Problem-Solving Decisions: Getting to the Root of Issues

By Dawna Jones

When faced with a business problem — something is not going or performing the way you expect — you go into problem-solving mode, in which you try to uncover the cause of the problem and then remedy it. You can take one of two approaches when working with problems:

  • You can seek out the root of the problem — the thing that is impeding the desired outcome — and fix it.

  • You can treat the problem as a springboard for creatively (and intuitively) finding a way to work around the issue until it goes away.

Notice the key difference between these two approaches? The first looks back and employs more analysis; the second looks forward and engages creativity and intuition. Which strategy you use depends on the complexity of the problem.

Uncovering and addressing the root cause

In simple, uncomplicated circumstances involving an issue that must be resolved, you look for the root cause of the problem so that you can fix it and thereby solve the problem. Begin with the question, “What went wrong and how can you fix it?”

This question starts a process of following the trail back to the point where something happened that caused one or more problems (a glitch on the assembly line that resulted in the unusual number of errors in the final product, for example). This strategy can be effective, provided that you keep these points in mind:

  • You use it to address the problem, not affix blame. Sometimes, when you look back, you discover that someone — rather than something — is the root of the problem. In these cases, you need to use this as a learning opportunity. If a person made an error, did that person have sufficient training? Understanding why an event took place helps improve practices.

    Too, often, however, this strategy is used to place blame, a practice that is very distracting and works against productivity and developing trustworthy working relationships.

  • The problem is a simple one. You can trace back to find the cause when you’re dealing with a simple situation: a valve isn’t working, for example, or the engine isn’t running. But using a problem-solving analysis with complex problems almost guarantees that the problem will come back. In those situations, a more creative, intuitive approach is typically the better option.

Tackling problems creatively

Issues involving technology, organizational change, or other situations where interpersonal relationships or interconnectivity between parts of the system (technology software, for instance) are deep and multifaceted make finding the root cause either impossible or ineffective. In these situations, a creative approach is the better problem-solving strategy.

You use a creative approach whenever you’re dealing with human dynamics and complex situations because what appears on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

Look for patterns. Does the issue keep coming back no matter what you change? It may take different forms, but is it still the same issue? When issues recycle, it tells you that the root cause is hidden somewhere in the company’s performance system or is the result of an outdated, underlying cultural belief. In other words, systems and procedures are rewarding behavior you don’t want instead of behavior you do want.

Systemic problems in complex systems, most often technological in nature, are great opportunities to use a creative problem-solving approach. Why? When software settings seem to have a mind of their own — your password randomly stops working, for example, or your email settings reset themselves for no explicable reason — finding out why isn’t effective.

It is worse than looking for a needle in a haystack, given the variables and random nature of complex systems like software. Instead of looking backward for the root cause, find creative solutions by looking ahead. Here are some suggestions:

  • Experiment to find what will work to solve the problem, using a forward focus. Reset your password rather than trying to find out why it stopped working. This is why most technology products have tech support, not just to help you navigate the how-to manual but to also address the issues that the manual couldn’t predict.

  • Invent creative solutions to adjust how work gets done so that the focus is on achieving goals rather than modifying behavior. Interpersonal issues are often tackled by trying to fix the people. Instead, collaboratively develop a totally different approach to how work gets done so that the focus is on achieving goals rather than changing behavior.

  • Use creative processes and joint ventures to come up with innovations that mere mortals view as impossible. Taking a “fix this problem” approach implies that something is always wrong. In complex situations like organizational interactions, using what isn’t working to invent a better approach creates better results.