Problem Solving and Management

The ability to solve problems is a skill that all effective managers need to master. Addressing unexpected situations and their consequences is something that managers will be all too familiar with. However, whilst ‘firefighting’ problems can be a distraction from the day job, problems can also be reframed as opportunities to learn and improve. Understanding the reasons why things have gone wrong and identifying solutions, helps firms and individuals from experiencing similar problems in the future.

Ideally, an organisation will have robust systems and controls in place to prevent problems from developing. Tried and tested policies and procedures, relevant management information and effective staff communication are all useful preventative measures that can alert manager to warning signs and issues at the earliest stage.

However, the unexpected can still happen. This could be customer complaints, sudden resignations, building maintenance issues, or grievances among staff. These will typically require quick and decisive action but also appropriate steps to prevent similar issues happening again (or, if they do, having readily available solutions to mitigate their impact).

Managers should therefore approach problems systematically. This involves keeping an open and enquiring mind and remaining calm and professional.

The first step is to quickly evaluate and prioritise the problem:

  • What is the nature of the problem?
  • Who is affected by this problem?
  • What is the severity of the problem and what is the impact of doing nothing?
  • What is urgency of the problem?

If a pipe has burst, for example, and water is pouring into your office, it’s clearly not something you can ignore!

Sometimes, a temporary or ‘holding’ solution can be identified, buying you more time to gather information about the problem and to seek a lasting solution. In our example above, this would likely be to find the stopcock and switch off the water supply. It would not address the problem of the burst pipe, but it would limit the impact of further damage until the full repair can be made.

The same rule applies elsewhere. For example, if faced with a complaint from a customer, you may not be able to solve their grievance immediately, but you can and should acknowledge the complaint promptly in writing, setting out your understanding of the complaint, who will be dealing with it, along with other relevant information (e.g., your firm’s complaints procedure).

The second step is to take a closer look at the problem by gathering all relevant information. This involves asking effective questions (i.e. What? Who? When? How? Why? Where?). If people are involved, it is important to empathise with those involved, deploy active listening and to recognise the different perspectives at play. Taking an objective, evidence-based and factual approach, rather than relying on assumption or bias is crucial.

When you have fully assessed the situation, you can then move onto the third step, which involves developing the solution. The approach you decide upon will, of course, be informed by the problem but you may decide to involve others in the resolution. This can be helpful in dealing with project problems as you can involve the project team and relevant specialists in devising a credible way forward.

It may also be possible to break the solution down into staged or manageable chunks rather than attempting to resolve everything in one go. For instance, performance management of individuals may take time. Creative responses may also be required to address the challenges that are faced.

Finally, it is always important to communicate the solution. Those affected need to know what is being done to address the problem, whether it is a complaint, a performance issue, or a ‘hiccup’ in a project. Once the solution is implemented, it is wise to document it. This depends on the nature of the problem and solution but may include things such as updating a ‘Lessons Log’, reviewing a policy or procedure, or perhaps creating a how-to guide that can be referred to in the event of a recurrence.

It can be daunting when problems arise, especially if you are new to a role or inexperienced. However, the resolution of problems, whilst challenging, can also be viewed positively and lead to improved performance and service delivery if managed in the right way.

About the author

Nathan is a member of the senior management team at RWA and manages the company’s e-learning, content and professional standards department. He joined RWA as a content writer in 2016, on successfully completing his PhD. Nathan previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors and has a broad range of experience, including research and analysis, project delivery, corporate governance, and team leadership.

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