We all deal with problems every day. Some are easy to handle, and some are difficult. Our basic problem-solving techniques are often developed over time and are a function of what we have found to work in the past.
I was raised by a research scientist who exposed me to the scientific method of problem-solving at a young age. His first step was always to clearly define the problem. What’s happening that needs to be fixed or changed? What are the obvious symptoms of the problem? What are the undesirable outcomes that we’re trying to avoid?
I took an ancient history course my first semester in high school. The teacher used a lecture style to which I had never been exposed. We never used our thick textbook, and I was grossly unprepared to work in this type of environment. When my first report card came home, my father quickly defined the problem.
The next step is to look into the variables that potentially can affect the problem. In the case of my poor grade, he looked at the amount of time I spent studying ancient history, my test preparation procedures, my ability to learn and the instructor’s teaching method. As my dad researched, he began to focus on what he felt were the key variables holding me back from success.
Foremost was my inability to take effective lecture notes. I enjoyed the teacher and found the material exciting but I simply didn’t know how to put it down on paper effectively. I’m sure my dad considered having me transferred into another class with a more traditional teaching style for a high school freshman.
But to his credit, he knew I’d need to learn how to take effective lecture notes in order to make it through high school and college, so he chose to help me develop that ability. I struggled at first but after several weeks of working with him, I began to show real progress.
His research also showed that I needed to improve my study technique when it came to taking tests. He drew up a plan to assist me and we went to work together. My grades rose from a D after the first six weeks to a C by the end of the first semester, then to a B by the end of the year. More importantly, I learned precious skills that helped me through the rest of high school, college and beyond.
My dad incorporated goal-setting as part of the solution. He laid out his master plan for my grade point average and how I would improve each semester until I graduated from high school. I remember thinking that he was nuts and that such a steady increase in my performance just wasn’t possible. He pulled that sheet out once or twice a year so I could review my progress. To my surprise, I exceeded the goals he set for me.
To quickly recap:
1. Clearly define the problem.
2. Research the various factors affecting the problem.
3. Identify which factors have the best chance of fixing the problem.
4. Carefully implement the changes. (Change only a couple at a time.)
5. Determine the desired end results.
6. Monitor the results of the changes.
7. Make additional adjustments as needed.
I’ve found this method works well in managing processes or people. It creates a road map that allows us to carefully build toward the future and eliminate our problems. It helps us to avoid the “gunslinger” approach, in which we quickly draw our gun and shoot the problem dead, only to find out that cat has nine lives.
If we are to properly handle problems, then we must find their root causes or we are doomed to keep dealing only with the symptoms.