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Two Approaches and Eight Rules for Better Problem Solving

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Problem-solving is easier if you have a way to determine the complexity of the problem and a set of rules to guide you. The following approaches and rules work for both personal and professional problems. Once you have defined the problem, knowing the complexity helps you to determine how much help you need, how quickly you need to act, and how much past experience can or should help. The rules ensure that you do not overlook important data, resources, causes, or solutions.

Approaches to Problem Solving: Cynefin Framework and Stacey Matrix

To a certain extent, the process of solving problems depends on how you look at the problem. The Cynefin Framework was designed by Dave Snowden, an IBM employee with a Philosophy major, to describe problems in four ways—complex, complicated, chaotic, and obvious—requiring four different types of approaches.

  • An obvious problem has a clear cause and effect and the right solution (for example, following a checklist) is also clear to anyone; you can usually solve it without help.
  • A complicated problem requires analysis and usually needs expert advice or reference to best practices.
  • A complex problem has a cause and effect that’s only apparent in hindsight, so experimentation is necessary and often new ways of doing things emerge; the problem might require Lean Six Sigma, for example.
  • A chaotic problem arises without any clear cause and effect at all—quick action is taken to stabilize a crisis and then we can go back to investigating (as in the initial response to the pandemic).

Difficulties arise when, for example, you see every problem as simple and always fall back on the solutions that you have used before.

Another approach to problem-solving is the Stacey Matrix, by Ralph Douglas Stacey, which defines problems based on certainty and agreement. The better cause and effect are known, the more certain the solution. If everyone in a group agrees on how to handle the problem, the solution is found. Problems of high uncertainty and major disagreement are those that descend into chaos or where everyone avoids making any decision at all. Those in the middle may require negotiation (if agreement is low) or judgment calls (if certainty is low).

Both of these approaches to problem-solving are designed to direct people to the type of solution that will work best with that type of problem, whether the problem is professional or personal. For example, a personal problem that might appear obvious is whether to marry the person you love; but in fact, the decision might require reducing debt, finding the source of your hesitation, or divorcing your first spouse, all problems that move from the obvious to the chaotic and from certainty and agreement to uncertainty and disagreement (at least on the part of the first and intended spouses).

TIP: The Cynefin Framework and the Stacey Matrix can help you determine if you are over simplifying or over complicating a problem and let you quickly determine which problems need and will benefit most from your attention. 


The Rules of Better Problem-Solving Process

To ensure a smooth problem-solving process, you must:

  • Keep an open mind, looking beyond the immediate problem to opportunities that may emerge even as you solve the problem. If you improve productivity, for example, by hiring more people, you may discover that those new people bring experience and ideas from outside your industry that could help you improve productivity even more. But if you limit yourself to one formula, “more new hires equal more productivity,” then you miss out on the opportunities. An open mind is key to a better problem-solving process.
  • Encourage communication, to avoid hidden agendas and siloes that keep necessary information from your analysis of the situation and thereby lead you to the wrong approach, an incomplete definition of the problem, and the wrong solution. Communication also uncovers new resources and helps to develop your team, by giving them a chance to flex their problem-solving muscles.
  • Reduce uncertainty. Define your problem carefully. Gather sufficient people and data to locate your problem on the Cynefin Framework or Stacey Matrix. Broaden your problem-solving strategies (algorithms, heuristics, intuition, and so on) to make sure you consider all the possible solutions. Be careful of avoiding uncertainty to the point where you over-simplify or over-complicate the problem, undermining your problem-solving process.
  • Make sure your root causes are root causes. Keep asking “why”—why does that have an effect on the problem and why is it happening? Establish categories of potential causes. A manufacturing company might look for causes in machines, methods, people, and materials while a service organization might look at procedures, policies, customers, and employees. A family might look at people, finances, health, and outside influences. If you overlook a possible category of causes or stop asking “why,” you may settle on a solution too soon.
  • Remember to look at your strengths because the solution to your problem may not center on what needs fixing but on what you are best at. Instead of concentrating on weaknesses, envision a future where your strengths are at the core and then find a way to get there.
  • Compare competing solutions according to your goals: cost, impact, future benefit, or whatever criteria you choose. A lack of goals means you have no way to judge whether your problem-solving process succeeds or fails.
  • Watch out for “reproductive” thinking, in which you insist on just one way to fix problems (regardless of whether a problem is simple or complex, certain or uncertain) or you fail to see a new use for an existing solution because you never used it that way—a failure that is known as functional fixedness.
  • Prevent recurrence by building into your problem definition and solution actions you can take to ensure the problem doesn’t arise again—or to alert you earlier if it does. Recheck your solution at intervals to make sure it is working and to identify any new problems. The problem-solving process encourages continuous improvement by constantly returning to the first rule, an open mind.

Key Takeaways

Problems differ in their complexity and certainty and in the amount of agreement over how the problem is defined and might be solved. By keeping an open mind, communicating often and clearly, reducing uncertainty, making sure of root causes, looking at your strengths (and not only weaknesses), comparing solution, watching out for limits on your thinking, and preventing recurrences, you ensure that the problem-solving process—and the resulting solution—are the best they can be.Approaches to problem solving

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