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By Bob Nelson, Peter Economy

In consulting, problem-solving is really where the rubber meets the road. While problem-solving, you review the data that you sliced, diced, and otherwise processed to develop a set of solutions, one or more of which will ultimately become the recommended course of action that you present to your clients. Because of this, you want to open the net as wide as possible at the beginning of the problem-solving process — hauling in as many possibilities as you can. Then you need to throw some of your catch back into the sea (and keep the good ones for yourself) by weighing the alternatives until you are left with the best possible courses of action.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to problem-solve. Here’s the right way:

1. Brainstorm possible solutions.

The first step in the problem-solving process is to take the data and brainstorm possible solutions to the problems that the data raises. Although you could brainstorm by yourself, you get a much wider variety of options if you include your clients in your brainstorming sessions, and you begin building client buy-in to your recommendations.

The secret to conducting productive brainstorming sessions is to encourage every possible idea — no matter how far out it may seem. This means suspending judgment for the duration of the session and welcoming everyone’s input. Record every idea on computer, paper, flip charts, or a white board so that you don’t lose track of any of them.

2. Consider the implications of each possible solution.

Isolate each alternative that was generated during your brainstorming sessions and follow it to its logical conclusion. For example, if a client has a problem with the quality of the circuit boards leaving the factory floor, one possible cause is that workers are not using the correct soldering techniques. If you follow this possibility to its logical conclusion, a solution may be to provide more training to employees on soldering correctly or to monitor employees’ work more closely.

3. Weigh alternatives and narrow your focus.

After you work through all possible alternatives, weigh them against each other to determine which ones are most likely to be relevant to the outcome. As a part of getting to your final recommendations, you have to focus your efforts more sharply at this point and move ahead on a few fronts instead of many. Discard the alternatives that are least likely to become viable recommendations, and focus on those that are most likely.

4. Pick the best courses of action.

By this time, you should have narrowed your list of possible alternatives to a manageable number. Continue to work through this list with your client until you whittle it down to no more than five of the best courses of action. After you complete this step, you are ready to go on to developing your recommendations.