Mastering Problem Solving and Decision Making

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    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

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    What is Your Personal Decision-Making Style?

    There are many styles of making decisions, ranging from very rational and linear to organic and unfolding. Take this online assessment to determine your own style.

    Discover Your Decision-Making Style

    Do you want to improve or polish your style? Consider the many guidelines included below.

    Guidelines to Problem-Solving and Decision Making (Rational Approach)

    Much of what people do is solve problems and make decisions. Often, they are “under the gun”, stressed, and very short of time. Consequently, when they encounter a new problem or decision they must make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. It’s easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, it’s often useful to get used to an organized approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

    Not all problems can be solved and decisions made by the following, rather rational approach. However, the following basic guidelines will get you started. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the list of guidelines. After you’ve practiced them a few times, they’ll become second nature to you — enough that you can deepen and enrich them to suit your own needs and nature.

    (Note that it might be more your nature to view a “problem” as an “opportunity”. Therefore, you might substitute “problem” for “opportunity” in the following guidelines.)

    1. Define the problem

    This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the problem is. Instead, seek to understand more about why you think there’s a problem.

    Define the problem: (with input from yourself and others). Ask yourself and others, the following questions:

    1. What can you see that causes you to think there’s a problem?
    2. Where is it happening?
    3. How is it happening?
    4. When is it happening?
    5. With whom is it happening? (HINT: Don’t jump to “Who is causing the problem?” When we’re stressed, blaming is often one of our first reactions. To be an effective manager, you need to address issues more than people.)
    6. Why is it happening?
    7. Write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of “The following should be happening, but isn’t …” or “The following is happening and should be: …” As much as possible, be specific in your description, including what is happening, where, how, with whom and why. (It may be helpful at this point to use a variety of research methods.)

    Defining complex problems:

    If the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating steps 1-7 until you have descriptions of several related problems.

    Verifying your understanding of the problems:

    It helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with a peer or someone else.

    Prioritize the problems:

    If you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then prioritize which ones you should address first.

    Note the difference between “important” and “urgent” problems. Often, what we consider to be important problems to consider are really just urgent problems. Important problems deserve more attention. For example, if you’re continually answering “urgent” phone calls, then you’ve probably got a more “important” problem and that’s to design a system that screens and prioritizes your phone calls.

    Understand your role in the problem:

    Your role in the problem can greatly influence how you perceive the role of others. For example, if you’re very stressed out, it’ll probably look like others are, too, or, you may resort too quickly to blaming and reprimanding others. Or, you are feel very guilty about your role in the problem, you may ignore the accountabilities of others.

    2. Look at potential causes for the problem

    • It’s amazing how much you don’t know about what you don’t know. Therefore, in this phase, it’s critical to get input from other people who notice the problem and who are affected by it.
    • It’s often useful to collect input from other individuals one at a time (at least at first). Otherwise, people tend to be inhibited about offering their impressions of the real causes of problems.
    • Write down your opinions and what you’ve heard from others.
    • Regarding what you think might be performance problems associated with an employee, it’s often useful to seek advice from a peer or your supervisor in order to verify your impression of the problem.
    • Write down a description of the cause of the problem in terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom, and why.

    3. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem

    At this point, it’s useful to keep others involved (unless you’re facing a personal and/or employee performance problem). Brainstorm for solutions to the problem. Very simply put, brainstorming is collecting as many ideas as possible, and then screening them to find the best idea. It’s critical when collecting the ideas to not pass any judgment on the ideas — just write them down as you hear them. (A wonderful set of skills used to identify the underlying cause of issues is Systems Thinking.)

    4. Select an approach to resolve the problem

    • When selecting the best approach, consider:
    • Which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?
    • Which approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now? Do you have the resources? Are they affordable? Do you have enough time to implement the approach?
    • What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?

    (The nature of this step, in particular, in the problem solving process is why problem solving and decision making are highly integrated.)

    5. Plan the implementation of the best alternative (this is your action plan)

    1. Carefully consider “What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?”
    2. What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem? What systems or processes should be changed in your organization, for example, a new policy or procedure? Don’t resort to solutions where someone is “just going to try harder”.
    3. How will you know if the steps are being followed or not? (these are your indicators of the success of your plan)
    4. What resources will you need in terms of people, money, and facilities?
    5. How much time will you need to implement the solution? Write a schedule that includes the start and stop times, and when you expect to see certain indicators of success.
    6. Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring the implementation of the plan?
    7. Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your action plan.
    8. Communicate the plan to those who will involved in implementing it and, at least, to your immediate supervisor.

    (An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continual observation and feedback.)

    6. Monitor implementation of the plan

    Monitor the indicators of success:

    1. Are you seeing what you would expect from the indicators?
    2. Will the plan be done according to schedule?
    3. If the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider: Was the plan realistic? Are there sufficient resources to accomplish the plan on schedule? Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan? Should the plan be changed?

    7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not

    One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved or not is to resume normal operations in the organization. Still, you should consider:

    1. What changes should be made to avoid this type of problem in the future? Consider changes to policies and procedures, training, etc.
    2. Lastly, consider “What did you learn from this problem-solving?” Consider new knowledge, understanding, and/or skills.
    3. Consider writing a brief memo that highlights the success of the problem-solving effort, and what you learned as a result. Share it with your supervisor, peers and subordinates.

    Rational Versus Organic Approach to Problem Solving


    A person with this preference often prefers using a comprehensive and logical approach similar to the guidelines in the above section. For example, the rational approach, described below, is often used when addressing large, complex matters in strategic planning.

    1. Define the problem.
    2. Examine all potential causes for the problem.
    3. Identify all alternatives to resolve the problem.
    4. Carefully select an alternative.
    5. Develop an orderly implementation plan to implement the best alternative.
    6. Carefully monitor the implementation of the plan.
    7. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not.

    A major advantage of this approach is that it gives a strong sense of order in an otherwise chaotic situation and provides a common frame of reference from which people can communicate in the situation. A major disadvantage of this approach is that it can take a long time to finish. Some people might argue, too, that the world is much too chaotic for the rational approach to be useful.


    Some people assert that the dynamics of organizations and people are not nearly so mechanistic as to be improved by solving one problem after another. Often, the quality of an organization or life comes from how one handles being “on the road” itself, rather than the “arriving at the destination.” The quality comes from the ongoing process of trying, rather than from having fixed a lot of problems. For many people, it is an approach to organizational consulting. The following quote is often used when explaining the organic (or holistic) approach to problem solving.

    “All the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proves that further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the horizon and through this broadening of outlook, the insoluble lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

    From Jung, Carl, Psychological Types (Pantheon Books, 1923)

    A major advantage of the organic approach is that it is highly adaptable to understanding and explaining the chaotic changes that occur in projects and everyday life. It also suits the nature of people who shun linear and mechanistic approaches to projects. The major disadvantage is that the approach often provides no clear frame of reference around which people can communicate, feel comfortable and measure progress toward solutions to problems.

    Additional Guidelines for Problem-Solving and Decision Making

    Recommended Articles

    Additional Articles

    General Guidelines for Decision Making

    Various Tools and Methods for Problem Solving and Decision Making

    (Many people would agree that the following methods and tools are also for decision-making.)

    General Resources for Problem Solving and Decision Making

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