Problem Solving: 4 Simple Steps to Success

I was once told that success in life is as simple as getting your arms around a problem and knocking it off.  If you agree with the principle, (and there is not really a lot to disagree with), then by definition, problem solving leads to success.  Solving problems isn’t that difficult, it is just four simple steps:

Step One: Face the Problem

Accept you have a problem, be honest with yourself and those around you.  Self-delusion is not a wonderful thing.  Facing into a problem isn’t guaranteed to fix it, but if you never face the problem, you won’t ever fix it. (Sad but true).

“No man was ever so much deceived by another as by himself.” ~ Fulke Greville

Step Two: Identify the Cause

Stop and think, look at the facts, identify the root cause.  Jumping to conclusions might be fun, but there is no substitute for clear thought, analysis and a little data.  If you only ever fix symptoms you will only ever fix symptoms.  (Trite but true).

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley

Step Three: Act to Remove the Cause

All the analysis in the world, no matter how good, accurate or insightful it is isn’t worth the paper it is written on if nobody ever does anything with it.  Action by itself isn’t quite enough though, if your actions are to work don’t forget the 5P model of planning; Poor Planning leads to Piss Poor Performance.  (Crude but true).

“A good plan executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week” ~ George S Patton

Step Four: Look for Feedback

Learn from your mistakes, take on board feedback and use it.  No matter how self aware, brilliant and hard working you are you won’t overcome every obstacle with your first shot.  (Harsh but true).

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” ~ Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

And those are the four steps to solving problems:

  1. Face the problem
  2. Identify the cause
  3. Act to remove the cause
  4. Look for feedback

OK, maybe they aren’t simple steps, but there are only four of them, and there really is no other way.

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it” ~ Art Williams

Problem SolvingRead another opinion

Image by Gamma Man


  1. Hi James,
    Quick question about your four steps, particularly number 3.

    What happens if you can’t ‘remove’ the cause of the problem? What happens if the cause of the problem fundamentally changes the environment that you are in or the context of the original problem ie. what if the cause of the problem is a disruptive or transformative cause/piece of technology?

    Surely then it cannot be removed?


  2. Hello James
    Valuable advice and if it is ok with you then I’d like to add my perspective to the mix. Yes, the approach that you suggest is highly rational and in an ideal world it would work perfectly rather like the physics equations (during my BSc in Applied Physics) when we assumed that there was no friction, no gravity, no viscosity…..Yet in the real world what makes the world real is that this ‘messiness’ does exist and it made the equations impossible or very difficult at best to solve.

    With that in mind here are my observations:

    Problem definition is not that simple. Problems do not exist in the real world say like trees exist in the real world. Problems are declared by people. So productivity may be declared a problem by Tops and yet there is no such problem as viewed / declared by the Bottoms. Customer service may be declared as a problem by customers but not the Tops and Middles. Control and micromanaging may be declared by the Bottoms and not by the Middles and Tops. Specifically, someone turns up for therapy and they are struggling with living well. One psychologist (practicing CBT) declares that the person has the issue and helps that person to put in placing coping mechanisms and cognitive strategies to better handle the challenges and thus become a normal functioning member of society. Another psychologist (existential counselling / therapy) declares that there is nothing wrong with this person – he simply is more keenly aware of the sham called daily life.

    Identify the cause. How do you identify the cause? What set of assumptions do you start from to determine the cause? One billard ball hits another ball – you and I can see it and we can state categorically that one caused the other to move. In an organisational setting it is a completely different ball game. Get a strategist in to take a look at the situation and he will find weak strategy the cause. Get a six sigma guy in and he will find process/quality the cause. Get a organisational effectiveness consultant in and he will point at how people relate to another, communicate, work together to address challenges. Cause, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

    Act to remove the cause. I came across a vivid example of ‘unintended side effects’. NTL provided a great job until there was an issue in service. When there was it led the field engineers to often go to the top of the road and play around with the assembley of switches and cables to fix the issue. Eventually they would fix the issue. Then one only had to wait for a flood of customer calls to come in from the people supplied by that part of the network. Why? On average fixing one fault introduced 2.4 faults. Organisations are complex dynamic systems connected through non-linear dynamics. Acting to remove the cause is not that easy. And sometimes the point of most leverage is hidden through ideological filters.

    Furthermore there is a human tendancy to look for big actions to make big impact when a small action made in the right point in the system, at the right time, can make a huge difference. Furthermore, who acts to remove the cause? If an outsider does it then you teach the insiders to be helpless, mindless, non-caring, non owning drones. I believe that there is a book called The Responsibility Virus that deals specifically with this issue: if you take responsibility away from the people who do the work and should own the performance of the system then motivation, engagement and performance declines over the longer term. Better to teach them to fish and catch their own fish than to make them dependent on your food aid!

    Look for feedback. Excellent in theory and totally impractical in reality. In an organisation setting composed of finger pointing fear is rampant. As such people work actively to avoid any kind of real feedback. Feedback that puts people’s face, status, job – pscyhological, social and financial well being – at risk is avoided like lepers were avoided in the middle ages. And where this cannot be avoided then people will massage the feedback metrics. For example, this week I heard that the Irish Govt dealt with the issue of having patients lying on hotel trolleys (because there are not enough beds) by issuing targets and measuring performance against these targets. What did the hospitals do to meet their targets which had to be published – fed back to the Govt and the public? They moved some of the people from trolleys into ambulances!

    My whole issue with the rational school is that it does not deal with the messiness of reality. I prefer a different approach and it is just that a personal preference. In the long run all companies die. And it is no big thing because some other company will be born and carry on the game at a different level!


  3. James Lawther says:

    Crikey Maz, I am speechless (which isn’t a situation I find myself in often)

    Should I pack up and go home now?

    Thank you for your thoughts



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