How to Solve Problems That Drive Other People Nuts

“I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I know); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” – Rudyard Kipling, from “The Elephant’s Child”

When you learn how to become an expert problem solver, you’ll notice a major change in the way you approach your work. You’ll start to:

  • welcome each new challenge
  • knock it off quickly
  • move on to overcome your next obstacle
  • always be ready to jump onto an exciting new opportunity

Best of all, you’ll get a reputation as a “go-to” guy. And once you have that, you’ll be able to call your own shots and write your own ticket to success.

Aristotle solved problems by gathering all the related facts, analyzing the weaknesses and strengths of possible solutions, and making conclusions. He made the unmanageable, manageable.

Willis Carrier, a pioneer in the air-conditioning industry and founder of the Carrier Corporation, took a cue from Aristotle and learned how to solve every complex problem he encountered by reducing it to its simplest form. When Carrier was a young man, he was given a difficult task — and failed miserably. “I was stunned,” he said. “It was almost as if someone had struck me a blow on the head. My stomach, my insides, began to twist and turn. For a while, I was so worried I couldn’t sleep. Finally, common sense reminded me that worry wasn’t getting me anywhere; so I figured out a way to handle my problem without worrying. It worked superbly.”

Carrier used the system he came up with for the rest of his career, with remarkable results. His plan involves some simple steps:

1. Gather all facts related to the problem.

2. Pick out the relevant ones, reduce them to their simplest parts, and analyze them one by one.

3. Decide on solutions and then act on those decisions.

I’ve modified Carrier’s system into a slightly more detailed formula that works every time. Use this technique the next time you’re facing a big obstacle and you’ll see your effectiveness and satisfaction soar:

1. Write out a description of the problem. If you can’t write it down, you haven’t thought it out. As inventor Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is half solved.” In fact, you will often find that as you write the problem down, you will start generating solutions. By the time you’re done defining the problem, you will have solved it.

2. List everything you know about the problem, breaking issues down into their simplest parts. Be objective, as if you were collecting the facts for somebody else. Ask yourself what, why, when, how, where, who — and anything else that might be important. For example:

  • What are the contributing causes of this problem?
  • Why do things have to be done this way?
  • When did this start happening?
  • How can we change things to avoid this happening again?
  • Where in the process should change take place?
  • Who is responsible and able to implement change?

3. Now it’s time to get help from your colleagues. Show them your description of the problem and the list of contributing issues that you developed. Then engage them in a group ideation and brainstorming session. Ask them to think of as many possible solutions as they can. Tell them to think with the brakes off, deferring judgment on the ideas. The wilder the ideas the better. The more ideas the better. When the session is over, combine and improve their proposed solutions.

4. Rate each of the solutions. First, in terms of effectiveness (VE = Very Effective, PE = Probably Effective, D = Doubtful). And then, in terms of ease of implementation (E = Easy, NSE = Not So Easy, D = Difficult).

5. Develop your action plan. You can consider more than one solution for each component problem, but you’ll want to first focus on those that you rated “Effective” and “Easy.”

For each proposed solution, list:

  • a description of the way it’s going to work
  • who will be implementing it
  • when it can get started, along with a target completion date
  • milestones and guidelines for evaluating its success

No matter how big or complex any problem may be, it can be solved. The key is to logically break it down into manageable parts and deal with them one by one.

Most of the time, you will find that you can solve big problems yourself – and sooner than expected — if you use this approach.