7 Essential Thinking Tools for Solving Problems in Business

Take Your Problem Solving to the Next Level

In this post ‘7 Essential Thinking Tools for Solving Problems in Business’, I’d like to share with you 7 tools that I have found very useful for solving problems at work. The comparison which highlights why these tools are so essential is that of a jigsaw puzzle. Most problems in business seem to be approached by the individual randomly pulling jigsaw pieces out of the box, laying them on the table, then grabbing another piece, and so on and so on. Until frustration and despair take over. Maybe, without evening being conscious, when we build a jigsaw puzzle we apply a structure to the problem. Time for some thinking tools.

Man sitting on sofa and thinking
Put these 7 tools into practice for better problem-solving skills

Normally we search for the corners and lay those on the table like the frame of a picture. Then we find the straight edge pieces and finally, we begin filling in the jigsaw, working from the edges inwards. The purpose of sharing this comparison is to show that if we can apply a structure to our approach to solving the problem we are more likely to solve it and solve it without so much frustration and despair.

Thinking Tool #1 ‘Man in a Pit’

Gaining perspective from a colleague is a very useful means of understanding a problem. Yes, of course, we know best (or at least we think we do!). ‘Two heads are better than one’, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ and such phrases were created because it is true that a colleague will be able to help.

The problem is in the way we share the problem with our colleague. Typically, the guy with the problem shares the problem in such a way that his only real objective was to drag the colleague into his ‘pit’ of thinking so that he could gain empathy for how difficult the problem is. Then you have two men in the same pit looking at the problem in the same way, with the only difference now being that the first man in the pit now feels better because he has some company!

The challenge, when sharing your problem with a colleague is to first consider your objective. Is it empathy or is it a different perspective that you are after? If you have chosen the latter, the challenge is to share the facts of the problem with your colleague, without sharing the emotion. It’s similar to the urban myth about the maths teacher that writes on the board one of the toughest maths problems in the world, which only 3 people in the world have solved. The class, in awe, gives the problem its due respect. The student that has arrived late into the class, missing this piece of the lesson, copies down the ‘homework’ from the board. She hands in her homework the following week with the problem solved!

2. PRO Plan

Often we are faced with the problem of forecasting how something will perform, maybe sales, or a cost, or the number of website visitors. Or you’ll have your own example of something you had to forecast in your job. The problem we face is that sometimes it is impossible to arrive at a number that we are absolutely confident to put forward. Because either; the situation has never happened before; the data is not available; or the resources to arrive at the correct number are just not worth the investment. An alternative is to put forward a ‘PRO plan’. This is a plan containing 3 numbers based on mindsets of Pessimistic, Realistic, and Optimistic, with carefully considered scenario planning attached to each.

The P.R.O. Plan

  • A Pessimistic number of 12,600 customers per year. If we are only on track to achieve this number for the year, then by month 4 we’ll introduce advanced sales training for all the telesales staff.
  • A Realistic number of 16,675 customers per year. If we are on track to achieve this number for the year by month 4, then the plan remains the same as we agreed.
  • An Optimistic number of 22,950 customers per year. If we are on track to achieve this number for the year by month 4, we’ll alert production that they’ll need to increase capacity by month 7.
    PRO planning shows that you have thought beyond ‘guessing a number’ and/or giving up because the number was too hard to identify. By proposing a PRO plan you can show confidence because you have solutions for dealing with the main 3 possible outcomes.

Thinking Tool #3 Mind Mapping

I am a huge fan of mind-mapping because it provides the ability to ’empty your head’ onto a page to then make sense of later, without forcing you to structure your thoughts as well as getting your thoughts out onto a page. In my experience most people have heard of mind mapping, many have tried mind mapping. But very few use mind mapping as a genuine problem-solving tool.

My objective is not to share with you in this post how to mind map because there are many better people than I who can show you how to mind map. My objective is to encourage you to use mind mapping as a genuine tool for solving problems at work. The 3 benefits of mind mapping at work are:

  1. It’s quick. Mind mapping your problem will take less than 15 minutes.
  2. You can do it anywhere. Using a blank sheet, or even a notebook, and a pencil, you can empty your thoughts onto a page.
  3. You’ll feel so much better after you have. Start with a question, ‘Thinking about problem x – What is in your head?’.
Hand drawn mind map with hand and pens
Mind mapping is an effective learning tool for organising your thoughts and emptying your head

 

I guarantee that if you mind map for 15 minutes about the problem you’ll write down something new about the problem that wasn’t previously at the front of your mind. Mind mapping may seem chaotic, unstructured, and a bit student-like in its thinking. But I urge you to give mind mapping another chance to be useful. Because once you have seen the power of mind mapping as a tool for helping you ‘get outside yourself’ you’ll be glad that you did and now have it in your armoury.

4. The Woolly Mammoth

A problem can be so big, so complex and so overwhelming that we just don’t know where to start. These are known, in the time management world, as ‘Woolly Mammoths’. Because they are so big, so slow and if we don’t get hold of them they’ll become extinct.

If you’ve seen the films about ‘Bridget Jone’s Diary’ you’ll know what I mean when I refer to Bridget’s ‘to do’ list. It goes something along the lines of ‘1. Find Boyfriend, 2. Get Job and 3. Get a life’. These items on her to-do list are so big that she doesn’t know where to start. Therefore she is unlikely to achieve them. Alan Lakein, the grandfather of time management wrote a book called, ‘How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life’. In which he shared the Swiss Cheese method for time management.

The Swiss Cheese Method

This approach is equally applicable for problem-solving. Alan asks us to imagine the problem as a piece of Swiss cheese and to begin by identifying the very first practical and simple step that we can take to make a step forward to solving the problem. He goes on to explain that once you have made one hole in the cheese the next holes become easier and easier to make until the problem has almost disappeared.

However small, practical, and simple the step is, take it, because it is still a step forward. My own experience some years ago was of moving house. Whilst I hadn’t written that on my to-do list, it was something close. For months this action had been on my to-do list. Then using Alan’s approach I changed it to ‘Get Estate Agent phone number’. As Alan had promised the snowball rolled and we moved house shortly afterwards.

Thinking Tool #5 People Aren’t Doing What They are Supposed To Be

If you have been in business, either working for yourself, for others, part-time, or even on placement as a student, you’ll have already become frustrated because people aren’t doing what you’ve asked them to do. And this is not a problem monopolised by management, as students will ask suppliers for support, colleagues will ask their peers for information and secretaries will need everyone’s holidays before they can organise the year planner. In this tool, I’d like to refer to ‘Situational Leadership’.

This model is probably one you’ll have heard of. It isn’t new and, again, whilst you’ll have heard of it I know very few people that live it. My objective is about its application for problem-solving, and not what it is because many others will explain it better than I. If people aren’t doing what you need them to do, the first place I’d ask you to start is with yourself. Consider ‘What and How have I asked that person to do that task?’. Understanding situational leadership is the key to delegating more effectively.

Situational Leadership

For most people, their delegation style will not change and they’ll be polite and as clear as they know how. Unfortunately, this is not enough because Ken Blanchard, one of the founders of Situational Leadership, tells us to consider 1. The amount of guidance we provide and 2. The amount of support we provide. For example, asking a placement student to organise lunch for an up and coming meeting. You might offer them little support or guidance, yet they’ll need a lot of guidance to complete a project on ‘moving offices’. Tailoring our ‘delegation’ is essential to get the result that we want.

6. Random Word Brainstorm

The ‘whackiest’ of the 7 Essential Thinking Tools for Solving Problems in Business is the ‘Random Word Brainstorm’. On reading this tool 80% will dismiss it as having no application in business or credibility to solve a problem. I am not going to ask you to ‘try it’ because as my old sales coach used to say, “Pick up a chair – You either did or you didn’t. Don’t try, do”. At the risk of using a well-used phrase, ‘Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open’ – Please use this tool with an open mind and I believe you’ll be positively surprised by the result.

4 people brainstorming at a table
The random word brainstorm allows you to think about a problem in a different perspective

To use this essential tool write the name of your problem at the top of the page. Think of a random word and write that word below the title, to left, e.g. ‘Pigeon’. Then write 10 words related to the random word in a list below the random word, e.g. Feathers, Pecking, Feet, Fly, etc. The last part is where the ‘magic’ happens.

Using an open mind go to each point on the list. Whilst holding the problem in mind, write a few words next to each word on the list as a potential solution to the problem. Don’t critique the words that you write too hard – Just go with it. For example, if the problem were about a lack of sales, considering the random word pigeon, and the first word on our list of ‘Feathers’, the start of a potential solution might lightening the admin workload for telesales staff.

Thinking Outside the Box

The purpose of the Random Word Brainstorm is to encourage you to think about the problem from a different perspective. In my experience, the ‘big and amazing’ solutions don’t come straight away. Only after completing the exercise and reflecting on what I have written, does my brain then build on what was written and present the real value.

Thinking Tool #7 OPV

Edward De Bono is famous for some brilliant thinking tools, like ‘Six hats’. The Direct Attention Thinking Tools (DATT) are less well known, yet equally brilliant because of their simplicity, application. Like Edward says, ‘Software for the mind’. One of the DATT tools is ‘OPV; Other People’s Views’. You may have a problem that is about not being able to gain support for a project, or sell another piece to a client, or persuade another colleague to do what is needed.

OPV is about stepping into their shoes and seeing their perspective in order to help you unlock the problem. Stepping into someone else’s shoes is not new. Yet we consider their perspective too briefly and without great objectivity, that rather than stepping in their shoes we have more likely only made a note of what shoes they wear.

Take a clean page or notepad and write down the names of the people that you need to understand the perspective of. All the DATT tools are designed to be done in a few minutes. So this is a quick tool, and every effective. Under each name, write what you believe they are thinking when they consider the project, or the problem or the situation. Progress through each person writing notes as to what each person is thinking. Once you have completed the exercise review, write 3 actions that you will now do differently to unlock the problem.

Too Simple?

This tool will seem incredibly simple and could be easily dismissed. The genius of the tool is in enabling you to ‘get outside the problem’ by putting you in the ‘shoes’ of the other people. Whereby you can begin to understand what they are thinking. By understanding what they are thinking we are practicing Steve Covey’s Habit 5 ‘Seek first to understand’ which will help us make take better actions because we’ll be taking action starting from their position and not our own.

One of the best uses of this tool, for me, was when I used OPV. I began to truly understand that an issue with a client was not personal. It was about a project being my priority number 1 and their priority number 50. Rather than previously asking myself, ‘Why was it their number 50?’ I began asking myself, ‘How could I make this project more valuable to them?

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