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Tag: Problem-solving

A man contemplating problem solving and decision making as looks forward.

Problem Solving and Decision Making – Two Essential Skills of a Good Leader

Problem solving and decision making are two fascinating skillsets. We call them out as two separate skills – and they are – but they also make use of the same core attributes.

They feed on a need to communicate well, both through questioning and listening, and be patient and not rushing both processes through. Thus, the greatest challenge any leader faces when it comes to solving problems and decision making is when the pressure of time comes into play. But as Robert Schuller highlights in his quote, allowing problem-solving to become the decision means you’ll never break free from the problem.

“Never bring the problem-solving stage into the decision-making stage. Otherwise, you surrender yourself to the problem rather than the solution.”

Robert H. Schuller

So how does a leader avoid this trap? How do they ensure the problem solving doesn’t become the be-all and end-all?


The 7 steps of Effective Problem Solving and Decision Making

A vital hurdle every leader must overcome is to avoid the impulsive urge to make quick decisions. Often when confronted with a problem, leaders or managers fall back in past behaviours. Urgency creates pressure to act quickly as a result, the problem still exists, just side-lined until it rears its ugly head again.

Good problem solving opens opportunity. A notable example of this is the first principles thinking executed by the likes of Elon Musk and others. Understanding the fundamentals blocks of a process and the problem it’s creating can lead to not just the problem but accelerate beyond it.

So, to avoid the trap, and use problem solving and decision making effectively, you should embody yourself with the following seven steps.

1.      What is the problem?

Often, especially in time-critical situations, people don’t define the problem. Some label themselves as fire-fighters, just content with dowsing out the flames. It is a reactionary behaviour and one commonplace with under-trained leaders. As great as some fire-fighters are, they can only put out so many fires at one time, often becoming a little industry.

The better approach is to define the problem, and this means asking the following questions:

  1. What is happening? (What makes you think there is a problem?)
  2. Where is it taking place?
  3. How is it happening?
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?
  6. With whom is it happening? (This isn’t a blame game…all you want to do is isolate the problem to a granular level.)
  7. Define what you understand to be the problem in writing by using as few sentences as possible. (Look at the answers to your what, where, why, when, and how questions.)

2.      What are the potential causes?

Having defined the problem it is now time to find out what might be causing the problem. Your leadership skills: your communication skills need to be strong, as you look to gather input from your team and those involved in the problem.

Key points:

  • Talk to those involved individually. Groupthink is a common cause of blindness to the problem, especially if there is blame culture within the business.
  • Document what you’ve heard and what you think is the root cause is.
  • Be inquisitive. You don’t know what you don’t know, so get the input of others and open yourself up to the feedback you’ll need to solve this problem.

3.      What other ways can you overcome the problem?

 Sometimes, getting to the root cause can take time. Of course, you can’t ignore it, but it is important to produce a plan to temporarily fix the problem. In business, a problem will be costing the business money, whether it be sales or profit. So, a temporary fix allows the business to move forward, providing it neutralises the downside of the original problem.

4.      How will you resolve the problem?

At this stage, you still don’t know what the actual problem is. All you have is a definition of the problem which is a diagnosis of the issue. You will have the team’s input, as well as your opinions as to what the next steps should be.

If you don’t, then at this stage you should think about reassessing the problem. One way forward could be to become more granular and adopt a first-principles approach.

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
    • What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  2. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
    • How do the parts fit together?
    • What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
    • Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  3. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

Solve hard problems with inversion

Another way is to invert the problem using the following technique:

1. Understand the problem

Every solution starts with developing a clear understanding of what the problem is. In this instance, some clarity of the issue is vital.

2. Ask the opposite question

Convention wisdom means we see the world logically. But what if you turned the logical outcome on its head. Asking the opposite questions brings an unfamiliar perspective.

3. Answer the opposite question

It seems a simple logic, but you can’t just ask the opposite question and not answer it. You must think through the dynamics that come from asking the question. You’re looking for alternative viewpoints and thoughts you’ve not had before.

4. Join your answers up with your original problem

This is where solutions are born. You’re taking your conventional wisdom and aligning it with the opposite perspective. So often the blockers seen in the original problem become part of the solution.

5.      Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily

You now know the problem. You understand the fix, and you are a position to assess the risks involved.

Assessing the risks means considering the worst-case scenarios and ensuring you avoid them. Your plan should take into the following points:

  • Is there any downtime to implementing the solution? If so, how long, and how much will it cost? Do you have backup systems in place to minimise the impact?
  • If the risk is too great, consider a temporary fix which keeps current operations in place and gives you time to further prepare for a permanent fix.
  • Document the plan and share it with all the relevant stakeholders. Communication is key.

Here we see the two skills of problem solving and decision making coming together. The two skills are vital to managing business risks as well as solving the problem.

6.      Monitor and measure the plan

Having evolved through the five steps to this stage, you mustn’t take your eye off the ball as it were.

  • Define timelines and assess progress
  • Report to the stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aware of progress or any delays.
  • If the plan doesn’t deliver, ask why? Learn from failure.

7.      Have you fixed the problem?

Don’t forget the problem you started with. Have you fixed it? You might find it wasn’t a problem at all. You will have learnt a lot about the part of the business where the problem occurred, and improvements will have taken place.

Use the opportunity to assess what worked, what didn’t, and what would have helped. These are three good questions to give you some perspective on the process you’ve undertaken.



Problem solving and decision making in unison

Throughout the process of problem solving, you’re making decisions. Right from the beginning when the problem first becomes clear, you have a choice to either react – firefight or to investigate. This progresses as move onto risk assessing the problem and then defining the solutions to overcome the issue.

Throughout the process, the critical element is to make decisions with the correct information to hand. Finding out the facts, as well as defeating your assumptions are all part of the process of making the right decision.


Problem solving and decision making – a process 

Problem solving isn’t easy. It becomes even more challenging when you have decisions to make. The seven steps I’ve outlined will give you the ability to investigate and diagnose the problem correctly.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the potential causes?
  3. What other ways can you overcome the problem?
  4. How will you resolve the problem?
  5. Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily.
  6. Monitor and measure the plan.
  7. Have you fixed the problem?

Of course, this logical step by step process might not enable you to diagnose the issue at hand. Some problems can be extremely hard, and an alternative approach might help. In this instance, first principles thinking or using the power of inversion are excellent ways to dig into hard problems. Problem solving and decision making are two skills every good leader needs. Using them together is an effective way to work.


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First Principles thinking through the eyes of a child

First Principles Thinking: Why We Need to Ask Questions Like a Child

First Principles thinking has incredible benefits, just ask Elon Musk. The approach has led him to increase battery capacity, making electric cars more practical and from there, building Tesla cars into a multi-billion-dollar company. Not only that, but Elon used the same approach; first principles thinking to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. So, with examples such as these, why aren’t there more examples of this skill in use?

The answer is a sad one. A failing reality of our education system is it focuses on memory function rather than core skills, such as problem-solving and decision-making. Our schools crush the curiosity found in every child over the age of three or four. The curiosity is first principles thinking…


First Principles Thinking from a Childs Perspective 

My nephew is five. Like every five-year-old, he questions everything. “Why is it bedtime?” “Because it’s dark and time for you to get some sleep,” replies his dad. “Why does it get dark?” And often this is swiftly followed by “Why do I need to sleep?” My brother-in-law humour’s the questioning to a point, but as with most parents’ his patience soon disappears.  

Like every five-year-old, my nephews’ brain is like a sponge, and he wants to fill it. But, even at such an early age, his mind wants to utterly understand what is in front of him. If the first answer he gets doesn’t make sense to him, he keeps asking why until the explanation is something he understands.

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Richard Feynman

First-principles thinking is the way children learn until they reach school age, at which point memorization becomes the dominate way they learn.

Young children have an innate urge to want to understand. It drives their questioning and their thinking beyond just knowing something. They want to fully understand what they see and hear.

Richard Feynman said it best when he said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The simple reason being a child will keep questioning. It is first principles thinking in action.


Related Articles


The Difference between Knowledge and Understanding

As children at school, and then through college and into working life, we become accustomed to knowing. In some specialist matters, we might undertake the learnings to understand something, but often we don’t.

We become conditioned to accept that if we don’t need to understand something, we can get away with having a level of knowledge. When the world of whatever you’re doing works, it’s okay. Knowledge is sufficient to enable you to keep doing the same thing day after day. But what if something goes wrong, what if it fails, or stops working. Knowledge without understanding is useless.

Knowledge doesn’t enable you to think outside the box.

Understanding does.

Understanding comes through using first principles thinking. Breaking down systems or functions to their parts enables you to develop a granular appreciation of how a system works. By getting to this level, you have grasped the process in its simplest form.


First Principles: Asking Questions as a Child Does

We’ve covered how we see first principles at work in young children. I have also explained why we need to develop an understanding over knowledge. So now, it’s time to look at how we can apply first principles thinking as an adult.

Without re-living your education, it’s hard to break the knowledge – and the assumptions – you’ve made. So, therefore, it’s practical to opt to use first principles thinking in selected situations. A good example is the need to solve problems.

Problem-solving is complex, particularly with difficult problems because our assumptions decide our approach and response. A first-principles approach will look like this:

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
    • What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  2. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
    • How do the parts fit together?
    • What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
    • Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  3. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

A child might steam-roller through these, asking pointed ‘why’ questions at each stage. As an adult, we must apply the same logic to solve the problem at hand. “Why does the system work like this”?


Elon Musk, Space X and First Principles Thinking in Action

If we step back to Elon Musk and his explanation of first principles thinking, we can see this approach in operation. A bold problem such as do we get to Mars opens a vast number of foundational blocks. He would have to hire a rocket from NASA, with the cost – a huge amount. Why were rockets at NASA so expensive?

As Elon quickly discovered, it is because each one has a one-time use. From a commercial point of view, Elon had found a big problem. But it only led to more questions. What are the foundational blocks of a rocket? More importantly, what happens once a rocket has jettisoned its payload?

Ask a NASA scientist, and you’ll get a raft of assumptions about why they can’t return a rocket to earth once it’s finished in space.

It is first principles thinking in action and it is breath-taking. Even more so when you consider Space X has launched 650 satellites into space and is making money doing it. Although Space X hasn’t made it to Mars yet, this demonstration shows the logic of problem-solving using first principles.


Concluding Thoughts

There is a power to first principles thinking which breaks with conventional thinking. It is this step away from knowledge to understanding. The language of assumptions litters our thinking, it limits our decision-making and often stops us from making progress.

It is a behaviour we’re all capable of. We all did it as children, much to our parent’s annoyance. We pushed the limits of our parent’s knowledge and understanding, which sadly ended most of our inquisitiveness.

I see it being a power in decision-making as well. Decisions are all too often made from the assumptions of past behaviour, as we see in our System 1 thinking. The automatic, impulsive act of making decisions comes from an earlier learned experience. And as Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, this is a dangerous way to make important decisions. Far better to slow down and use system 2 to think through the choice ahead. Applying first principles thinking will impose a more methodical decision-making process, and that is a good thing.


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