Problem Solving 101 – How to Solve Problems

English: Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”. Categories...

Mimi & Eunice, “Problems”(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Ever notice how easy it is to solve other people’s problems? When presented with someone else’s conundrum it can be easy to assess the possibilities, look at what might work and develop solutions. To the person who owns the challenge, our proposed solutions may seem innovative, creative, and perhaps even ingenious. “How did you come up with that solution so fast and make it look easy!?”

When our personal paradigms, perspectives or biases do not weight us down, problem solving is relatively easy. We can get a handle on the problem; look at each possible solution and determine next steps. The challenge of course is that we don’t get to ignore our own difficulties and focus exclusively on other people’s problems. The biggest hurdle to resolving our own problems is that there are two kinds of solutions, the ones that work and the ones we like.

If your emotions, ego or attitude are all wrapped up in the outcomes, how do you avoid distracting yourself? How do we harness our own inventiveness and objectivity, while avoiding natural biases to solve problems? Start by taking a deliberate approach.

8 Tips For Problem Solving

  1. Figure out what the problem is. This may seem obvious, but unfortunately problems can stretch out longer than they need to because we assume what the problems are rather than taking the time to analyze them and make sure.
  2. Once you know what the problem is, refine and define it as clearly as possible. Develop a laundry list of elements that make the problem completely transparent. If there are elements that you cannot define, make a note of them too. Make sure that you list the barriers to resolution.
  3. Consider possible approaches to reach solutions. Do you want to ask for help? Do you need to do some research, interview experts or contemplate the problem more?
  4. Once you have gathered all of your information, put it in one place and organize it so that it makes sense and it is easy to identify individual elements. What do you need to do first? What parts hinge on others in order to be successful?
  5. Determine what represents low hanging fruit or easy fixes. Quick wins are not only easy, but are valuable because they boost morale and build momentum.
  6. What will take more time, money and resources to resolve? All solutions should be either easy or matter. What are the mini projects you need to do in order to get your big projects accomplished?
  7. Keep track of what you are doing as you do it. Make sure you are moving in the right direction by monitoring progress. Team and the communication within the team are critical. Getting the right people in place and making sure that communications is effective will go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary road blocks along the way.
  8. When the process is complete, make sure that the results you have achieved are the ones you wanted. Sometimes we achieve the right out come but create other problems along the way.


What do you think? How do you resolve challenges?  Ever solve a problem that had someone else in knots? Have you had a problem easily resolved by someone else?

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About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at Learn more about my experience at
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31 Responses to Problem Solving 101 – How to Solve Problems

  1. Adrienne says:

    Gosh Debra, you make that sounds so easy. I’m much better at helping other people with their problems then figuring out how to solve my own.

    I think really honing in on what the problem is though is key. What we believe it to be and what it really is usually isn’t the same. Being so close to it I think that’s why it’s good to get an opinion because others can help us see what we can’t.

    Great advice and I love how detailed you are. I might have to bookmark this for “the next time”. LOL!!! Don’t we all wish there was never a next time!



  2. I use to teach problem solving as part of a management development program at my former bank. Two key things: be sure you’re working on the right problem and don’t establish criteria for solutions until you examine all possible solutions. Too often, people start with “well, I only have this much budget so let me think of the solutions that I can afford.” This stifles creativity. You can always toss out a potential solution, but, more often, you can make adjustments to the solution so that it meets your criteria for time, money, and people.


    • Ugh…starting with the money is a great way to ensure you kill ideas. It can sometimes get translated into, I only want second rate solutions. Having said that, good ideas don’t have to cost a lot but sometimes a little investment in one area can pay incredible dividends in another.


  3. Hi Debra: You have such a methodical mind! I’m afraid I am run by emotion, and have never been objective enough to write down things in a logical fashion as you suggest. Maybe one day I will put my emotions in check and try to master the art of objectivity. 🙂


  4. I am amazed at how often doing a little investigation at the start of a problem reveals that the problem isn’t what we thought at all. I’d rather figure that out at the start than at the “end” of a process.


  5. Meredith says:

    My favorite is #3. It helps so much to talk to someone. I find that just describing the problem out loud often helps me think of it in a different way that helps me solve it. Find a friend, co-worker, life coach, or someone who will listen to you, even if they’re not equipped to handle your particular problem.


  6. crystalzakrison says:

    I would say leave your expectations at the door. Time and time again I have gone into problems or situations with my expectations raised high and the outcome is not what I wanted. Also, being willing to listen to other people and their ideas as well. Lastly, communication is key. Thanks for the great adivce! =)


  7. Susan Cooper says:

    I think #8 is vitally important. There is nothing worse than fixing one problem, but due to lack of planning or forethought making a bunch of other messes to clean up. Sometimes outside advice can create these additional problems too, because they don’t know all the other aspects of your life that might be affected by their problem solving suggestions.


    • The curse of the external consultant. 🙂 I am amazed how often the culture of a group is not taken into consideration when problems are being addressed in an organization. The solutions that make sense on paper don’t always make sense in practice.


  8. ballnchainz says:

    This is Jay,

    Your 8 steps are great and can be used in many aspects of life from relationships to work. Great info


  9. Hi Debra; You certainly put the whole process in an easy to follow step by step order. It is so true often the difficulty comes from not being able to see the problem objectively because it is your problem. so, is what you were talking about when people say the first step is to get out of your own way. thanks for sharing and take care, Max


    • You know Max, the way you put that, “the first step is to get out of your own way” has such resonance with me. More often than not, we are own barriers to problem solving.:)


  10. lenie5860 says:

    Debra, I like number one – we so often assume we know the problem, when once we take it apart and look at it, its nothing like what we thought. And I very much like your cartoon.


  11. Great tips, Debra – thanks a for the reminders, I have a couple of issues right now which call for a solution so I am off to put your tips into practice 😉

    I agree it’s always easier to solve other people’s problems. I think the reason lies in your subjectiveness. When the problem is yours, you are personally involved and affected – this clouds your judgment, preventing you from seeing the problem (and the needed solution) clearly. And when I say ‘you’, I mean everyone 😀



  12. More often than not, I will write my way through problems I am having since that mode brings me the greatest clarity of thought. Yet, when I get really overwhelmed, I’ll stop writing in my journal and then I wonder why I’m having a problem understanding my problems… I just tend to think better on the page (after many, many rough drafts).


  13. Arleen says:

    Isn’t it interesting that we are all Johnny on the Spot to point out and show others their problems, but unable to see the forest from the trees when it comes to ourselves.
    The first thing is one has to recognize that there is a problem. Accept that you own it and do not place blame on others. There are no quick fixes but working them out steady as go, one can reach the goal of their expectation. I am not an alcoholic but think the Serenity Prayer will anyone.
    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.


  14. Sometimes the hardest part of problem solving is finding that core problem. We get so caught up in crises management that we forget what put us in that mode to begin with.

    It can be even more difficult when the symptoms seem to have no relationship with the actual problem.


  15. jbutler1914 says:

    I have helped people solve numerous problems over the years. Unfortunately when I need help there is usually no there to help me. I have used some of those tips to help find a solution though.


  16. Tim says:

    The low hanging fruit is where I always attack first. Get some successes under your belt. Tackling the biggest issue first can lead to discouragement. I agree with all your points though and also that is often easier to see the whole issue if it is someone else’s problem.


  17. Can’t help thinking about the saying, “I’m an old man, have had many problems – most of them never happened”:-) Most of our problems are in our minds, unfortunately or thankfully.

    Good suggestions, Debra. Have personally found that it is a good idea to always in advance figure out what the worst that can happen is and be prepared to do what it takes to solve the worst case scenario. That’s actually what people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett do.

    And don’t act too swiftly when you have a problem. That’s when you need to step back and think it through and try to pick the best solution possible. If not, problem 101 can become an ever lasting story:-)


    • I love the quote! I couldn’t agree more with it. There’s an old saying about hoping for the best and planning for the worst, I think most problems could be avoided if they could be anticipated.


  18. Leora says:

    I usually find talking to someone else helps give perspective on the problem. Then I need to free myself from taking their solution. Sometimes just hearing another perspective can propel me to do what needs to be done. Also, people can say, “you just need to do X,” but X might take a lot of time and energy. I agree that isolating the problem is important.


  19. Paul Graham says:

    Hi Debra. I think this is a very good process for Problem Solving 101. The first step, on which all others are built, is often undervalued as no problem will be fixed before it is fully acknowledged and defined. For me, part of that is a careful analysis of how the problem came into being. Was it the fall out from some other well-intentioned course of actions or has it arisen in relative isolation. The answer to that often determines whether some housekeeping type de-engineering is required or whether it is really just an opportunity in disguise. I have found the greatest objectivity from people whose strengths are in other disciplines or whose priorities are different from the group facing the problem


  20. jacquiegum says:

    Well let me just say….your #1…find out what the real problem is…is the key! That’s been my experience! Laugh! I can’t tell you how many times I have seen folks running around madly trying to calm a person without resolving the issue that is making them upset! Also making the problem transparent is so important. Like I am fond of saying…get it all out on the table, so we can fix it once and for all!


    • I am amazed at how often doing a little investigation at the start of a problem reveals that the problem isn’t what we thought at all. I’d rather figure that out at the start than at the “end” of a process. 🙂


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