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Five Problem-Solving Success Tips
by Jeanne Sawyer

The ability to solve complicated problems quickly is more important than ever in today’s tough economy.

From the time we’re little kids, we’re taught to solve problems by trial and error. That’s fine if the problem is as simple as a burned out light bulb. When the problem is a muddle of business, technical and political problems, we need something that helps us untangle the mess. Unless you’re Harry Potter, treating a mess like a burned out light bulb is as effective as wishing for magic.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to magic. Many key concepts in problem solving seem obvious but are often overlooked, causing delays and frustration in getting important problems solved. Here are some tips and reminders that will help you solve messy problems quickly and easily.

• Define the problem first. Explain what the problem is—what went wrong, what are the symptoms, what is the impact on your business. Write it down. Everyone who reads it should understand what the problem is and why it’s important. Caution: describe the problem, not what you will do to fix it.

• Use your time for problems that are truly important. Just because a problem is there doesn’t mean you have to solve it. If you ask, “what will happen if I don’t solve this problem?” and the answer is, “not much,” then turn your attention to something more important.

• Test your assumptions about everything. Check the facts first. Be sure that you and your team understand the problem the same way, and that you have data to confirm that the problem is important. Test the assumptions about proposed solutions to improve the chances your solution will actually solve the problem.

• Measure. The key question to answer is, “How will you know when the problem is solved?” If you don’t measure, you won’t know for sure. Use measurements to learn and portray the truth—the real truth, not what you wish were true.

• Measure the right things. A common measurement trap is to measure something because it’s “interesting.” If knowing a measurement won’t change anything (e.g., help you make a decision, verify an assumption or prove the problem is solved), then don’t waste your time measuring it.

copyright 2005. Jeanne Sawyer.

Jeanne Sawyer may be contacted at

Jeanne Sawyer is an author, consultant, trainer and coach who helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Find out about it, and get more free information on problem solving at her web site:


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