Solution-oriented problem solving

by Mechaferret on August 14th, 2011

I like to think of myself as a solution-oriented problem solver, that is, when confronted with a problem, my primary goal is to fix it (find a solution), using whatever tools I can bring to my disposal, to the extent that those tools will help with a solution. And it is definitely the case that, in my professional career, the people I have most admired, respected, learned from, and enjoyed working with can all be described as solution-oriented problem solvers. These words also show up fairly often as desirable management buzz phrases that improve both results and morale.

However, in my experience, solution-oriented problem solving is not all that common. Since it is desirable and rare, one might conclude that it must be very difficult. However, I tried to formulate some recommended best practices for it and realized that it’s not really difficult at all. The core of solution-oriented problem solving consists of one set of questions TO ask and another set of questions NOT to ask.

The four questions of solution-oriented problem solving

Ask these in order whenever any problem comes up.

  1. What happened/is happening?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. How do we fix it?
  4. How do we prevent similar problems from happening in the future?

Questions that should NOT be asked

Just as importantly, solution-oriented problem-solving requires that certain types of questions NOT be asked. The following questions make people defensive, are not helpful, and get in the way of actually solving the problem. Patterns in individual performance deficiencies, if recurring, may come up as answers to #3 and #4, but all such deficiencies should be looked at in context: were they due to impossible assignments, situational failings such as poor communication, or truly due to deficiencies of the person in the role?

  • • Whose fault is this?
  • • Why did that person screw up?
  • • Why is that person so incompetent?

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