Rational management skills

How to solve problems

Clever people search for the non-existent perfect solution so they achieve nothing. A workable solution is preferable to the perfect solution because it leads to action. The perfect solution is the enemy of the practical solution.

Smart managers think they know all the answers. Really smart managers know the right questions. The best answer to the wrong question is useless. It is important to identify the right problem, ask the right questions and arrive at a practical solution.

The principles that lie behind effective problem solving are:

Know your problem

In business, you are expected to know what the question is without being told. At junior levels of management, questions are often pretty clear. They tend to be expressed as simple performance goals: sell more product, trade more profitably, bill more personal time. As managers continue their careers, clarity reduces and ambiguity increases. The goal may be clear (make your profit target) but the means to the end are not. It pays to fight the right battles the right way to achieve the overall goal. You have to know which the right battles are.

Focus on causes, not symptoms

For example: cost problems are always a symptom of something else. They can be as follows:

- Inadequate revenues, which in turn may be a product problem, marketing and sales problem or distribution problem.

- Wrong product and customer mix, which are expensive to serve and do not pay enough to justify the cost.

- Ineffective process and inefficient working practices.

HR practices deal with symptoms, not causes as well. Performance based appraisal and promotion system focus on symptoms versus causes. Understanding the causes of good or poor performance is at least as important as measuring the outcome:

- Why did they do well or poorly?

- What skills need to grow to raise performance?

- What assignments will best suit this person in future?

- Are they building the right skills and experiences for their career and promotion prospects?

- How can performance be improved?

The skills based approach to appraisal results in a better appraisal discussion. The good/bad performance appraisal can be confrontational and not very actionable. Many managers shy away from giving bad news, which helps no one.

Anyone can spot a symptom of a problem. The mark of a good manager is one who can go beyond symptoms and unearth the root cause of the problem. There are no easy shortcuts available. But there is one simple principle – keep on asking one question: “Why?”.

Prioritise the problems

Management is never short of problems and challenges. You have to be selective. Three simple questions help identify which problems are worth addressing:

Is it important?

Does this problem make a significant difference in achieving your overall goals? If this problem is not resolved, will it have a serious adverse effect? Is there a simple stop-gap solution that will prevent things getting worse while you concentrate on other problems?

Is it urgent?

Will the problem be worse tomorrow than it is today, and does it matter? Can you buy time?

Is it actionable?

Focus on what you can control, not on what you cannot control.

Use decision-making tools sparingly, but well

Most managers solve problems intuitively. Rarely will you need to sit down and do a formal problem analysis. But it helps to have a few tools and techniques at hand. Used well, formal decision-making tools are a framework to encourage discussion and thinking with your colleagues. Used poorly, they are a prison that a facilitator with a franchised theory traps you in as you are forced through their process.

Decision-making tools should be an aid to thinking, not a substitute for thinking. The most common and popular tools are:

Cost-benefit analysis

Assumes a well-defined problem and solution that needs to be evaluated financially for formal approval.

SWOT analysis

Assumes a highly ambiguous, often strategic, challenge that needs further structuring.

Field force analysis

Assumes a choice between two courses of action including non-financial and qualitative criteria.

Multifactor/trade-off/grid analysis

Assumes a choice is to be made between multiple competing options with multiple criteria of varying importance.

Fishbone/mind maps

Assumes that there is a problem where the root causes need to be identified and broken down into bite sized chunks.

Creative problem solving

Assumes a highly complex problem to which there is no known answer and for which an original approach is required.

Pick the right tool for the right problem. You do not need to be an expert at each of these tools. Make sure you pick the one that meets your needs, and then either get a facilitator to help you with the process, or look up the details on the web.

Problem solving skills for managers

Find the right problem

Focus on causes, not symptoms. Understand why the problem has arisen.

Find the problem owner

Find out who owns the problem and why it matters to them. They may know the answer already, so ask them. Establish how important and urgent it is and gauge your response accordingly.

Use your experience

You have expertise and experience in your role, so use it. If you have seen this sort of problem before, you should know what to do. So do it.


If you are unsure what the best solution is, ask for advice. Your peers may have the answer, although they may all have different answers.

Avoid the perfect solution

If you are unsure what the best solution is, ask for advice. Your peers may have the perfect answer. Find what works and do that.

Stay future-focused

Do not dwell on the past or try to apportion blame. Look to the future, look to action.

Focus on benefits before concerns

It is easier to spot risks than opportunities. But if you focus on the risks of every solution, you will be paralysed by fear. Focus on the benefits first: if the benefits are big enough, then it is worth dealing with the risks.

Build a coalition in support of your solution

Asking for advice has the virtue of building consensus and paving the way for your solution to be put into action.

Keep it simple

Do not boil the ocean of facts and analysis. Use formal problem-solving techniques sparingly – they are an aid to thinking, not a substitute for thinking. The best solutions are discovered through action, not designed through analysis.

Drive to action

There is no such thing as a good idea that never happened. A solution is good only if it happens. A partial solution is often enough: you can then build on that and improve it.

Adapted from

Owen, J., 2006. How to manage. Pearson Education.

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