A helpful approach to problem solving

Problem solving is part of life. We all encounter continuous problems that we need to tackle. Some of us are in jobs or roles that require problem solving on a daily basis. It’s an important skill to work on perfectly, and this technique I want to talk about is a great one for all problem-solvers. 

Not all problems are the same, some are small and some are big, some require immediate action and some afford us the luxury of time to figure them out before we take action. A useful technique to help not us in our approach to problem solving is David Snowden’s Cynefin framework

Different problems need different approaches 

“Different problem situations warrant different approaches to find the right solution,” Snowden advises. Because not all situations are equal, Snowden’s framework offers decision makers variety of responses and a sense of place to analyse the problem and provide a helpful perspective. It helps categorise the situation and assist in setting out how we can approach different situations. It’s a widely used tool for those working in constantly-evolving, dynamic environments, dealing with uncertainty and risk. According to Snowden, problems can be categorised into simple, complicated, complex, choatic or less frequently, disorder. 

The 5 categories of problems

Problems, according to the framework, will fall into one of these categories and your first step is to figure out which one is most appropriate to your problem at hand; 

  1. Obvious problems – these problems have a direct relationship between the cause and effect of the problem. And it’s obvious to everyone. For these types of problems there is an ‘obvious’ solution or answer, and it is undisputed. Snowden recommend the following approach for tackling obvious problems; 
    • Gather data and facts surrounding the problem
    • Categorise facts it into known groups
    • Base your responses on well-known solutions or established best practices 
    • Implement solutions and review them
  2. Complicated problems – In this situation there is no obvious answer, instead you are dealing with there are multiple right answers. An expert diagnosis is required to figure them out. This category of problems requires a more quantitative approach like value stream Mapping. The approach to solving these problems include; 
    • Assess the situation and Sense the problem
    • Investigate several options
    • Analyse large data groups, as needed
    • Use expert knowledge to get better insight
    • Use metrics to gain controlBase response on good practice and determine a course of action
  3. Complex problems – Complex problems require complex solutions. These types of problems are solved based on the process of experimentation. It involves developing a safe environment for experimentation to explore and discover important information that leads to the creation of new emergent solutions.

    These problems are always more unpredictable by nature. It involves several layers of decision making based on experimentation and hindsight; a repeating cycle of this. Through detailed experiments a decision can be reached. We then use hindsight to rate the results of that decision to define the next step toward a solution. In such situations our ability to probe (explore), sense (inspect) and respond (adapt) is critical.
  4. Chaotic problems – These require an immediate response to prevent further harm and to return the situation to normal. In this category we don’t have the luxury of launching investigations, data gathering and analysis work that leads to correcting the cause. The focus needs to be on quickly correcting the problem and containing the effect. Think of a burst water main. You need to quickly turn off the water supply and contain the spread of water. The immediate solution does not fix the underlying cause, but containment is more important at this stage. The approach to this type of problem is;
    • Someone needs to take control and take immediate action 
    • Triage all actions
    • Reach a level of measure of control
    • Then assess the situation and determine next steps
    • Take action to correct the cause by moving the problem to another category
  5. Disorder – This category applies to those problems that simply don’t fit into any of the other categories. They can be difficult place to be as you don’t know how to sense the situation. The problem will be tackled in firefighting mode, with people behaving in line with their own personal preferences and not stopping to correct the situation.

    The way to approach Disorder is to break it down into bite sized bits. Then reapply the problem to one of the four categories and work on a solution. The priority needs to be to work on a way to move the problem into a known category.

All problems are unique and require unique approaches. Having a framework to help you define the best approach to take can be useful. Do you use this approach in your problem solving at work? 

Could your leadership team benefit from one of my tailored workshops in 2023? Please get in touch today . I’d love to help!

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