If you have a problem that you need to solve but you’re not really sure where to start, then you should try the following tips. Every leader could benefit from learning more about problem solving and should be able to build a stronger team by teaching its members these skills.

When you have a problem, what is the first step you need to take to solve it? First you need to clearly identify exactly what the problem is. You need to move from the general to the specific. For instance, you wouldn’t want to say that your problem is “customer service,” rather you’d want to say that your problem is eliminating rudeness on the part of employees when they are serving customers on the phone. That way, the people working on the problem won’t spend time swimming in the murkiness of the various problems that customer service is likely to have and not getting to the exact problem you want to solve.

The second step when trying to solve a problem is to ask the question: What are the possible causes of this particular problem? This is where most managers make mistakes, because they jump right from defining what the problem is to developing a solution. What managers need to do is to try and identify the root causes of this problem. For instance, if you jump from problem to solution in the case of employees being rude on the phone with customers, you might issue an edict and put out a memo declaring loudly that rudeness is no longer acceptable on the phone. While that addresses the problem, it ignores the real reason for the problem. In this case a good leader might ask, “Are my employees overworked? Underpaid? Unappreciated? Are they unable to handle the stress of dealing with unhappy customers?”

Once you identify the root problem, then solutions will start becoming obvious. In this case, the manager might want to call a meeting and allow the employees to truly vent their feelings about customers and about how the company treats them. A good manager will listen and understand that employees seem to feel that they are not valued, and then will decide on a plan to resolve that issue first.

The fourth step is to review your problem and the possible solutions you have come up with and decide on your best plan of action.

And finally, once you decide on a solution, then you must create a detailed plan that holds people responsible for getting things done.

If you find that possibly one of your other solutions might work better, there’s no harm in shifting your plan. Remember, problem solving is a learning process for everyone involved. Leaders, too.

—adapted from The Leadership Institute Web site

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