Navigating the process of problem solving and decision making

Successful leaders understand that, while they are fully accountable for the results, it is critical for them to collaborate with their teams in order to obtain the information they need to solve problems and make decisions. How can you apply your critical thinking and interpersonal skills to define problems, generate viable solutions, and make the best decisions for your team and organisation?


Suppose your train is delayed enroute to an important event. At first, you’re liable to be stressed. The situation is causing a problem that needs to be solved. But is the problem that your train is delayed or is it that you won’t be able to get to the meeting. Two different problems with two different solutions, each related to the same situation.  

As leaders, it’s not if, but when you face problems for an area of the business that you’re responsible for, such as fulfilment of a customer project, supply chain issues, staff related problems.  But it’s how we navigate through the problem and the subsequent approach we follow that will make the difference between success or failure.

Fight, flight or freeze

One of the common reactions people have when suddenly presented with a problem is “freezing”, like rabbits in headlights, putting off taking action or making decisions. It’s never a good idea to make hasty, poorly thought-out decisions, but avoiding the issue may cause us to miss opportunities to take purposeful action that could lead to a solution. Another thing some people tend to do in an attempt to feel like they’re making progress is to engage in random, unfocused activities allowing them to procrastinate by distracting themselves with unimportant tasks rather than focusing on the problem at hand.

Conversely, faced with the same scenario, some people approach the problem by immediately focussing excessively on micro-level details related to the situation, causing them to lose sight of the big picture. They’d rather deal with something tangible and concrete, like data, in the hope of finding something they can latch on to. This can lead to information overload through ‘analysis paralysis’.  This results in sole focus and reliance on facts and figures without taking the human side of the issue into account is. Neither of these is opposite tendencies are helpful.

Understanding the problem

Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Einstein knew that problems are usually full of clues to their own successful resolution. Like any successful detective, you need to spend time unearthing those clues before you come up with ideas about how to solve the problem.  The first phase in the thought process should be all about understanding the problem. Often this phase takes up more time than the other phases put together. It’s where the lightbulb moments begin.  And it’s the phase that’s usually skipped, unless you’re an Einstein!

To begin with, you need to identify what the problem is so you can begin to address the root cause and find a solution. The defined problem becomes the catalyst that initiates the process needed to find its solution.  Often our decision making is hindered by a common issue; differentiating the situation from the problem.  Situations cause problems and while the two are related, it’s important to know the difference. Situations can be managed. They don’t always cause problems unless they prevent something else from happening. That something else they prevent from happening is the problem.

Leadership isn’t about having all the answers yourself. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s about working with and through others to get the information you need to make decisions that everyone on the team can stand behind. And how you do that is to tap into the experience and knowledge of your team using a three-stage process that involves defining the problem, generating feasible solutions, and finally, choosing the most viable solution.

You must be able to define the problem with a succinct problem statement. Giving an objective description of the problem. You do that by keeping the focus on the symptoms of the problem at hand, ignoring outside issues, like who is to blame. Gather factual information by asking questions to fill in the gaps in your understanding of the situation and of the underlying problem. 

When exploring the symptoms of a problem, keep asking ‘Why’ to every answer until you get to the very root of the problem. A simple method called ‘The Five Whys’ can be helpful. In your next team meeting or interaction, ask for an example of a problem currently being faced. Use The Five Whys approach to gain a better understanding of the problem. An example of The Five Whys being used to get to the cause of a problem, root is provided in the example below.

Problem: “Customers are unhappy because they are being shipped products that don’t meet their specifications.”

Why are customers being shipped these products?

“Because the factory built the products to a specification that is different from what the customer and the sales person agreed to.”

Why did the factory build the products to a different specification than that of sales?

“Because the sales person expedites work on the shop floor by calling the head of manufacturing directly. An error happened when the specifications were being communicated or written down.”

Why does the sales person call manufacturing directly instead of following the procedures established in the company?

“Because the form requires the sales director’s approval before work can begin and slows the manufacturing process.”

Why does the form need an approval for the sales director?

“Because the sales director needs to be continually updated on sales for discussions with the CEO.”

Why does the sales director need to use that form for discussions with the CEO?

“He doesn’t, really. Maybe that is the root of the problem and we can update the sales director in another way!”

The BEST way to generate feasible solutions

Once you have fully understood the problem at the very core, you can then start to evaluate possible solutions and options.   According to the Skillsoft Leadership Development program, B.E.S.T. is a useful method to help you and your teams to navigate through the process of generating all the possible alternatives for solving the problem.


This is where you capture all possible solutions, without filtering and no matter how off-the-wall they may seem.  Come up with any many alternatives as possible to begin with.


Now list out the Pros and Cons for each of the alternative solutions that were captured in the Brainstorm.


This is the step where you should review the Cons for each alternative and filter down as much as possible to a shortlist of the most feasible.


Select the most appropriate option from the shortlist as your targeted solution.

BEST is most effective in a small group (maximum of 6 people).  Ensure that your group stays on track, reminding the team not to start critiquing other peoples’ ideas prematurely. Brainstorming should be done without judgment or prejudice. 

Evaluate the pros and cons of each alternative. After doing that, simplify the Cons by removing those that could be mitigated, and keeping those that remained unchanged. Carefully determine which alternative should be targeted for serious consideration. Once you’ve evaluated the possible solutions to your problem you can go about choosing the best one.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

Use this tool to confirm that a decision you are seriously considering is viable and desirable. You’ll need a colleague’s help to use this tool properly.

Devil’s Advocate TechniqueTips
List the evidence opposing your business decision.List all evidence (reasons) opposing your potential business decision you know to be true. This is called “first-order evidence.”List all unsubstantiated evidence opposing your decision that, if found to be true, would bode against making that choice. This is called “second-order evidence.”
Explain both sides of the argument to a colleague and obtain input.Provide the colleague or friend with evidence that supports the potential business decision.Provide evidence that argues against the decision.Do not give your colleague any indication how you feel about the merits of the potential decision. This negates the biasing effects of persuasion.

Note: Once you obtain your colleague’s input, re-evaluate the desirability of your potential decision. Take into account the colleague’s advice as well as the opposing evidence you cited.


Solving complex problems requires a toolkit of critical thinking and interpersonal skills to help you and your team work together and rise above personal preferences and priorities. To lead teams using problem solving skills to make decisions, you first need to identify the problem, differentiating the problem from the situation that caused it. Then you need to begin to solve it by following a three-stage process consisting of defining the problem, generating alternative solutions, and choosing the best solution. This process requires you to build a toolkit that includes critical thinking and interpersonal skills, along with a variety of tried and tested decision-making and problem-solving tools and techniques.

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