5 Stage Problem Solving

business planning Oct 16, 2017

Martin Riley - The Business Jet Engine

Problem-solving is one of the fundamental skills of a business person. We're paid to solve the problems of our clients. So we need to hone this skill.

Simple problems can be solved with a quick fix or instant reaction. But complex problems need a structured approach. Knowing the difference between the two, and which approach to use, is crucial. Applying a quick fix to a complex problem can create more work and stress in the future.

"Do you and your team have a structured approach to solving problems?"

When solving problems, alone or in groups, the stages remain the same. The first stage is also the most common mistake - to fully understand and define the problem. When this gets missed the wrong problem gets solved.

For example, at the start of the last century the race for sustained powered flight was on. Most inventors focused on increased engine power, thinking this the solution. The Wright Brothers saw a lack of aircraft control as the biggest obstacle. This required improving wing and flight control designs.

By correctly defining the problem, and following the remaining four stages, history proved them right!


5 stage problem solving:

  1. Define the problem. Truly understand what needs to be solved.
  2. Create options. As many as possible.
  3. Make a decision. Use your best judgment to choose from your options.
  4. Test, refine, prototype. Can your chosen option actually solve the problem?
     Stages 1-4 repeat until we have a solution we feel ready to apply.
  5. Apply the solution. Once you're confident you've found the long-term fix.


Having clearly defined your problem, have you really explored enough options for a better solution? You now need to create as many options as possible if you want to improve your current level of thinking.

"We cannot solve problems using the same level of thinking
that created them" - Albert Einstein

If you can't find a solution to your problem, you probably haven't generated enough new ideas. This needs to be done in two stages; the first using creative thinking to expand our horizons, and the second using critical thinking to hone in on what will actually work.

Creative Thinking
This process involves writing down every possible option you can think of. The more the better. Start with the obvious, then those that seem more radical. Even ideas that seem wild and crazy - these may lead you to think of a more practical version or may blend with something obvious to give it a new and viable twist.

The aim is to identify between 13 to 21 potential solutions, more if you can. Don't be afraid to think big - imagine the ideal solution with unlimited resources, or boundaries. A classic mistake is for team members to point out why an idea won't work. This kills the creativity in the room, so hold back on making judgments.

Critical Thinking
Now it's time for rational and considered debate of each idea. Critical thinking is used to test ideas to destruction and most importantly ask "When will this idea work, and when might it fail?" Some will be immediately dismissed, while others will provide insight into potential solutions.

Ideas can be evolved, combined with others or simply developed further if they have merit.
Your perfect solution may be a blend of ideas one, thirteen and twenty-one.


Once you have decided on your best option it is time to implement that solution. However, this is not the end our problem solving task - without testing we cannot truly know that our best possible solution will really solve the problem we are trying to fix.

When we create a new solution to a new problem and assume that it will work. Going all out to implement it, we find the hidden flaws and pitfalls. Unknown failings in the 'solution' become apparent - costing time, money, and energy, and potentially damaging our brand and customer relations.

Smart leaders know that a new solution should be tested and prototyped.

A good prototype should quickly and cheaply test the validity of an idea without risking the whole. In 1956 Christopher Cockerell proved his Hovercraft theory by combing an empty cat food tin, a coffee tin, and a vacuum cleaner. He was then able to create a small working model, just 2ft in diameter tethered to a stake in the lawn, to approach potential investors.

Once you are confident that your solution will fix your problem, begin implementing it gradually. Test its validity as you go.

For example:

  • When installing new software in your office, start with just one computer and work with it for a week. Does it interfere with other programmes, or cause a massive system failure?
  • When hiring a new staff member give them a trial period and test their capabilities against the job specification.
  • Before investing in new equipment, borrow it and trial - Does it really do what you want?

Testing before a complete implementation is especially important when introducing a new service to your clients. Offer the new service to selected clients at a reduced rate, and ask for feedback - listen to what needs to be changed to perfect and refine your results.

 Martin Riley - Director - Martin Riley Leadership & Business Development

Business coach, leadership trainer and author of The Business Jet Engine, Martin Riley is committed to helping business owners improve their success rate and quality of life.


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