Your team hits a bump in the road with a new client: They’d like to add extra objectives to the scope without changing the schedule. The mood grows tense as everyone frets about how to rearrange their calendars.
One team member suggests breaking down the new scope into small, more manageable parts. One by one, you divide each deliverable into new tasks and prioritize them based on the team's calendar and resources. You push back non-urgent tasks and delegate others to different teams. Slowly, all the pieces start to fit together. What seemed like an impossible challenge is now a series of connected dots. The meeting wraps up with a clear and actionable solution, and everyone gets to work.
This hypothetical scenario might sound too good to be true, but it’s well within your reach. It’s the perfect example of how establishing problem-solving steps can set your team up for success. Let’s explore how to prepare your team for the next project’s hurdles.
Problem-solving is a strategy-driven approach that uses logical thinking, creativity, and collaboration to analyze obstacles and build actionable solutions to overcome them. Life rarely goes exactly to plan, and problem-solving skills remove barriers that stop your team from reaching objectives when things go awry.
You and your team’s ability to embrace different approaches to solving problems marks the difference between staying ahead or behind the curve. But problem-solving isn’t a single skill. Good problem-solvers pull from a list of soft skills, such as analytical thinking, flexibility, and curiosity — which are among the top 10 most sought-after job skills.
Bringing problem-solvers onto the team is just the start. Nurturing a supportive environment that encourages teamwork, leadership, and the ability to make mistakes is essential for innovative solutions to serious roadblocks. After all, healthy work environments encourage out-of-the-box thinking and accountability that spawn effective solutions.
Problem-solving process: 6 key steps
Problem-solving starts with carefully dissecting an issue, evaluating all its parts, and then brainstorming an action plan to rise above the challenge. Whether you’re working independently or collaborating with a big team, following a standard procedure can make the process more productive.
Here are six steps to solve problems and get your project back on track:
1. Define the problem
The first step might sound obvious, but figuring out how to solve a problem starts with a clear definition. No matter how big or small the issue is, laying it out as clearly as possible guides the rest of the process, pushing your brainstorming, collaboration, and solutions down the right path. Plus, a succinct definition can help you foresee potential project management risks and build a risk register to avoid more challenging situations in the future.
You can start by asking yourself a few basic questions to understand the depth and scope of the issue:
Who does this problem involve? Who’s equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve this problem?
What’s the root cause? What other problems does it cause?
Where did this problem take place?
When did the problem start? When does it need a resolution?
Why does it impact workflows? Why do you need to solve this problem now?
Once you’ve dissected the issue, write it down. Putting pen to paper forces you to think through the obstacle, and the result can serve as a reference point as you work toward the solution.
Be careful not to leave any room for ambiguity in your problem statement by identifying the specific situation and timing. Rather than “I don’t have enough time to complete a project,” write a definition like “I need to complete an important project within three days, but I have three other tasks due on the same day, which collectively require 20 hours of work.” A detailed problem statement provides a crystal clear picture of the problem, helping you be more productive during brainstorming and implementation.
2. Brainstorm possible solutions
With your clearly defined problem in hand, it’s time to get creative. Effective brainstorming focuses on quantity rather than quality. The intention is to build diverse options without overanalyzing them — that’ll come later.
Brainstorm as many potential solutions as possible, no matter how quirky or out-of-the-box. Aim to generate a list of 10–15 possible paths and encourage your mind to wander, moving away from obvious solutions to potentially innovative ones.
3. Consider all your alternatives
It may be tempting to immediately discard unfamiliar ideas and embrace others within your comfort zone. But as long as an idea directly addresses your problem, give it the benefit of the doubt.
Map out every idea, including relevant details like costs, step-by-step process, time frames, and the people involved. If the idea doesn't align with your needs or resources, toss it. Order the remaining alternatives by preference and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages.
4. Agree on a solution
With all the information in front of you, it’s time to decide on the best course of action. Narrow down all your choices, seeking out efficiency and practicality. For complex problems and solutions, managers and colleagues experienced in crisis management can offer valuable insights.
5. Take action
After choosing the best solution, it’s time to implement it. Track progress throughout the entire process to avoid unexpected delays and unwelcome surprises. And consider using an issue tracker to analyze unexpected bumps in the road and learn from them — just be sure to leave room in the plan to adapt to challenges when necessary.
6. Evaluate the outcome
Analyzing the success of your solution encourages learning from failures and promotes future success. Evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen solution and decide if a different course of action may be necessary. You might ask yourself some of the following questions:
Was the problem solved within the expected timeframe?
Were any resources overused or wasted?
What was learned during the problem-solving process?
Were there any communication breakdowns or conflicts?
Will a policy or organizational change help prevent this problem from occurring in the future?
You may find you need to simplify the process even further. Using your insights, focus on the solution instead of the problem. Staying flexible and open-minded will help you rise to the next challenge.
To understand how you can apply the problem-solving steps above, let’s look at a common problem for product, IT, and development teams: apps that crash when updates are rolled out.
To clearly define the problem, the team collects user feedback and crash reports to pinpoint specific scenarios where the app fails. They discover that crashes most often occur on devices using old versions of the operating system. With this clear problem definition, they align on where to focus their efforts.
Together, they brainstorm several solutions, including rolling back the update, creating a solution specifically for older operating systems, or rolling out a marketing campaign to convince users to update.
After debating all the alternatives, they decide to develop a patch. Although it’s not the most time-effective solution, it won’t alienate users by rolling back features or forcing them to update. They might also take on extra initiatives along the way, like making the app less resource-intensive to run smoothly on more devices.
Throughout the implementation, the team monitors feedback. Crash reports decrease significantly, and positive reviews increase. After achieving the desired outcome, the team performs regular diagnostics to spot room for improvement and prevent future mishaps.
4 problem-solving strategies
Learning different strategies to identify and solve problems empowers you to stay flexible and resilient, even in the most challenging circumstances. Here are four common problem-solving strategies to try out:
Trial and error: There’s rarely a single “right” answer to your problem. A trial-and-error approach (or A/B testing) encourages your team to experiment with solutions and identify the best one. Of course, this is only productive if you have the necessary time and resources.
Working backward: Using your imagination, visualize your problem solved. Now, work backward, retracing each step to your current place. Involve team leaders in this process and share ideas until you have a solid plan of action.
Use an old solution: You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. Think about how you’ve solved similar issues in the past. If one of your old solutions works, use it again.
Draw it out: Visualizing every part of a problem isn’t always easy. Using fishbone diagrams, concept maps, or flowcharts ensures you make connections and account for every last detail. Plus, a diagram will make the roadblock easier to understand when you address it with the rest of the team. But don’t tackle this work alone — the more heads you involve, the more perspectives you can draw upon. Someone else at the table will likely think of something you missed.
Effective problem-solving means drawing upon several soft skills in your tool belt. Here are ten of the most valuable skills for overcoming obstacles:
Solve your next problem with Notion
Whether big or small, incorporating time-tested problem-solving steps to overcome challenges will help your team overcome future barriers to success. Try different techniques, like SWOT Analysis, to adapt to the next challenging situation swiftly and effectively.