Four steps to improved problem solving

Professor of the Practice in Leadership Ed Barrows discusses a four-step plan designed for leaders to address and solve complex organizational problems.

human head with a magifying glass and question mark in the middle


Every organization has problems. What I mean when I say problem, however, isn’t what the term usually conjures up — an undesirable, even unsavory situation that is highly bothersome to the affected. We all have those to be sure. This type of problem, more plainly, is a variance between the current state and the desired state.

Using this definition, we find many occasions where we’re not performing to the desired level; that’s where the need for a good problem-solving process comes in. It’s an approach to determining what’s causing the variance and identifying the steps needed to remedy it. It’s important to be both thoughtful and deliberate about the steps you take.

When addressing a problem head-on, following a simple, four-step process will help you improve the likelihood of reaching a favorable outcome significantly.

1. Define

The first step is to define the problem by thinking about it in the clearest terms possible. When asked, 85% of executives admit that their companies are poor at problem diagnosis. It’s hard to properly diagnose, let alone solve, a problem that is poorly defined. The best way to ensure that the issue you’re addressing is the right one is to define it in a manner that paves the way for effective analysis.

To do this, consider different viewpoints. Use a team, bring in outside experts and think through different ways to formulate the problem together. This practice is called problem reframing.

This alone helps us offset plunging-in-bias — the act of beginning to solve an issue before truly understanding it — which is a challenge that many managers face.

2. Decompose

Once a problem is well-defined, it’s tempting to jump right into ‘solution mode’ and begin brainstorming ways to address the challenge. Resist this temptation!

Oftentimes, the solution to a problem isn’t as obvious as it first seems. The problem needs to be broken down — or decomposed, as we say — into potential causes. Utilizing a logic tree or issue tree allows you to explore various hypotheses to begin thinking through the potential drivers of a problem. This is aligned with a management approach called Evidence-Based Management, which gets us to think through a mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive set of potential causes for the challenge we're facing. Using an approach that encourages structured thinking like this is a surefire way to improve your odds of success.

infographic of logic tree
A “logic tree” is a way of visually breaking down a problem statement or question into its component parts. Here’s an illustrative example of an elevator.

3. Analyze

With the potential causes of the problem now identified, you can begin investigating the source(s) of the issue in earnest. This involves working as a team to collect data around each point that you have outlined. In examining each potential cause, you can make progress toward determining the root of the performance gap.

A very effective technique for this is the Five Whys. Ask the question ‘why,’ continually, until you get down to the point that it can’t be answered anymore. Typically, this takes about five rounds of questioning before you end up at what will likely be the root cause. After this, you can identify potential solutions.

4. Act

A potential solution is just that—a potential solution. You’ll need to implement the intervention you’ve developed and then check to see if it actually solved the problem. There’s a chance it only addressed part of the performance shortfall. If it wasn’t a root cause after all, it might not have solved any of it. The reason you act and then recheck is to determine the degree to which improvement has been made and decide what you might do next.


Problem solving is something managers engage in every day. Big problems are persistent in organizational life, and the people who solve them are in a great position to add additional value to their organizations. Unfortunately, managers often rely more on experience and intuition than structured thinking. No doubt, ‘gut feel’ can help in addressing challenges. It’s structured thinking, however, that will yield the most benefit, especially when the problems you face are complex.

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