your problem or issue.

##### Chess

We are told that world-class chess players can see a game many moves ahead. They know that if they make a certain move, their opponent will probably do A, then they will do B, their opponent will do C, and so on. Often you can resolve something just by exploring your choices, thinking things through and looking at what is likely to happen.

If you do go one way, then here are the alternatives, and depending on what happens here, further alternatives present themselves . I regularly draw charts on the board showing the decision to be made, the options emanating from that decision, and the subsequent scenarios that become possible. These can end up looking like a large tree in winter, there are so many branches, but it gives you a very clear picture of what's facing you. Two other points to note are:

• If one particular path is more advantageous to you, you can see it very quickly and start to move things down that path by making the other paths seems less attractive to other people.

• You can save yourself a lot of time because moves may become redundant, i.e. irrespective of what happens as a result of the next decision(s), you will still end up in the same place further down the line.

##### The brownie points game

Brownie points represent your popularity ratings with other people. Each person connected with the project will have given you a brownie point rating, either consciously or subconsciously. At any given time, some ratings will be high and some not so. The brownie points game says that you will choose to resolve an issue by doing it in such a way as to maximize your brownie points rating with a person or persons.

Shortly before the Gulf War started, Saddam Hussein gave all his soldiers salary increases . We don't know if he had a morale problem, but if that was the problem he was addressing, he chose to address it by playing the brownie points game.

People who suck up to their bosses are constantly playing the brownie points game with them. I once had a boss who told me, at my appraisal, that he was giving me a 10 percent rise. None of my peers were getting such an enormous rise, he told me, only me, and mine was for a performance above and beyond the call of duty. As it turned out, at least two of my peers also got 10 percent rises. My boss was playing the brownie points game.

It is a feature of the brownie points game that it can often achieve spectacularly good results. It is also a feature that those results can be very short term and have negative effects in the long run.

##### Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a wonderful technique. The idea is to get a bunch of people together and then write down all the possible ways of resolving an issue.

There are two phases. In the first phase all ideas, no matter how far- fetched , are acceptable. Nothing is ruled out. Any idea which appears to resolve the issue is added to the list. Note that you can use all the techniques in this section to come up with ideas. In the second phase, you run back down the list and try to extract the best idea or set of ideas.

##### Do nothing

When we think of projects we think of frenzied levels of activity while we work to get the project done. What if an issue could be resolved by doing nothing? Got its attractions? You bet it has. Strange as it may seem, I have identified five variants of the do nothing approach. They are:

1. Literally do nothing. Whether you genuinely believe the issue will go away, or whether you just wish it would, isn't the point; you decide to take no action.

2. Take another reading. You resolve to do nothing, and look at the issue again some short time in the future. Depending on this next reading, you may decide to take action or if things appear to be going the way you wanted, to wait and read again.

3. Chaff. Chaff is strips of aluminum dropped by war planes to confuse enemy radar into thinking there are lots of your side's planes. In our context it implies that you give the impression of doing something about an issue when in fact you're doing nothing. For example, you may have inside information that an issue which is causing your team major grief is about to be resolved. You don't want them to see you doing nothing because it's such a hot thing with them, but at the same time you don't want to waste any time on it because you know resolution is in the pipeline. You therefore send forth signals implying a major level of activity on the issue, when in fact you're doing absolutely nothing. This is chaff.

4. Recce (reconnaissance). You need to get more information. While you are gathering this information, you do nothing about the issue itself.

5. Stonewalling. This is where you decide to do nothing and want it known that you're doing nothing. The classic has to be when someone asks you for a rise, and you have decided they're not getting one. Stonewalling basically involves saying no until they go away!

##### Truth tables

Truth tables are a technique taken from computer science and are very useful in analyzing a problem. Here is a somewhat contrived example. I would like to give up my job and become an organic farmer. Is there a way I can do this without taking a hefty drop in my standard of living? The issue is composed of two factors here (becoming an organic farmer and not taking a drop in income) but any number of factors can be considered ; the truth table just gets bigger. Each factor has two possibilities, either it happens (yes, Y) or it doesn't (no, N). The truth table is then drawn as follows :

 Option: 1 2 3 4 Become an organic farmer Y Y N N Take a drop in income Y N Y N

I then have four choices.

• Option 1 means that I become an organic farmer, but I take a drop in income. Doesn't solve the problem.

• Option 2 means that I become an organic farmer and take no drop in income: the ideal solution.

• Option 3 is not to become an organic farmer, but to take a drop in income. This is clearly the worst scenario, as it takes me further away from my defined goal, to be an organic farmer and suffer no loss in income.

• Option 4 is where I am at the moment: I'm not an organic farmer but my income is reasonable.

This analysis tells me that in terms of my defined goal, I have not reached it, but neither am I as far away from it as I could be. As I said, it's a somewhat contrived example, but still the insight is interesting.

##### The Ronald Reagan method

Sometimes, in your projects, an issue will come along and you don't really care how it is resolved; all that is important to you is that it is resolved, that some decision gets made. For example, it might be that until a decision is made, your project is held up. Some years ago there were stories circulating that Ronald Reagan made all his decisions, large or small, in the following way.

One sheet of paper was handed to him; an issue was described briefly , in simple sentences with short words. The decision to be made was stated at the bottom; and two boxes, one marked "YES" and one marked "NO," were drawn. A note sald "Please tick one." The word "one" was underlined .

I have often used this box method at meetings. It is useful in cases where the meeting is snarled up on an issue and you want to push the meeting forward. State the decision to be made, and get people to choose.

##### Gradually warm up an issue

This is a very effective technique and one which really proves the truth of the saying that there's more than one way to skin a cat. Most of the methods so far, have one thing in common: they attempt to resolve the issue there and then. Gradually warming it up resolves it over a longer timeframe.

You have an issue, you know it's going to be a thorny one, and you're fairly sure that if you went at it head-on, you'd be shot down. The first thing then is just to get it on the table. You say perhaps, "I don't want to talk about this today, but I'd like to deal with it some time in the future." This gets the other side thinking about it. You then take it a stage further: maybe you have an informal discussion about it over lunch or coffee. Following this perhaps you write a proposal and see how that flies. This process is continued until you get what you want. If, at any stage, you find it's not going the way you want it to go, you back off, wait and then move forward again gradually.

I have used this method over short (12 weeks) and long (1 year) periods. It is highly effective.

##### "What would you do in my position?"

If nothing else, it provides you with another option for resolving the issue. Note that it is another way of asking what the other person's ideal solution is.

##### Put yourself in the other person's position

See things from the other person's point of view. Any good salesman will tell you that if you can do this see your customer's point of view, his problem, his concerns, his fears, his objective, his motivation then you're well on the way to closing the sale.

##### Treat it as a project

Apply structured project management!

##### Do a deal

"I'll do this if you do that." "Here's what I'll do for you; now, what'll you do for me?"

Can often be disastrous, but can sometimes be highly effective, particularly if, like me, you're a person who doesn't often lose it. Several times, I have had to pretend I was losing my temper, and have wondered whether I should be considering a career as an actor!

##### Pep talk

Sometimes all the person needs is a bit of a lift. A pep talk is what the coach gives the team at half-time. It is usually very obvious if someone is doing it to you, but depending on your state of mind, it may be enough. It is a very simplistic approach and you need to be sure that it has worked, because if not, you have not resolved the issue.

##### Selling something unpleasant

For the particular case where you have to sell something unpleasant to somebody a nasty or boring assignment, for example you can use a technique from selling. This is the idea that you don't offer your customer a choice whether or not to buy; what you offer him is a choice of ways to buy. Thus you might offer a person a number of different ways he can carry out the particular assignment.

##### Grovel

This may be a hard one to swallow, but there are times, particularly when you've cocked something up, that an apology is the only way. Many people have problems apologizing to subordinates , and apologies aren't easy at the best of times. Sometimes, unfortunately , it's the best way.

I have saved two really fancy ways of identifying possible solutions until the end. They are very complicated, risky in that they can backfire, but hugely enjoyable if you can pull them off. You might use them just for the hell of it, to test your skills; or to show off your power to other people peers, staff, the opposition . Don't use them too often, save them for a special treat for yourself.

##### Feigned retreat

Feigned retreat, as you might imagine, is a military term. The classic example of its use is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Macdonald, 1984). It is an example of what Clausewitz (1984) calls a stratagem. What this means is that by your actions you mislead the other side into thinking you're going to do something different from what you actually plan to do.

Feigned retreat is beautiful when it works, as in the following example. (Some of the details have been changed to ensure anonymity, but you'll get the gist.)

I once worked for a company, and my division bid for a large project from another company. We wanted that project really badly . The other company messed around for a long time they were going to do it themselves, they were going to subcontract it elsewhere. Our proposal was totally unacceptable: they couldn't believe it was going to take as long as we said, or that it would need so many people.

There was to be one last crunch meeting. It began with the same old stuff they had to have the product sooner, they could easily do it themselves, did we have anything new to offer? Yes, we said, you guys take it, we don't want it. We can help if you like, perhaps sell you the odd piece of consultancy. And we've done a lot of work in estimating this, so we could give you some help there, because we think some of your estimates may be a little bit out (they were wildly out!). So why don't you guys go away, and come back to us if we can help. This was all said in the most civil of terms. Inside, we were squirming; if we lost the job, we had major problems. However, we didn't. After a hurried conference, the other guys came back and awarded us the contract.

Here's another example of what can happen when you try to execute a feigned retreat. In military situations, feigned retreats are considered very difficult maneuvers to carry out. This is because a feigned retreat can, all too quickly, become a real one.

A guy I knew let's call him Albert was the king-pin in an organization for a long time. His boss was ineffectual, and Albert did pretty much as he wanted. Then a new boss arrived, and things started to change; a lot of Albert's power started to be eroded by his new boss. Albert was totally cheesed off, and chose the following course of action. He knew he was crucial to the running of the place, and in this he was quite correct: he was the most skilled technical person there, and extremely difficult to replace. He would get another job offer, and then attempt a feigned retreat on his boss let's say he's Bert.

Having secured the job offer, Albert went in for the meeting. "I really like working here, Bert, and I like working with you, but I'm unhappy with some things and I'd like to discuss what we can do about them." Albert went through the various things responsibilities, position in relation to his peers, grading, salary. Bert pretty much stonewalled, a few minor concessions , but nothing of any substance.

Albert repeated his position this time somewhat more forcefully how he really liked so many things about the place, but unless his perfectly reasonable demands could be sorted out, he would be forced to leave, and he didn't want to. Bert continued to stonewall . OK, Albert said, he hadn't wanted to do this, but Bert was leaving him no option.

Albert explained that he had another job much more responsibility, better salary, more prospects and that he would be forced to take it unless he and Bert could settle their differences. Bert rose, extended a hand across the table, and said: "Why, Albert, congratulations. You know we'll be sorry to lose you, but it sounds like a wonderful opportunity that will really advance your career." Albert left. He had never wanted to, and ended up having to relocate his family 3,000 miles.

##### Double envelopment (the pincer movement)

Double envelopment involves coming round an opponent from both sides so as to surround him; the phrase pincer movement describes it graphically. Again, it is a military term, and the classic example is the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC (Macdonald, 1984) when Hannibal defeated a Roman army in Italy. A more recent example from our own times was the series of maneuvers carried out by the Allies which brought the Gulf War to a conclusion.

In a pincer movement as we're applying it, you decide to resolve the issue by identifying a number of solutions, and then apply two or more of them simultaneously . The thinking is that at least one of your attacks should work, and if they all work it provides a dazzling display of your powers. The downside is that if none of them works, you end up a little naked and unarmed, that is, you've used up all your ammunition .

You can contrive a pincer movement by taking your plan and fallback plan, and applying them simultaneously. The trouble with this is that you then have no fallback plan. You could live your whole life and never do a pincer movement and still be highly successful in resolving issues. I mention pincer movements here mainly because they're great fun, and a good test of your skills.

#### Implement one or more solutions

Here are three methods to help you to pick a solution from the group of solutions you have generated.

##### Write down the pros and cons

Take a piece of paper, write down the problem, write down the action you intend to take. Then draw a vertical line down the center of the page and note the advantages on one side and the disadvantages on the other.

##### Betting

It is not the intention of this book to turn anyone into a compulsive gambler, but betting is a technique I have found very useful when dealing with issues. You can bet on anything the chances of a milestone being met, the project completing successfully, a key person leaving the team you name it and you can bet on it. Generally it is best if the bets are small (less than \$5) and short term they can be resolved within a matter of weeks. Having to bet does three things:

• it causes both parties to think very seriously about any situation, and the odds each attaches to a particular thing happening

• if the thing is within our control it causes us to make a major effort to ensure that it goes the way we wish it to go

• it establishes a level of confidence about the issue

##### Give yourself a present

Promise yourself a little present if the solution(s) you selected works out as you intended.

Finally, here are a few other rules of thumb that you should also bear in mind when resolving issues.

##### Don't dump on them at least until they dump on you

If one of the methods you have identified to resolve an issue involves taking a dump on another person, don't choose that method unless they have first dumped on you. (Statesmen of the world take note.) Thus the issue remains at a civil level unless the other side opens hostilities.

##### Choose the right moment: timing is everything

One of my customers can be quite grumpy to be back in work after the weekend . I never call him on Monday mornings!

##### Get the monkey off your back

However you choose to resolve an issue, it is nice if you can end up with a resolution where the issue is no longer your problem. This is what is called getting the monkey off your back. All other things being equal, a method which moves the monkey off you is the one to go for.

##### If one technique doesn't work try another one

Any issue can be resolved. If you find one technique isn't cutting it for you, try a different one.

##### If it's potentially harmful sleep on it

Maybe you're going to fire someone, or take a giant dump on somebody, or do something for which you might get into trouble. Whatever it is, if it has serious negative consequences, mull it over during the drive or train ride home. Sleep on it. Then, in the morning, if you still think it is the best thing to do, do it.

##### Don't let things fester

Don't let things fester. By all means wait and choose the right moment, but don't procrastinate and let a thing run on. The chances are it will only get worse . Resolve the issue as quickly as is practicable.