Seven steps to successful problem solving

Aug. 1, 2004
Seven steps to successfulproblem solving As an executive recruiter, I interview a lot of people. While most candidates find a way to look good on paper,

Seven steps to successful
problem solving

As an executive recruiter, I interview a lot of people. While most candidates find a way to look good on paper, their resumes don't always reveal how good of a problem solver they are. Yet all of my clients want to hire problem solvers — people who can walk in and make their problems go away.

Through conventional classroom education, most of us have come to believe there is usually a right or a wrong answer to a problem. As such, we tend to study our most pressing business problems to find a single “right” answer — as if we are solving for X in a math problem. Yet in the logistics world, many problems don't become clearer the more we study them. Instead, they may become larger and more confusing.

Naturally, those managers who fail to understand the nature of their business problems will find it difficult to hire someone who can solve them.

When solving problems — whether in real life or in a job interview — it's important to follow a logical process. Therefore, the strength of a job applicant's problem solving ability can be seen by walking them through the following seven-step framework while getting them to describe how they solved a real life problem in their last job. When discussing a problem that they solved in a previous job, the applicant should demonstrate an ability to:

1. Define the problem. Have the candidate identify what went wrong by including both a cause and an effect in the definition of the problem they solved.

2. Define the objectives. Have the candidate explain what they wanted to achieve as a result of solving the problem.

3. Generate alternatives. How many alternatives did the candidate generate? Did the quality of the alternatives vary greatly? Was there a significant difference in the hard (and soft) costs associated with each idea? This is the area in which the candidate can demonstrate creativity and resourcefulness.

4. Develop an action plan. Have the candidate recap their detailed action plan. Most action plans for tough problems involve taking several steps over a period of time. In his recap, does the candidate specify who did what? And by what dates? Detailed problem solvers are usually more effective than generalists.

5. Troubleshoot. This is where the candidate can recap the worst-cases scenarios. What could have gone wrong in their plan? What might have been the side effects? How did the candidate ensure this plan would work? Were there any unintended consequences?

6. Communicate. Getting information to the right people is key for getting the buy-in to make it a success. Have the candidate address which individuals or groups affected the success of their action plan. Do they explain who was impacted by it and who needed to be informed about it? How did they communicate with relevant parties? The most effective executives are those who can leverage their time and talents by getting things done through other people.

7. Implement. Have the candidate address who carried out the plan and monitored its implementation. Who was accountable for each part of the solution? What were the consequences for failure to meet the plan? Try to determine: As a manager, will the candidate be “hard on the issues and soft on the people?”

Drilling down on how a candidate has solved problems in the past will give you a good idea of how they will solve problems in the future. Think in terms of the quality, consistency and costs of their solutions. Minimize the chances of being duped by getting the candidate to recap in specific and vivid detail exactly what happened in a given situation.

During the interview, try to think like a little kid: Ask “Why?” or “How?” to everything the candidate says. If you don't challenge them during the interview process, you may pay a steep price later for your lack of persistence. LT

Harry Joiner is an executive recruiter in the multichannel marketing industry. His weblog Proven Ways to Get New Customers is among the most highly regarded small business marketing weblogs in America.

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