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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

  • The Six-Step Problem-Solving Process

6 core step problem solving

  • Select the problem to be analyzed
  • Clearly define the problem and establish aprecise problem statement
  • Set a measurable goal for the problem solving effort
  • Establish a process for coordinating with and gaining approval of leadership
  • Identify the processes that impact the problem and select one
  • List the steps in the process as it currently exists
  • Map the Process
  • Validate the map of the process
  • Identify potential cause of the problem
  • Collect and analyze data related to the problem
  • Verify or revise the original problem statement
  • Identify root causes of the problem
  • Collect additional data if needed to verify root causes
  • Establish criteria for selecting a solution
  • Generate potential solutions that will address the root causes of the problem
  • Select a solution
  • Gain approval and supporter the chosen solution
  • Plan the solution
  • Implement the chosen solution on a trial or pilot basis
  • If the Problem Solving Process is being used in conjunction with the Continuous Improvement Process, return to Step 6 of the Continuous Improvement Process
  • If the Problem Solving Process is being used as a standalone, continue to Step 5
  • Gather data on the solution
  • Analyze the data on the solution
  • Achive the desired results?
  • If YES, go to Step 6. 
  • If NO, go back to Step 1.
  • Identify systemic changes and training needs for full implementation
  • Adopt the solution
  • Plan ongoing monitoring of the solution
  • Continue to look for incremental improvements to refine the solution
  • Look for another improvement opportunity

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Tim, This is a good guideline for any practitioner to follow. I wish I had this a few weeks ago. A client liked a training deck I prepared but didn't want to confuse anyone with terms like Deming Cycle and such. The final version of PDCA was a 6 step process improvement method that's very similar to yours. Thanks for sharing. Cheers, Chris

Thank you for you brief and easy to understand on each step problem solving above.

Wonderful. Well Explained. Thank you for sharing

I mapped this to PDCA and observed that the first 3 steps correspond to P, the next 3 to D, C and A respectively. This Show that indeed planning is the most important step in PDCA.

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6 core step problem solving

Six Steps to Effective Problem Solving Within Organizations

  • Dr. Nancy Zentis
  • March 20, 2015

Six Steps to Effective Problem Solving Within Organizations article


  Managers and their subordinates sometimes lack the problem-solving skills necessary to move things forward within their organizations. Luckily, OD process consulting focused towards problem solving training can be an effective antidote to this, as it helps in building critical skills to handle a possible deadlock.

Problem solving training is an intervention tool that helps managers and employees develop critical thinking skills to sharpen their logic, reasoning, and problem-defining capability. Problem solving training also helps develop abilities to evaluate causation, analyze alternatives, and select and execute solutions. This training is an integral part of organizational efforts to introducing quality management programs as it helps define a process to manage problems.

In this article, we will introduce the six-step problem solving process defined by Edgar Schein, so that teams trained in this can find the best solution to a problem and create an action plan.

Why Use a Problem Solving Process?

Since problems can be many and root causes hidden, it may take an extended period of time to come to a solution. Developing a team to help search for answers and formulating a decision is advantageous to improving organizational quality and efficiency.

OD Problem Solving Process based on Edgar H. Schein’s Approach

OD expert, Edgar Schein along with other OD experts suggested that a process that helps in problem-solving, steers groups to successful outcomes. Schein’s approach is presented in a model that investigates problem definition, brainstorming, group decision-making, idea development, action planning, and assessment.

As an OD consultant, you can use this process to improve communication,  strengthen group cohesion, and make effective decisions.

  • Problem Definition .  Identify problems through  problem formulation and questioning. The key is asking the  right questions to discover root causes.
  • Brainstorming .  During this process,  assumptions are uncovered  and underlying problems are further revealed. Also, this is an opportunity to collect and analyze data.
  • Selection . Decisions are made within the group to  determine the appropriate solution and process  through creative selection .
  • Development .  Once the group has formed solutions and alternatives to the problem(s), they need to explore the pros and cons of each option through  forecasting consequences .
  • Action Planning . Develop an  action plan to implement and execute the solution process.
  • Assessment . This final stage requires an  evaluation of the outcomes and results of the solution process. Ask questions such as: Did the option answer the questions we were working on? Did this process address the findings that came out of the assumptions?

​ This process makes group problem solving in projects and meetings agreeable, action-oriented, and productive. Without a process, it can become challenging for teams or groups to create the best solutions and establish a plan of action.

Do tell us about the problem solving methods you use within your organization. We would love to hear from you.

Reference: Schein, E.H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership, (Vol 2). John Wiley & Sons.

About the Author:  Valamere S. Mikler is the founder and principal consultant of V.S.M. Professional Services and Consulting, a consulting firm providing organizational efficiency and administrative office management services. She can be reached at  [email protected] .

Additional Information: The Institute of Organization Development offers certification in OD Process Consulting. You can become certified as an OD Process Consultant and play an important role as a partner to make the organization more effective and help to align organizational changes with the strategy, culture, structure, systems, skills, and people. To learn more or register, please check out our website: www. instituteod.com or email us at [email protected].


Get updates and learn from the best, explore more articles and posts, certifications, educational resources, © 2021 institute of organization development, cancellation policy, privacy policy.

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Six-Step Problem-Solving Model

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weblink:  http://www.yale.edu/bestpractices/resources/docs/problemsolvingmodel.pdf

This six-step model is designed for the workplace, but is easily adaptable to other settings such as schools and families.  It emphasizes the cyclical , continuous nature of the problem-solving process .  The model describes in detail the following steps:

Step One:   Define the Problem

Step Two:   Determine the Root Cause(s) of the Problem

Step Three:   Develop Alternative Solutions

Step Four:   Select a Solution

Step Five:   Implement the Solution

Step Six:   Evaluate the Outcome

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19 Sep 2020

A Project Manager's Short Guide to Effective Problem-Solving in 6 Steps

Role of the Project Manager | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Young Indian man in a white shirt and a business suit sitting on some steps with a laptop, smiling and typing

For project managers and business analysts like you, effective problem-solving remains an ever-important soft skill that requires you to combine creative thinking and strong analytical skills. The simple six-step process outlined below will help you master effective problem-solving — a skill that will provide you with the ability to bring a new perspective to problems, helping you to design, and implement, effective solutions.

Step #1: Identify the Problem

First, make sure you're dealing with the real problem, not just its symptoms. In information technology, we use root cause analysis to trace back to the origin of a problem. Take the time needed to do this tracing and discover the real reason for a problem by looking at it from different angles. Here are a few tools that can help:

  • Cause and effect diagrams: These diagrams help you gain a solid understanding of what's actually causing the problem.
  • Drill-down technique: This technique helps you split problems into decreasingly smaller parts to gain an increasingly more in-depth understanding of the cause.
  • 5 whys: This approach helps you drill down to a problem's root cause by asking why five times.

Ultimately, all problems fall into three basic cause types:

  • Physical cause: Equipment has had a material failure and stopped working.
  • Human cause: Someone made a mistake or forgot to do something.
  • Organisational cause: A system or process was flawed and/or failed.

Step #2: List All Possible Solutions

Once you understand the problem, it's time to think about possible solutions. If your problem is simple, the solution will often be clear straightaway. But more complex problems may require a formal approach to finding solutions. Here are some potential techniques you could employ:

  • Hold a brainstorming session with your team to identify and explore answers to the problem.
  • Use mind mapping to focus your mind, gain clarity and quickly identify solutions.
  • Ask a coach to employ the GROW model to help you identify the obstacles preventing you from achieving your goal.

Step #3: Evaluate the Solutions

Once you have your list of solutions, evaluate each one by asking a few questions:

  • What are the pros and cons?
  • Which measures will resolve the problem and prevent it from re-occurring?

Step #4: Pick the Best Solution

Weigh the solutions against a good outcome versus risk. Here are a few questions you should be asking to help guide this process:

  • What options can you discard straightaway?
  • Which option will have the best outcome at an acceptable risk level?
  • What is your best option?

Step #5: Document the Selected Solution

Once you've identified the best solution, write it down. This action helps you think through the solution thoroughly and identify any implications of implementing the solution. This step is especially useful when solutions are complex, when they require organising, to ensure a specific process order is followed or when you don't want to rely solely on your memory.

Step #6: Create a Contingency Plan

Circumstances may (and often do!) change, so create a plan of what you will do for any foreseeable futures. Don't be caught unprepared when and if things change.

What Would You Do?

Here are three scenarios you may encounter as a project manager. Faced with these situations, what would you do? Click the down arrow to see answer.

Scenario 1: The Urgent Project You have been asked by your director to plan an urgent project. However, you cannot start the project because a colleague with vital information and expertise is away on an extended holiday, and both are essential for project success. How would you approach this situation?

Scenario 2: the unhappy customer your customer is unhappy with the service you're providing on their project. you have not done anything wrong. the customer has been the cause of several delays through last minute and unexpected changes. how would you approach this situation, scenario 3: the serious mistake halfway through a project, you realise you have made a serious mistake. the situation may require significant extra time to resolve and could cause you to miss an important go-live deadline. how would you deal with this situation to ensure you still met the deadline.

As is usually the case, there's no single right answer to each problem, and the answers provided in the example scenarios are just one possibility. Other solutions exist and may, in some cases, even provide a better outcome.

How would you tackle the problems outlined in these scenarios?

Recommended read: How to Perform a Project Handover by Duncan Haughey.


What's Next?

You may also be interested in, the top five software project risks.

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Overview of the Problem-Solving Mental Process

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

6 core step problem solving

Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

6 core step problem solving

  • Identify the Problem
  • Define the Problem
  • Form a Strategy
  • Organize Information
  • Allocate Resources
  • Monitor Progress
  • Evaluate the Results

Frequently Asked Questions

Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue.

The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything they can about the issue and then using factual knowledge to come up with a solution. In other instances, creativity and insight are the best options.

It is not necessary to follow problem-solving steps sequentially, It is common to skip steps or even go back through steps multiple times until the desired solution is reached.

In order to correctly solve a problem, it is often important to follow a series of steps. Researchers sometimes refer to this as the problem-solving cycle. While this cycle is portrayed sequentially, people rarely follow a rigid series of steps to find a solution.

The following steps include developing strategies and organizing knowledge.

1. Identifying the Problem

While it may seem like an obvious step, identifying the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people might mistakenly identify the wrong source of a problem, which will make attempts to solve it inefficient or even useless.

Some strategies that you might use to figure out the source of a problem include :

  • Asking questions about the problem
  • Breaking the problem down into smaller pieces
  • Looking at the problem from different perspectives
  • Conducting research to figure out what relationships exist between different variables

2. Defining the Problem

After the problem has been identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved. You can define a problem by operationally defining each aspect of the problem and setting goals for what aspects of the problem you will address

At this point, you should focus on figuring out which aspects of the problems are facts and which are opinions. State the problem clearly and identify the scope of the solution.

3. Forming a Strategy

After the problem has been identified, it is time to start brainstorming potential solutions. This step usually involves generating as many ideas as possible without judging their quality. Once several possibilities have been generated, they can be evaluated and narrowed down.

The next step is to develop a strategy to solve the problem. The approach used will vary depending upon the situation and the individual's unique preferences. Common problem-solving strategies include heuristics and algorithms.

  • Heuristics are mental shortcuts that are often based on solutions that have worked in the past. They can work well if the problem is similar to something you have encountered before and are often the best choice if you need a fast solution.
  • Algorithms are step-by-step strategies that are guaranteed to produce a correct result. While this approach is great for accuracy, it can also consume time and resources.

Heuristics are often best used when time is of the essence, while algorithms are a better choice when a decision needs to be as accurate as possible.

4. Organizing Information

Before coming up with a solution, you need to first organize the available information. What do you know about the problem? What do you not know? The more information that is available the better prepared you will be to come up with an accurate solution.

When approaching a problem, it is important to make sure that you have all the data you need. Making a decision without adequate information can lead to biased or inaccurate results.

5. Allocating Resources

Of course, we don't always have unlimited money, time, and other resources to solve a problem. Before you begin to solve a problem, you need to determine how high priority it is.

If it is an important problem, it is probably worth allocating more resources to solving it. If, however, it is a fairly unimportant problem, then you do not want to spend too much of your available resources on coming up with a solution.

At this stage, it is important to consider all of the factors that might affect the problem at hand. This includes looking at the available resources, deadlines that need to be met, and any possible risks involved in each solution. After careful evaluation, a decision can be made about which solution to pursue.

6. Monitoring Progress

After selecting a problem-solving strategy, it is time to put the plan into action and see if it works. This step might involve trying out different solutions to see which one is the most effective.

It is also important to monitor the situation after implementing a solution to ensure that the problem has been solved and that no new problems have arisen as a result of the proposed solution.

Effective problem-solvers tend to monitor their progress as they work towards a solution. If they are not making good progress toward reaching their goal, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies .

7. Evaluating the Results

After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. This evaluation might be immediate, such as checking the results of a math problem to ensure the answer is correct, or it can be delayed, such as evaluating the success of a therapy program after several months of treatment.

Once a problem has been solved, it is important to take some time to reflect on the process that was used and evaluate the results. This will help you to improve your problem-solving skills and become more efficient at solving future problems.

A Word From Verywell​

It is important to remember that there are many different problem-solving processes with different steps, and this is just one example. Problem-solving in real-world situations requires a great deal of resourcefulness, flexibility, resilience, and continuous interaction with the environment.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can stop dwelling in a negative mindset.

Follow Now : Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

You can become a better problem solving by:

  • Practicing brainstorming and coming up with multiple potential solutions to problems
  • Being open-minded and considering all possible options before making a decision
  • Breaking down problems into smaller, more manageable pieces
  • Asking for help when needed
  • Researching different problem-solving techniques and trying out new ones
  • Learning from mistakes and using them as opportunities to grow

It's important to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about what's going on. Try to see things from their perspective as well as your own. Work together to find a resolution that works for both of you. Be willing to compromise and accept that there may not be a perfect solution.

Take breaks if things are getting too heated, and come back to the problem when you feel calm and collected. Don't try to fix every problem on your own—consider asking a therapist or counselor for help and insight.

If you've tried everything and there doesn't seem to be a way to fix the problem, you may have to learn to accept it. This can be difficult, but try to focus on the positive aspects of your life and remember that every situation is temporary. Don't dwell on what's going wrong—instead, think about what's going right. Find support by talking to friends or family. Seek professional help if you're having trouble coping.

Davidson JE, Sternberg RJ, editors.  The Psychology of Problem Solving .  Cambridge University Press; 2003. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511615771

Sarathy V. Real world problem-solving .  Front Hum Neurosci . 2018;12:261. Published 2018 Jun 26. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00261

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

  • Guide: Problem Solving

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

  • Last Updated: January 7, 2024
  • Learn Lean Sigma

Problem-solving stands as a fundamental skill, crucial in navigating the complexities of both everyday life and professional environments. Far from merely providing quick fixes, it entails a comprehensive process involving the identification, analysis, and resolution of issues.

This multifaceted approach requires an understanding of the problem’s nature, the exploration of its various components, and the development of effective solutions. At its core, problem-solving serves as a bridge from the current situation to a desired outcome, requiring not only the recognition of an existing gap but also the precise definition and thorough analysis of the problem to find viable solutions.

Table of Contents

What is problem solving.

At its core, problem-solving is about bridging the gap between the current situation and the desired outcome. It starts with recognizing that a discrepancy exists, which requires intervention to correct or improve. The ability to identify a problem is the first step, but it’s equally crucial to define it accurately. A well-defined problem is half-solved, as the saying goes.

Analyzing the problem is the next critical step. This analysis involves breaking down the problem into smaller parts to understand its intricacies. It requires looking at the problem from various angles and considering all relevant factors – be they environmental, social, technical, or economic. This comprehensive analysis aids in developing a deeper understanding of the problem’s root causes, rather than just its symptoms.

Finally, effective problem-solving involves the implementation of the chosen solution and its subsequent evaluation. This stage tests the practicality of the solution and its effectiveness in the real world. It’s a critical phase where theoretical solutions meet practical application.

The Nature of Problems

The nature of the problem significantly influences the approach to solving it. Problems vary greatly in their complexity and structure, and understanding this is crucial for effective problem-solving.

Simple vs. Complex Problems : Simple problems are straightforward, often with clear solutions. They usually have a limited number of variables and predictable outcomes. On the other hand, complex problems are multi-faceted. They involve multiple variables, stakeholders, and potential outcomes, often requiring a more sophisticated analysis and a multi-pronged approach to solving.

Structured vs. Unstructured Problems : Structured problems are well-defined. They follow a specific pattern or set of rules, making their outcomes more predictable. These problems often have established methodologies for solving. For example, mathematical problems usually fall into this category. Unstructured problems, in contrast, are more ambiguous. They lack a clear pattern or set of rules, making their outcomes uncertain. These problems require a more exploratory approach, often involving trial and error, to identify potential solutions.

Understanding the type of problem at hand is essential, as it dictates the approach. For instance, a simple problem might require a straightforward solution, while a complex problem might need a more comprehensive, step-by-step approach. Similarly, structured problems might benefit from established methodologies, whereas unstructured problems might need more innovative and creative problem-solving techniques.

The Problem-Solving Process

The process of problem-solving is a methodical approach that involves several distinct stages. Each stage plays a crucial role in navigating from the initial recognition of a problem to its final resolution. Let’s explore each of these stages in detail.

Step 1: Identifying the Problem

Step 2: defining the problem.

Once the problem is identified, the next step is to define it clearly and precisely. This is a critical phase because a well-defined problem often suggests its solution. Defining the problem involves breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. It also includes understanding the scope and impact of the problem. A clear definition helps in focusing efforts and resources efficiently and serves as a guide to stay on track during the problem-solving process.

Step 3: Analyzing the Problem

Step 4: generating solutions, step 5: evaluating and selecting solutions.

After generating a list of possible solutions, the next step is to evaluate each one critically. This evaluation includes considering the feasibility, costs, benefits, and potential impact of each solution. Techniques like cost-benefit analysis, risk assessment, and scenario planning can be useful here. The aim is to select the solution that best addresses the problem in the most efficient and effective way, considering the available resources and constraints.

Step 6: Implementing the Solution

Step 7: reviewing and reflecting.

The final stage in the problem-solving process is to review the implemented solution and reflect on its effectiveness and the process as a whole. This involves assessing whether the solution met its intended goals and what could have been done differently. Reflection is a critical part of learning and improvement. It helps in understanding what worked well and what didn’t, providing valuable insights for future problem-solving efforts.

Tools and Techniques for Effective Problem Solving

Problem-solving is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a variety of tools and techniques to navigate effectively. Different stages of the problem-solving process can benefit from specific strategies, enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the solutions developed. Here’s a detailed look at some key tools and techniques:


Swot analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), root cause analysis.

This is a method used to identify the underlying causes of a problem, rather than just addressing its symptoms. One popular technique within root cause analysis is the “ 5 Whys ” method. This involves asking “why” multiple times (traditionally five) until the fundamental cause of the problem is uncovered. This technique encourages deeper thinking and can reveal connections that aren’t immediately obvious. By addressing the root cause, solutions are more likely to be effective and long-lasting.

Mind Mapping

Each of these tools and techniques can be adapted to different types of problems and situations. Effective problem solvers often use a combination of these methods, depending on the nature of the problem and the context in which it exists. By leveraging these tools, one can enhance their ability to dissect complex problems, generate creative solutions, and implement effective strategies to address challenges.

Developing Problem-Solving Skills

Developing problem-solving skills is a dynamic process that hinges on both practice and introspection. Engaging with a diverse array of problems enhances one’s ability to adapt and apply different strategies. This exposure is crucial as it allows individuals to encounter various scenarios, ranging from straightforward to complex, each requiring a unique approach. Collaborating with others in teams is especially beneficial. It broadens one’s perspective, offering insights into different ways of thinking and approaching problems. Such collaboration fosters a deeper understanding of how diverse viewpoints can contribute to more robust solutions.

Reflection is equally important in the development of problem-solving skills. Reflecting on both successes and failures provides valuable lessons. Successes reinforce effective strategies and boost confidence, while failures are rich learning opportunities that highlight areas for improvement. This reflective practice enables one to understand what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Critical thinking is a foundational skill in problem-solving. It involves analyzing information, evaluating different perspectives, and making reasoned judgments. Creativity is another vital component. It pushes the boundaries of conventional thinking and leads to innovative solutions. Effective communication also plays a crucial role, as it ensures that ideas are clearly understood and collaboratively refined.

In conclusion, problem-solving is an indispensable skill set that blends analytical thinking, creativity, and practical implementation. It’s a journey from understanding the problem to applying a solution and learning from the outcome.

Whether dealing with simple or complex issues, or structured or unstructured challenges, the essence of problem-solving lies in a methodical approach and the effective use of various tools and techniques. It’s a skill that is honed over time, through experience, reflection, and the continuous development of critical thinking, creativity, and communication abilities. In mastering problem-solving, one not only addresses immediate issues but also builds a foundation for future challenges, leading to more innovative and effective outcomes.

  • Mourtos, N.J., Okamoto, N.D. and Rhee, J., 2004, February. Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills . In  7th UICEE Annual Conference on Engineering Education  (pp. 1-5).
  • Foshay, R. and Kirkley, J., 2003. Principles for teaching problem solving.   Technical paper ,  4 (1), pp.1-16.

Q: What are the key steps in the problem-solving process?

A : The problem-solving process involves several key steps: identifying the problem, defining it clearly, analyzing it to understand its root causes, generating a range of potential solutions, evaluating and selecting the most viable solution, implementing the chosen solution, and finally, reviewing and reflecting on the effectiveness of the solution and the process used to arrive at it.

Q: How can brainstorming be effectively used in problem-solving?

A: Brainstorming is effective in the solution generation phase of problem-solving. It involves gathering a group and encouraging the free flow of ideas without immediate criticism. The goal is to produce a large quantity of ideas, fostering creative thinking. This technique helps in uncovering unique and innovative solutions that might not surface in a more structured setting.

Q: What is SWOT Analysis and how does it aid in problem-solving?

A : SWOT Analysis is a strategic planning tool used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a situation. In problem-solving, it aids by providing a clear understanding of the internal and external factors that could impact the problem and potential solutions. This analysis helps in formulating strategies that leverage strengths and opportunities while mitigating weaknesses and threats.

Q: Why is it important to understand the nature of a problem before solving it?

A : Understanding the nature of a problem is crucial as it dictates the approach for solving it. Problems can be simple or complex, structured or unstructured, and each type requires a different strategy. A clear understanding of the problem’s nature helps in applying the appropriate methods and tools for effective resolution.

Q: How does reflection contribute to developing problem-solving skills?

A : Reflection is a critical component in developing problem-solving skills. It involves looking back at the problem-solving process and the implemented solution to assess what worked well and what didn’t. Reflecting on both successes and failures provides valuable insights and lessons, helping to refine and improve problem-solving strategies for future challenges. This reflective practice enhances one’s ability to approach problems more effectively over time.

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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What is Problem Solving? (Steps, Techniques, Examples)

By Status.net Editorial Team on May 7, 2023 — 5 minutes to read

What Is Problem Solving?

Definition and importance.

Problem solving is the process of finding solutions to obstacles or challenges you encounter in your life or work. It is a crucial skill that allows you to tackle complex situations, adapt to changes, and overcome difficulties with ease. Mastering this ability will contribute to both your personal and professional growth, leading to more successful outcomes and better decision-making.

Problem-Solving Steps

The problem-solving process typically includes the following steps:

  • Identify the issue : Recognize the problem that needs to be solved.
  • Analyze the situation : Examine the issue in depth, gather all relevant information, and consider any limitations or constraints that may be present.
  • Generate potential solutions : Brainstorm a list of possible solutions to the issue, without immediately judging or evaluating them.
  • Evaluate options : Weigh the pros and cons of each potential solution, considering factors such as feasibility, effectiveness, and potential risks.
  • Select the best solution : Choose the option that best addresses the problem and aligns with your objectives.
  • Implement the solution : Put the selected solution into action and monitor the results to ensure it resolves the issue.
  • Review and learn : Reflect on the problem-solving process, identify any improvements or adjustments that can be made, and apply these learnings to future situations.

Defining the Problem

To start tackling a problem, first, identify and understand it. Analyzing the issue thoroughly helps to clarify its scope and nature. Ask questions to gather information and consider the problem from various angles. Some strategies to define the problem include:

  • Brainstorming with others
  • Asking the 5 Ws and 1 H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How)
  • Analyzing cause and effect
  • Creating a problem statement

Generating Solutions

Once the problem is clearly understood, brainstorm possible solutions. Think creatively and keep an open mind, as well as considering lessons from past experiences. Consider:

  • Creating a list of potential ideas to solve the problem
  • Grouping and categorizing similar solutions
  • Prioritizing potential solutions based on feasibility, cost, and resources required
  • Involving others to share diverse opinions and inputs

Evaluating and Selecting Solutions

Evaluate each potential solution, weighing its pros and cons. To facilitate decision-making, use techniques such as:

  • SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
  • Decision-making matrices
  • Pros and cons lists
  • Risk assessments

After evaluating, choose the most suitable solution based on effectiveness, cost, and time constraints.

Implementing and Monitoring the Solution

Implement the chosen solution and monitor its progress. Key actions include:

  • Communicating the solution to relevant parties
  • Setting timelines and milestones
  • Assigning tasks and responsibilities
  • Monitoring the solution and making adjustments as necessary
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the solution after implementation

Utilize feedback from stakeholders and consider potential improvements. Remember that problem-solving is an ongoing process that can always be refined and enhanced.

Problem-Solving Techniques

During each step, you may find it helpful to utilize various problem-solving techniques, such as:

  • Brainstorming : A free-flowing, open-minded session where ideas are generated and listed without judgment, to encourage creativity and innovative thinking.
  • Root cause analysis : A method that explores the underlying causes of a problem to find the most effective solution rather than addressing superficial symptoms.
  • SWOT analysis : A tool used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to a problem or decision, providing a comprehensive view of the situation.
  • Mind mapping : A visual technique that uses diagrams to organize and connect ideas, helping to identify patterns, relationships, and possible solutions.


When facing a problem, start by conducting a brainstorming session. Gather your team and encourage an open discussion where everyone contributes ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem. This helps you:

  • Generate a diverse range of solutions
  • Encourage all team members to participate
  • Foster creative thinking

When brainstorming, remember to:

  • Reserve judgment until the session is over
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Combine and improve upon ideas

Root Cause Analysis

For effective problem-solving, identifying the root cause of the issue at hand is crucial. Try these methods:

  • 5 Whys : Ask “why” five times to get to the underlying cause.
  • Fishbone Diagram : Create a diagram representing the problem and break it down into categories of potential causes.
  • Pareto Analysis : Determine the few most significant causes underlying the majority of problems.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis helps you examine the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats related to your problem. To perform a SWOT analysis:

  • List your problem’s strengths, such as relevant resources or strong partnerships.
  • Identify its weaknesses, such as knowledge gaps or limited resources.
  • Explore opportunities, like trends or new technologies, that could help solve the problem.
  • Recognize potential threats, like competition or regulatory barriers.

SWOT analysis aids in understanding the internal and external factors affecting the problem, which can help guide your solution.

Mind Mapping

A mind map is a visual representation of your problem and potential solutions. It enables you to organize information in a structured and intuitive manner. To create a mind map:

  • Write the problem in the center of a blank page.
  • Draw branches from the central problem to related sub-problems or contributing factors.
  • Add more branches to represent potential solutions or further ideas.

Mind mapping allows you to visually see connections between ideas and promotes creativity in problem-solving.

Examples of Problem Solving in Various Contexts

In the business world, you might encounter problems related to finances, operations, or communication. Applying problem-solving skills in these situations could look like:

  • Identifying areas of improvement in your company’s financial performance and implementing cost-saving measures
  • Resolving internal conflicts among team members by listening and understanding different perspectives, then proposing and negotiating solutions
  • Streamlining a process for better productivity by removing redundancies, automating tasks, or re-allocating resources

In educational contexts, problem-solving can be seen in various aspects, such as:

  • Addressing a gap in students’ understanding by employing diverse teaching methods to cater to different learning styles
  • Developing a strategy for successful time management to balance academic responsibilities and extracurricular activities
  • Seeking resources and support to provide equal opportunities for learners with special needs or disabilities

Everyday life is full of challenges that require problem-solving skills. Some examples include:

  • Overcoming a personal obstacle, such as improving your fitness level, by establishing achievable goals, measuring progress, and adjusting your approach accordingly
  • Navigating a new environment or city by researching your surroundings, asking for directions, or using technology like GPS to guide you
  • Dealing with a sudden change, like a change in your work schedule, by assessing the situation, identifying potential impacts, and adapting your plans to accommodate the change.
  • How to Resolve Employee Conflict at Work [Steps, Tips, Examples]
  • How to Write Inspiring Core Values? 5 Steps with Examples
  • 30 Employee Feedback Examples (Positive & Negative)

Resources >

Mckinsey approach to problem solving.

McKinsey and Company is recognized for its rigorous approach to problem solving. They train their consultants on their seven-step process that anyone can learn.

This resource guides you through that process, largely informed by the McKinsey Staff Paper 66. It also includes a PowerPoint Toolkit with slide templates of each step of the process that you can download and customize for your own use.

You can click any section to go directly there:

Overview of the McKinsey Approach to Problem Solving

Problem solving process.

  • Problem Definition & Problem Statement Worksheet

Stakeholder Analysis Worksheet

Hypothesis trees, issue trees, analyses and workplan, synthesize findings, craft recommendations, distinctiveness practices, harness the power of collaboration, sources and additional reading, download the umbrex toolkit on the mckinsey approach to problem solving.

Problem solving — finding the optimal solution to a given business opportunity or challenge — is the very heart of how consultants create client impact, and considered the most important skill for success at McKinsey.

The characteristic “McKinsey method” of problem solving is a structured, inductive approach that can be used to solve any problem. Using this standardized process saves us from reinventing the problem-solving wheel, and allows for greater focus on distinctiveness in the solution. Every new McKinsey associate must learn this method on his or her first day with the firm.

There are four fundamental disciplines of the McKinsey method:

1. Problem definition

A thorough understanding and crisp definition of the problem.

2. The problem-solving process

Structuring the problem, prioritizing the issues, planning analyses, conducting analyses, synthesizing findings, and developing recommendations.

3. Distinctiveness practices

Constructing alternative perspectives; identifying relationships; distilling the essence of an issue, analysis, or recommendation; and staying ahead of others in the problem-solving process.

4. Collaboratio n

Actively seeking out client, customer, and supplier perspectives, as well as internal and external expert insight and knowledge.

Once the problem has been defined, the problem-solving process proceeds with a series of steps:

  • Structure the problem
  • Prioritize the issues
  • Plan analyses
  • Conduct analyses
  • Synthesize findings
  • Develop recommendations

Not all problems require strict adherence to the process. Some steps may be truncated, such as when specific knowledge or analogies from other industries make it possible to construct hypotheses and associated workplans earlier than their formal place in the process. Nonetheless, it remains important to be capable of executing every step in the basic process.

When confronted with a new and complex problem, this process establishes a path to defining and disaggregating the problem in a way that will allow the team to move to a solution. The process also ensures nothing is missed and concentrates efforts on the highest-impact areas. Adhering to the process gives the client clear steps to follow, building confidence, credibility, and long-term capability.

Problem Definition & Problem Statement Worksheet

The most important step in your entire project is to first carefully define the problem. The problem definition will serve the guide all of the team’s work, so it is critical to ensure that all key stakeholders agree that it is the right problem to be solving.

Problem Statement Worksheet

This is a helpful tool to use to clearly define the problem. There are often dozens of issues that a team could focus on, and it is often not obvious how to define the problem. In any real-life situation, there are many possible problem statements. Your choice of problem statement will serve to constrain the range of possible solutions.

  • Use a question . The problem statement should be phrased as a question, such that the answer will be the solution. Make the question SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, relevant, and time-bound. Example: “How can XYZ Bank close the $100 million profitability gap in two years?”
  • Context . What are the internal and external situations and complications facing the client, such as industry trends, relative position within the industry, capability gaps, financial flexibility, and so on?
  • Success criteria . Understand how the client and the team define success and failure. In addition to any quantitative measures identified in the basic question, identify other important quantitative or qualitative measures of success, including timing of impact, visibility of improvement, client capability building required, necessary mindset shifts, and so on.
  • Scope and constraints . Scope most commonly covers the markets or segments of interest, whereas constraints govern restrictions on the nature of solutions within those markets or segments.
  • Stakeholders . Explore who really makes the decisions — who decides, who can help, and who can block.
  • Key sources of insight . What best-practice expertise, knowledge, and engagement approaches already exist? What knowledge from the client, suppliers, and customers needs to be accessed? Be as specific as possible: who, what, when, how, and why.

The problem definition should not be vague, without clear measures of success. Rather, it should be a SMART definition:

  • Action-oriented

Example situation – A family on Friday evening

Scenario: A mother, a father, and their two teenage children have all arrived home on a Friday at 6 p.m. The family has not prepared dinner for Friday evening. The daughter has lacrosse practice on Saturday and an essay to write for English class due on Monday. The son has theatre rehearsal on both Saturday and Sunday and will need one parent to drive him to the high school both days, though he can get a ride home with a friend. The family dog, a poodle, must be taken to the groomer on Saturday morning. The mother will need to spend time this weekend working on assignments for her finance class she is taking as part of her Executive MBA. The father plans to go on a 100-mile bike ride, which he can do either Saturday or Sunday. The family has two cars, but one is at the body shop. They are trying to save money to pay for an addition to their house.

What is the problem definition?

A statement of facts does not focus the problem solving:

It is 6 p.m. The family has not made plans for dinner, and they are hungry.

A question guides the team towards a solution:

1. What should the family do for dinner on Friday night?

2. Should the family cook dinner or order delivery?

3. What should the family cook for dinner?

4. What should the family cook for dinner that will not require spending more than $40 on groceries?

5. To cook dinner, what do they need to pick up from the supermarket?

6. How can the family prepare dinner within the next hour using ingredients they already have in the house?

In completing the Problem Statement Worksheet, you are prompted to define the key stakeholders.

As you become involved in the problem-solving process, you should expand the question of key stakeholders to include what the team wants from them and what they want from the team, their values and motivations (helpful and unhelpful), and the communications mechanisms that will be most effective for each of them.

Using the Stakeholder Analysis Worksheet allows you to comprehensively identify:

  • Stakeholders
  • What you need from them
  • Where they are
  • What they need from you

The two most helpful techniques for rigorously structuring any problem are hypothesis trees and issue trees. Each of these techniques disaggregates the primary question into a cascade of issues or hypotheses that, when addressed, will together answer the primary question.

A hypothesis tree might break down the same question into two or more hypotheses. 

Example: Alpha Manufacturing, Inc.

Problem Statement: How can Alpha increase EBITDA by $13M (to $50M) by 2025?

The hypotheses might be:

  • Alpha can add $125M revenues by expanding to new customers, adding $8M of EBITDA
  • Alpha can reduce costs to improve EBITDA by $5M

These hypotheses will be further disaggregated into subsidiary hypotheses at the next level of the tree.

The aim at this stage is to structure the problem into discrete, mutually exclusive pieces that are small enough to yield to analysis and that, taken together, are collectively exhaustive.

Articulating the problem as hypotheses, rather than issues, is the preferred approach because it leads to a more focused analysis of the problem. Questions to ask include:

  • Is it testable – can you prove or disprove it?
  • It is open to debate? If it cannot be wrong, it is simply a statement of fact and unlikely to produce keen insight.
  • If you reversed your hypothesis – literally, hypothesized that the exact opposite were true – would you care about the difference it would make to your overall logic?
  • If you shared your hypothesis with the CEO, would it sound naive or obvious?
  • Does it point directly to an action or actions that the client might take?

Quickly developing a powerful hypothesis tree enables us to develop solutions more rapidly that will have real impact. This can sometimes seem premature to clients, who might find the “solution” reached too quickly and want to see the analysis behind it.

Take care to explain the approach (most important, that a hypothesis is not an answer) and its benefits (that a good hypothesis is the basis of a proven means of successful problem solving and avoids “boiling the ocean”).

Often, the team has insufficient knowledge to build a complete hypothesis tree at the start of an engagement. In these cases, it is best to begin by structuring the problem using an issue tree.

An issue tree is best set out as a series of open questions in sentence form. For example, “How can the client minimize its tax burden?” is more useful than “Tax.” Open questions – those that begin with what, how, or why– produce deeper insights than closed ones. In some cases, an issue tree can be sharpened by toggling between issue and hypothesis – working forward from an issue to identify the hypothesis, and back from the hypothesis to sharpen the relevant open question.

Once the problem has been structured, the next step is to prioritize the issues or hypotheses on which the team will focus its work. When prioritizing, it is common to use a two-by-two matrix – e.g., a matrix featuring “impact” and “ease of impact” as the two axes.

Applying some of these prioritization criteria will knock out portions of the issue tree altogether. Consider testing the issues against them all, albeit quickly, to help drive the prioritization process.

Once the criteria are defined, prioritizing should be straightforward: Simply map the issues to the framework and focus on those that score highest against the criteria.

As the team conducts analysis and learns more about the problem and the potential solution, make sure to revisit the prioritization matrix so as to remain focused on the highest-priority issues.

The issues might be:

  • How can Alpha increase revenue?
  • How can Alpha reduce cost?

Each of these issues is then further broken down into deeper insights to solutions.

If the prioritization has been carried out effectively, the team will have clarified the key issues or hypotheses that must be subjected to analysis. The aim of these analyses is to prove the hypotheses true or false, or to develop useful perspectives on each key issue. Now the task is to design an effective and efficient workplan for conducting the analyses.

Transforming the prioritized problem structure into a workplan involves two main tasks:

  • Define the blocks of work that need to be undertaken. Articulate as clearly as possible the desired end products and the analysis necessary to produce them, and estimate the resources and time required.
  • Sequence the work blocks in a way that matches the available resources to the need to deliver against key engagement milestones (e.g., important meetings, progress reviews), as well as to the overall pacing of the engagement (i.e., weekly or twice-weekly meetings, and so on).

A good workplan will detail the following for each issue or hypothesis: analyses, end products, sources, and timing and responsibility. Developing the workplan takes time; doing it well requires working through the definition of each element of the workplan in a rigorous and methodical fashion.

This is the most difficult element of the problem-solving process. After a period of being immersed in the details, it is crucial to step back and distinguish the important from the merely interesting. Distinctive problem solvers seek the essence of the story that will underpin a crisp recommendation for action.

Although synthesis appears, formally speaking, as the penultimate step in the process, it should happen throughout. Ideally, after you have made almost any analytical progress, you should attempt to articulate the “Day 1” or “Week 1” answer. Continue to synthesize as you go along. This will remind the team of the question you are trying to answer, assist prioritization, highlight the logical links of the emerging solution, and ensure that you have a story ready to articulate at all times during the study.

McKinsey’s primary tool for synthesizing is the pyramid principle. Essentially, this principle asserts that every synthesis should explain a single concept, per the “governing thought.” The supporting ideas in the synthesis form a thought hierarchy proceeding in a logical structure from the most detailed facts to the governing thought, ruthlessly excluding the interesting but irrelevant.

While this hierarchy can be laid out as a tree (like with issue and hypothesis trees), the best problem solvers capture it by creating dot-dash storylines — the Pyramid Structure for Grouping Arguments.

Pyramid Structure for Grouping Arguments

  • Focus on action. Articulate the thoughts at each level of the pyramid as declarative sentences, not as topics. For example, “expansion” is a topic; “We need to expand into the European market” is a declarative sentence.
  • Use storylines. PowerPoint is poor at highlighting logical connections, therefore is not a good tool for synthesis. A storyline will clarify elements that may be ambiguous in the PowerPoint presentation.
  • Keep the emerging storyline visible. Many teams find that posting the storyline or story- board on the team-room wall helps keep the thinking focused. It also helps in bringing the client along.
  • Use the situation-complication-resolution structure. The situation is the reason there is action to be taken. The com- plication is why the situation needs thinking through – typically an industry or client challenge. The resolution is the answer.
  • Down the pyramid: does each governing thought pose a single question that is answered completely by the group of boxes below it?
  • Across: is each level within the pyramid MECE?
  • Up: does each group of boxes, taken together, provide one answer – one “so what?” – that is essentially the governing thought above it?
  • Test the solution. What would it mean if your hypotheses all came true?

Three Horizons of Engagement Planning

It’s useful to match the workplan to three horizons:

  • What is expected at the end of the engagement
  • What is expected at key progress reviews
  • What is due at daily and/or weekly team meetings

The detail in the workplan will typically be greater for the near term (the next week) than for the long term (the study horizon), especially early in a new engagement when considerable ambiguity about the end state remains.

It is at this point that we address the client’s questions: “What do I do, and how do I do it?” This means not offering actionable recommendations, along with a plan and client commitment for implementation.

The essence of this step is to translate the overall solution into the actions required to deliver sustained impact. A pragmatic action plan should include:

  • Relevant initiatives, along with a clear sequence, timing, and mapping of activities required
  • Clear owners for each initiative
  • Key success factors and the challenges involved in delivering on the initiatives

Crucial questions to ask as you build recommendations for organizational change are:

  • Does each person who needs to change (from the CEO to the front line) understand what he or she needs to change and why, and is he or she committed to it?
  • Are key leaders and role models throughout the organization personally committed to behaving differently?
  • Has the client set in place the necessary formal mechanisms to reinforce the desired change?
  • Does the client have the skills and confidence to behave in the desired new way?

Great problem solvers identify unique disruptions and discontinuities, novel insights, and step-out opportunities that lead to truly distinctive impact. This is done by applying a number of practices throughout the problem-solving process to help develop these insights.

Expand: Construct multiple perspectives

Identifying alternative ways of looking at the problem expands the range of possibilities, opens you up to innovative ideas, and allows you to formulate more powerful hypotheses. Questions that help here include:

  • What changes if I think from the perspective of a customer, or a supplier, or a frontline employee, or a competitor?
  • How have other industries viewed and addressed this same problem?
  • What would it mean if the client sought to run the company like a low-cost airline or a cosmetics manufacturer?

Link: Identify relationships

Strong problem solvers discern connections and recognize patterns in two different ways:

  • They seek out the ways in which different problem elements – issues, hypotheses, analyses, work elements, findings, answers, and recommendations – relate to one another.
  • They use these relationships throughout the basic problem-solving process to identify efficient problem-solving approaches, novel solutions, and more powerful syntheses.

Distill: Find the essence

Cutting through complexity to identify the heart of the problem and its solution is a critical skill.

  • Identify the critical problem elements. Are there some issues, approaches, or options that can be eliminated completely because they won’t make a significant difference to the solution?
  • Consider how complex the different elements are and how long it will take to complete them. Wherever possible, quickly advance simpler parts of the problem that can inform more complex or time-consuming elements.

Lead: Stay ahead/step back

Without getting ahead of the client, you cannot be distinctive. Paradoxically, to get ahead – and stay ahead – it is often necessary to step back from the problem to validate or revalidate the approach and the solution.

  • Spend time thinking one or more steps ahead of the client and team.
  • Constantly check and challenge the rigor of the underlying data and analysis.
  • Stress-test the whole emerging recommendation
  • Challenge the solution against a set of hurdles. Does it satisfy the criteria for success as set out on the Problem Statement Worksheet?

No matter how skilled, knowledgeable, or experienced you are, you will never create the most distinctive solution on your own. The best problem solvers know how to leverage the power of their team, clients, the Firm, and outside parties. Seeking the right expertise at the right time, and leveraging it in the right way, are ultimately how we bring distinctiveness to our work, how we maximize efficiency, and how we learn.

When solving a problem, it is important to ask, “Have I accessed all the sources of insight that are available?” Here are the sources you should consider:

  • Your core team
  • The client’s suppliers and customers
  • Internal experts and knowledge
  • External sources of knowledge
  • Communications specialists

The key here is to think open, not closed. Opening up to varied sources of data and perspectives furthers our mission to develop truly innovative and distinctive solutions for our clients.

  • McKinsey Staff Paper 66 — not published by McKinsey but possibly found through an internet search
  • The McKinsey Way , 1999, by Ethan M. Rasiel

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6 core step problem solving

Overview of the 6-Step Process

The 6-Step Process is the starting point for all projects on the I-70 Mountain Corridor, and it is used to ensure collaboration. The 6-Step Process is consistent with Decision Science principles and can be followed on all projects from corridor-wide planning to construction change orders. Established plans, such as emergency plans, do not require that implementation decisions use the 6-Step Process. These steps are intended to provide a clear and repeatable process that is fair and understandable. The order of the steps is as important as the activities within each step.

6 step process

Using the Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) Guidance and other relevant materials, this step establishes the project goals and actions. It also defines the teams to be used and decisions to be made. Relevant material may include the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) , previously developed plans or commitments, environmental documents, and current program documents. These provide the initial input into establishing the goals for the project. If the project is in the Project Design phase, for example, the desired outcomes should reflect those documented in the Project Development phase and the CSS Guidance.

During Step 1 in Life Cycle Phase 1: I-70 Mountain Corridor Planning, a Project Leadership Team (PLT) is established and should be carried through all subsequent phases of a project. By using the 6-Step Process framework, the PLT will develop the specific process to be used during decision making, including teams, team roles and responsibilities, and interactions during the project.

Sample tasks and documentation matrices   have been developed for each of the Life Cycle Phases to guide the 6-Step Process in each phase.

Step 2 establishes participants, roles, and responsibilities for each team. The process is endorsed by discussing, possibly modifying, and then finalizing with all teams the desired outcomes and actions to be taken. Endorsing the process includes clarifying teams and expectations for use in the process, developing a schedule, and confirming the project-specific decision process.

During Step 2 of a project in the Project Development phase, for example, the Project Leadership Team (PLT) and the Project Staff may form a Technical Team to support the project. The PLT leads the effort to gain the endorsement of the process.

Step 3 establishes criteria, which provides the basis for making decisions consistent with desired outcomes and project goals. The criteria support the Core Values and previously developed agreements and commitments, as well as design standards and other state and federal requirements.

The Project Staff will review the   Context Statement ,   Core Values ,   Issues by Core Value ,  and   CSS Evaluation Guidance   for every project or study to identify criteria and guidance relevant to the decisions that will be made on the project. The Project Staff will work with the Project Leadership Team (PLT), county representatives, and the public to establish project-specific vision, goals, and criteria. This activity is initiated with Scoping on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) projects. On smaller, less complex projects, the development of a project vision and project-specific goals and criteria can be accomplished in focused working sessions with the PLT, Project Staff, county representatives, and the public.

The purpose of establishing criteria is to support a structured decision-making process and ensure that decisions made and alternatives selected support the desired outcomes and actions, as well as the Core Values. In order to establish a fair process that reflects the stated outcomes and project goals, it is important to determine the criteria prior to developing potential alternatives.

Step 3 tracks how concerns and issues are used in the formation of criteria, allowing stakeholders and affected parties to see how their interests will be considered and permitting them to monitor the outcome in a meaningful way.

It is important to represent the needs of all stakeholders in the criteria -- including local, state, and federal priorities and requirements, as well as previous comments and concerns identified through earlier efforts in the corridor. Criteria should reflect the range of stakeholder interests, including community, interest group, and local needs and priorities. It is critical that the full range of interests and requirements be incorporated into criteria to support an evaluation process that meets requirements and interests in a clear and transparent manner.

Applicable legal and policy requirements must also be incorporated into the criteria to ensure their inclusion in alternative evaluation and selection. Such requirements may include American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) design standards and NEPA criteria.

A good criterion is measurable and relevant to the project decision, and it distinguishes between alternatives or options.

In Step 4, the Project Staff works with the Project Leadership Team (PLT), stakeholders, and the public to identify alternatives or options relevant to the desired outcomes, project-specific vision, and goals. This work includes the review of commitments previously made for improvements, options outlined in the Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) Guidance, and brainstorming options to meet the desired outcome, vision, and goals for the project.

Engaging the public and other interested parties in this step provides an opportunity to identify and consider a wide range of alternatives and ideas in a structured approach. Ideas introduced at this step can be evaluated and documented in a way that all interested parties can track and understand. This minimizes new ideas brought forward in later steps and creates a streamlined and transparent process. Strategies developed in past corridor efforts have been captured in Strategies by Core Value and will supplement the brainstorming effort.

Alternatives or options may include complete alternatives that address the desired outcomes and project goals. They may also be smaller parts of a solution that can be combined into a package of options to form an alternative or elements of an alternative. The important aspect of the brainstorming exercise is to allow all ideas to be captured.  They will all be considered and documented in Step 5: Evaluate, Select, and Refine Alternative or Option.

The process of analyzing and evaluating alternatives applies evaluation criteria to alternatives or options in a way that facilitates decision making. This may be a one-step or multi-step process, depending on the complexity of the alternatives and the decision. The evaluation process may include refining alternatives to develop the final alternative or option. A critical element in this step is the evaluation of all ideas using all previously established criteria.

Effective use of criteria in the evaluation and selection of alternatives applies the criteria at appropriate levels of the decision-making process. If the decision or the criteria are complex, the process may be iterative, applying a series of criteria at differing levels of detail. For example, a three-level process may use broad criteria to screen out unrealistic or unfeasible alternatives and apply more detailed evaluation criteria in subsequent evaluation steps. This helps to streamline the evaluation by focusing on data collection and analysis on viable alternatives. The multi-level evaluation also provides an opportunity to refine options or alternatives to meet the desired goals or outcomes more effectively with a greater understanding of the alternative’s strengths and weaknesses in each criterion.

The Project Staff must clearly document how evaluation criteria are applied to all ideas to provide an easily accessible record of how each idea generated through brainstorming was evaluated and possibly modified.

Continuous documentation should take place throughout the 6-Step Process. Step 6 compiles, summarizes and references the documentation from the previous steps. It also debriefs and evaluates the process, compiling lessons learned and best practices. Final documentation will include the outcome from each of the previous steps, final recommendations, and the process evaluation. Documentation will provide strategies, exercises, and successes for use in future studies.

6 core step problem solving

  • Create an action plan that drives resul ...

Create an action plan that drives results

Alicia Raeburn contributor headshot

An action plan outlines precisely how you’re planning to accomplish your goals. It’s the perfect way to approach goals systematically and keep your team on target. In this article, we will cover how to create an action plan in six steps and how to implement it successfully. Plus, learn more about the differences between action plans, project plans, and to-do lists.

It can feel good to make goals. After all, you’re defining what you want to accomplish. But goals won’t do much without clear action steps. ​​An action plan is a popular project management technique that lists your action steps so you know exactly how you’re going to accomplish your goals. 

We’re going to show you how to create this clear roadmap step by step and other tools you should utilize to get the most out of your action plan. Let’s dive in.

What is an action plan?

An action plan is a list of tasks or steps you need to complete to achieve your goals. An effective action plan works like a management plan for your company’s initiatives, outlining the steps you need to take to make these larger goals a success. Once you go through the goal-setting process, create an action plan with specific tasks and timeframes to reach each goal. 

Who needs an action plan?

An action plan is useful for anyone who needs a step-by-step planning process. When you create an action plan, you detail exactly what actions you'll take to accomplish your project goals. These plans can help you organize your to-dos and ensure you have the necessary information and resources to accomplish your goals.

But you can create action plans for more than just strategic planning. Use this tool to reach any specific goals in a systematic way. Try setting up:

Business action plan

Marketing action plan

Corrective action plan

Sales action plan

Project action plan

Personal development action plan

Regardless of the type of action plan you create, make sure you create it in task management software . That way, you can easily share action items and timelines with your team to track progress. Instead of manual status updates and unclear deliverables, your team has one central source of truth for everything they need to do in order to hit their goals. 

Now let’s get into how you can create an action plan that increases your team’s efficiency and accountability.

Who needs an action plan?

6 steps to create an action plan

Step 1: set a smart goal.

When it comes to setting goals, clarity is the single most important quality. With the SMART goal method, your goal is clearly defined and attainable. Set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals to benefit from this tactic.

[Inline illustration] SMART goals (Infographic)

For example, your goal could be to deliver your current project (measurable) in four months (time-bound) without overspending (specific). Assuming this goal is both achievable and realistic based on your available resources, it’s a great SMART goal to set for yourself.

Step 2: Identify tasks

Now that your goal is clearly defined and written down, you’ll want to identify the steps you have to take to reach it. Identify all of the tasks that you and your team need to complete to reach milestones and, eventually, the main objective.

Here are a few action plan examples with tasks for different kinds of goals:

Goal: Expand team from seven to nine team members by June.

Meet with Human Resources to discuss the recruitment campaign.

Create a template project to track candidates.

Schedule three interviews per week.

Goal: Select and onboard new work management software to the entire company by the end of Q2.

Apply for the budget.

Create a roll-out plan for Q2.

Schedule training for team members.

Goal: Host 5k charity run in May to raise $15,000 for the local food bank.

Find volunteers and determine responsibilities

Prepare marketing materials and PR plans

Secure sponsors

Step 3: Allocate resources

Once you’ve outlined all of your tasks, you can allocate resources like team members, project budget, or necessary equipment. Whether it’s assigning team members to certain tasks, applying for a budget, or gathering helpful tools—now is the time to plan and prepare.

Sometimes, you can’t allocate all of your resources before you put your action plan in motion. Perhaps you have to apply for funding first or need executive approval before you can move on with a task. In that case, make the resource an action item in your plan so you can take care of it later.

Step 4: Prioritize tasks

When your team is clear on their priorities, they know what work to do first and what work they can reschedule if necessary. No action plan is set in stone, so the best way to empower your team is to let them know what tasks have a high priority and which ones are a bit more flexible.

To make this clear, sort all of your action items by priority and sequence:

Priority: Important and less important tasks.

Sequence: Order in which tasks have to be completed so others can start.

When you’re organizing and prioritizing your action items , you’ll notice that some action items are dependent on others. In other words, one task can’t begin until the previous task is completed. Highlight these dependencies and factor the sequence into your prioritization. This reduces bottlenecks , removing obstacles that would make a less important action item delay a high-priority item.  

Step 5: Set deadlines and milestones

When your team knows what they're working towards, they have the context to effectively prioritize work and the motivation to get great work done. Team members tend to be more motivated when they directly understand how their work is contributing to larger goals.

To engage your teammates from the get go, assign deadlines to all action items and define milestones . Milestones mark specific points along your project timeline that identify when activities have been completed or when a new phase starts

Create a timeline or Gantt chart to get a better overview of your prioritized tasks, milestones, and deadlines. Your timeline also serves as a visual way to track the start and end dates of every task in your action plan. You can use it as a baseline to make sure your team stays on track.

Step 6: Monitor and revise your action plan

Your ability to stay on top of and adapt to changes is what makes you a great project manager. It’s crucial that you monitor your team’s progress and revise the plan when necessary.

Luckily, your action plan isn’t set in stone. The best way to track potentially changing priorities or deadlines is to use a dynamic tool like a work management software . That way, you can update to-dos and dependencies in real time, keep your team on the same page, and your action plan moving.

Action plan vs. plan B vs. project plan vs. to-do list

So how exactly does an action plan differ from all these other plans and lists? To clear this up once and for all, we’re going to explain what these plans are and when to use which plan to maximize your team’s efforts.

Action plan vs. plan B

You may have heard the terms action plan and plan B used interchangeably. But in fact, an action plan and plan B are two completely different types of plans. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Your action plan outlines actions in much detail so you and your team know exactly what steps to take to reach your goal.

A plan B is a secondary action plan, an alternative strategy, that your team can apply if your original plan fails. Whether that’s because of an internal issue or an external factor—having a plan B is a great way to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

Action plan vs. plan B

Action plan vs. project plan

A project plan is a bit more complicated than an action plan. Project plans are blueprints of the key elements your team needs to accomplish to successfully achieve your project goals. A project plan includes seven elements:

Goals and project objectives

Success metrics

Stakeholders and roles

Scope and budget

Milestones and deliverables

Timeline and schedule

Communication plan

Once you’ve created a project plan, use an action plan to outline and document how your team will execute your tasks and hit your goals. This will ensure that everyone on your team knows what their responsibilities are and what to get done by when.

Action plan vs. to-do list

A to-do list is typically used to write down single tasks that don’t necessarily lead to one common goal. To-do lists can change daily and are much less organized than action plans. An action plan will follow specific steps and include tasks that all lead to the completion of a common goal.

How to implement your action plan successfully

You know how to create an action plan, but in order to implement it successfully, you need to use the right tools and use them correctly. Here are our top five tips to ensure your action plan is effective:

How to implement your action plan successfully

Use task management software

Streamline your action plan by keeping all of your tasks and timelines in one central source of truth. Task management software, like Asana , is perfect for your action plan because it allows you to keep track of pending tasks, declare task ownership, assign dependencies, and connect with your team in real time or asynchronously .

Use or create templates

Create or use a template that lists all the action items with notes, status, priority, and ownership. When you create a template that fits your project type, you can reuse it time and time again.

Set up real-time alerts and assign dependencies

Make sure all action items are time-bound and that you assign dependencies. That way, your team can react when an item is ready for them and easily track what other items depend on theirs. 

Check action items off as you complete them

When action items are completed, check them off! Make sure it’s visible to everyone and happens in real time so the person responsible for the next action item can start their work as soon as possible.

Discuss late or pending tasks

If you run into issues or delays, talk to your team to uncover potential bottlenecks and find solutions that keep the action plan on track. You can add notes directly into your action plan or set up calls to discuss more complex issues.

Ready, set, action plan

Like Benjamin Franklin once said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Creating an action plan helps you stay focused, on track, and brings your goals to life.

Plan to succeed with a structured action plan and helpful tools like Asana’s task management software. Connect and align with your team in a central source of truth while staying flexible enough to revise your action plan when necessary.

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