How much do we really remember from high school or middle school? The primary goals of early education are to teach us how to learn, how to communicate, and how to get along with others. Many of the specific lessons learned are lost once we get on with the reality of living as adults. That said, we each probably have at least one lesson that stood out, that we’ve taken with us along the road of life. For me, it’s a lesson from 8th grade science class, and it’s come in handy every day since.
The topic was the Scientific Method, a structured approach to problem solving. My teacher explained it to us in non-scientific terms, outlining the following steps:
- Identify the problem
- Consider various ways to solve the problem
- Pick a solution and implement it
- Check to see if the solution solved the problem
- If not, go back to 1
Consciously or sub-consciously, we all do some of these steps to problem solve in our daily lives. By consistently executing all of the steps, we can improve our outcomes and get to better solutions, faster.
What’s the Problem?
Let’s face it – solutions are fun. When presented with a problem, many of us go right to digging in and starting to fix it. Often before we really understand the nature of the problem. Spending time figuring out the problem is critical to successful problem solving. Defining the problem makes sure we solve the problem we have, and not a problem we don’t have. It also helps ensure that any solution addresses all aspects of the problem. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can get you there.” Lewis Carroll When defining the problem, we need to understand where we are and where we’re headed. Then, and only then, can we develop a plan to get from where we are to where we want to go. So, even if the solution is calling, we need to resist its lure until we have our arms around the problem we are trying to solve.
Let the fun begin! Well, not yet. Now that we’ve taken some time to understand the problem, we can go about the business of figuring out how to solve it. This doesn’t mean starting the solution, but determining which solution seems to make the most sense. “Every problem contains within itself the seeds of its own solution.” Stanley Arnold Methods that we can use to determine potential solutions are brainstorming and working sessions with impacted parties. The key is to consider whether each solution will address all aspects of the problem at hand AND whether it might introduce new problems.
Do Something About the Problem
Here we go! Let’s get in there and start fixing the problem. The difference is, this time we’ve taken time to understand the problem, considered various ways to solve it and selected the best one for us to pursue. Frequently, we jump to this step, and then wonder why we have to keep going back and solving the same problems over and over. Often, it’s because we either didn’t understand the original problem or we didn’t make sure our solution would solve the problem as defined. “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” Albert Einstein Though it might feel like we’re wasting time by evaluating the problem and potential solutions, we will save time and effort by eliminating rework. And, if we’re trying to save the world, we might only have one chance to get it right the first time.
Did You Solve the Problem?
This is the step that many of us forget. It’s great that we implemented the solution we said we would. But did it solve the problem? Too often, as soon as one problem is solutioned, it’s off to the next one. We walk away before we know we’re really done. “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.” Buddha Confirm that the original problem, as we defined it, has been resolved. If it has, throw a party and celebrate the success. If there is more to be done, then we need to begin again at defining the problem to figure out what’s left. Called by any other name, the Scientific Method would be just as successful. It is a proven method to approach problems and plan out their solutions. In a world where we have fewer opportunities and dollars to “do over,” we should consider an approach that helps us minimize rework and gets us better solutions, faster.
About the Author
Kristin M Woodman is a civilian leader and change agent. She currently works for a global insurance carrier, helping them transform the way they build software solutions. She has over 20 years of experience as a project manager and leader, building high-performing teams to solving challenging problems for military and civilian organizations. She recently completed her first book, “24 Hours of Life and Leadership: The Marine Corps Way“ and is actively writing her second, “The PM Test.”