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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

Your 4-Step Guide to Solving Any Problem at Work—Faster

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At my company, we have a special group of individuals known as the “Escalation and Action Team.” They’re dedicated to solving our organization’s most critical problems, and recently, I had to submit an urgent one to them.

What was the issue, you ask? In short, my job is to pull outcome reports for our clients, indicating the prevalence of health risks and behaviors in the population (i.e., high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, sedentary behavior). One report I pulled excluded more than 75% of people who should’ve been in it.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly ideal. I mean, if you ordered a pizza and the box only had two slices when it was delivered, would you just shrug and say “Oh well, better than nothing!”

Just as it’s the restaurant’s responsibility to provide you with the entire pizza you ordered, it’s my job to provide clients with the most detailed and accurate reporting so I can best inform the future of their program and the health of their participants.

The escalation team worked diligently to address the problem and kept me informed the entire way—I’m happy to report that problem’s fixed. And along the way, due to the team’s transparency, I learned a bit more about problem solving techniques.

So, next time you you run up against an obstacle, rather than panicking, try taking the following steps to tackle it.

1. Identify the Problem

I know. You’re looking at me and rolling your eyes. Identify the problem? I already know what it is, you fool. But—do you really?

When defining what’s wrong, you need to break it down and be as specific as possible. Instead of simply saying “This report is wrong,” I needed to provide the team with the following information:

  • Why is the report wrong? “It does not have enough people in it.”
  • How do you know the report is wrong? “I know that X amount participated, but the results of only 25% of that are showing.”
  • When do you need a resolution by? “I need to be able to show the client the accurate data by [date].

As Michael Cooper, an executive business coach says, “A well-defined problem often contains its own solution within it, and that solution is usually quite obvious and straightforward.” According to Cooper, properly explaining an issue is “simple and any difficulty that arises is because it requires patience, repetition, and thorough examination. It is the most important element of critical thinking.”

2. Get to the Bottom of It

A huge part of solving an issue is finding the cause. Why did this happen?

Let’s go back to the pizza scenario quickly. The problem’s been identified: Your pizza arrives and it is missing six out of eight slices. But, why is the box almost empty?

There is a very big difference between “Oops, I accidentally grabbed the wrong box out of the car” and “Sorry, I ate most of your pizza on the drive over here.”

In Scenario A, the problem can be fixed by the delivery person returning to his car and grabbing the correct box. In Scenario B, well, someone needs to make you a whole new pizza or give you back all your money. Or both, actually. (Also, your pizza guy may need his job description read to him again.)

The solution you decide upon depends heavily upon the root of the cause. And while it may be a bit (or very) tedious to find the culprit, it will make finding the solution so much easier. Think about trying to unravel a knot in your headphones—if you keep pulling at the center, it just keeps getting worse and worse. But is you start at the end of the line, you can untangle it much more quickly.

3. Phone a Friend

I really like to figure things out on my own. Google is my best friend (I know, you’re jealous), and I like to dig through files and systems in an effort to find the answer. But, while I do believe you should try to gather as much info yourself before bringing in others, there are limits. There comes a certain point in which you’re just wasting time and running in circles.

Because I can get lost in a black hole of digging, I’ve developed a rule: Search for 30 minutes. If there’s no answer by then, call in the troops. Your colleagues can offer you different perspectives you may not see because you are so in the weeds with the problem. In addition, they may have historical knowledge you don’t have. Maybe this same thing’s arisen before, and they already know the solution. Don’t waste time resolving something that’s already been resolved.

There’s only so much I know about the back end of our reporting system. In fact, I know very little. I didn’t even have insight as to where I could look to find the magical answer. After I tried running the report, I pulled in the experts. Without them, I would still be sitting here with a dud.

Lastly, even if you can solve the problem on your own, you should still alert others to it for a few reasons:

  • You don’t want anyone, especially your manager, to be blindsided by any impact it may have.
  • Your co-workers can learn from your story.
  • Others may have good ideas for how to prevent said problem from happening again.

4. Fix the Problem

Once you determine the steps that need to be taken in order to start fixing the issue, ask the appropriate people for help. Maybe you determine you can do it all yourself. But if you can’t, don’t take it all on as some kind of workplace martyr. For instance, if the solution requires someone to do some coding and that’s completely foreign to you, don’t try to do it. (You can learn how to code another time.)

Make sure that when you’re delegating, you provide all the necessary information: any background details they do not have, the desired outcome, and the specific time frame. Everybody needs to be on the exact same page.

Issues pop up. It’s life. Knowing a few problem solving strategies and how to deal with them will not only do wonders for your stress levels, but also for your career. After all, in a study by Burning Glass Technologies, this skill was listed in the top 10 skills employers search for in the majority of career areas.

Do you have a different approach when something goes wrong at work? Let me know on Twitter!