When you’re presented with a complex new project or a problem arises at work, it makes sense to ask “Why?”

“Why did this happen?” “Why are we taking this approach?” “Why are we responsible for this?”

The whys are certainly important. But when you’re trying to find a solution to a difficult problem, the better question to ask might be “How?”

Leadership consultant Betty Parker has devised a problem-solving technique that involves that simple question. Here’s how it works:

  • Gather your project team together and present them with the problem.
  • Ask them how it could be solved. Write down each suggestion.
  • After each suggestion, ask “How can this be done?” Write down each suggestion.
  • Repeat this process until the suggested actions are so small and concrete that asking “how?” would no longer make any sense.

Here’s an example using an actual problem at the building where I work…

  • “People walking outside the building have been startled and frightened by wild foxes. What should we do?” Suggestion: Teach people about foxes and how to avoid them.
  • “How can this be done?” Suggestion: We could put up signs.
  • “How can this be done?” Suggestion: We could create the signs using information provided by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
  • “How can this be done?” Suggestion: Bob can talk to the experts, gather the necessary information, and write the content for the signs. Mary can be in charge of doing the layout. Once the signs are complete, we’ll make sure people see them.
  • “How can this be done?” Suggestion: We’ll ask Ed to post them outside in the areas where people have encountered foxes.

This simple process can help you to divide a large project into small, manageable chunks. It can also help to encourage brainstorming, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation.

At the end of the process, you’ll have a clear, step-by-step plan for how a problem or project should be approached and completed. You’ll also have a list of specific tasks that can be assigned to members of the project team.

 

Parker, B. M. (2016). Move from problem to solution. Talent Development, 70(1), 84-85.

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