5 ways to ensure efficient problem-solving in project management

Regardless of your business or sector, project management and problem-solving go hand in hand. It’s always a good idea to have efficient processes and best-practice scenarios to fall back on for the inevitable problems that are bound to arise.

Whether the project is intrinsically designed to solve a problem, or problems present themselves during it, companies must have strategies in place for dealing with them both efficiently and effectively. And, as every business knows, the sooner a problem is dealt with the better it is for the project, the team, and the business as a whole.

Project management and problem-solving processes

Project management, by its nature, is a complicated beast. You may be leading a team to achieve your collective goals or working through the necessary processes and approaches your project requires with other team members. Whatever your project management role might be, it’s likely to involve a large amount of problem-solving. This will be on both micro and macro levels, from day-to-day issues to overarching problems that could threaten the viability of the whole project.  

Project managers need the best problem-solving strategies at hand

How you approach problems, the strategies and procedures you implement, and the methodologies you apply will all have a direct bearing on both the success of the project and of the team itself. We’ll take a look at the best problem-solving practices that teams and leaders can keep in mind when implementing and working on a project. We’ll investigate how both structured approaches and creative thinking – and the design-thinking process – can help.

Individuals and problem-solving

When problems, concerns, or conflict occur during a project it can be very stressful and difficult for team members to address them effectively and in a timely manner. Many people will actively avoid conflict, and, as problems require a solution, it can also be difficult to know how, when, and where to start looking for one.

In a workplace environment, ‘not knowing’ the answer can be an unnerving position for an employee to find themselves in. It is often also the case that problem solving is not a skill they have been formally taught. So, what are the 5 most important strategies you can implement with individuals, teams, and your projects in mind to ensure best practice and effective problem-solving?

Efficient problem solving in project management: 5 ways to get it right

1. Start with strong foundations

With the right foundations, companies can both prevent and solve problems during the initial phases of setting up new projects. Start from a place of strength. Ensure that all members of your team have clearly-defined roles and know what their individual responsibilities, goals, and priorities are before they start. They should also know what team success looks like, and have something to aim for collectively.

This means that if (when!) something doesn’t go quite as it should, an individual, a team leader and/or the team will all be more likely to catch it quickly: and willing and able to do something about it.

Using team management technology, enabling team members to see where their work fits in and how it impacts other parts of the project in real time will help. And assigning fair responsibilities and accountabilities that have been discussed and agreed in advance reduces the chances of a ‘pass-the-buck’ or blame culture. Instead, this empowers individuals and promotes ownership of tasks and outcomes.

Overwhelm and unreasonable expectations are likely to lead to mistakes and problems.  ‘Solving’ many of these problems before they can occur, or catching them early, will lead to fewer problems down the line when issues run the risk of becoming compounded.

2. Solve problems with cooperation and communication

Good communication is key from the outset - as we have already mentioned. It is also vital at all subsequent stages of your project management. Whenever you are assigning or reassigning roles and responsibilities and setting out new expectations and objectives, communication needs to be clear and concise. Communication channels need to be open throughout the process. Projects should start as they mean to go on.

Team members should feel they are in a supportive environment where they can raise a problem when it first arises without fear of blame or reprisals. Problems that are not dealt with appropriately at the time will only come back to haunt the team later on in a project. Make sure your team has an opportunity to relax and bond together.  

Encouraging an individual or team to stop and tackle a problem head on, before moving on to the next thing, should be a priority. Giving all team members a voice, whereby they can give input towards a solution regardless of position or seniority can make for a stronger team. It can also help reduce any feelings of isolation, blame, or overwhelming responsibilities. This should contribute to the team’s success as a whole.

Many projects, particularly large ones and those undertaken in bigger organisations, span different business areas. In these cases, it is wise to break down any siloes or barriers to engagement between departments. A ‘silo mentality’ can be detrimental to progress and a project’s ultimate success.

The power of collective intelligence should not be underestimated. The American space agency NASA has long understood the value of maximising collective intelligence to drive innovation, and NASA utilizes all the resources available to them. They often find the answer to a question in an unexpected source. Encouraging members of your team to communicate and collaborate with others in a spirt of shared knowledge will reap dividends.

3. Structure and run your project using design thinking

Design thinking has been described as a ‘social technology’. It takes a more holistic approach to project management and solving problems than was common practice in the past. It focuses on creative ways of finding solutions rather than focusing on the problem. An article by the Harvard Business School Online sums it up neatly: “it focuses on the solution to a problem instead of the problem itself.”

It is helpful to reframe a problem as an opportunity to improve a process or procedure that is not working properly. If the outcome will be an improvement on what you have currently, a problem offers you the possibility of greater things.

The more diverse your team and input, the more you have to work with. And, using diversity along with other design-thinking techniques should make your team’s problem solving more successful and innovative.

Putting design thinking into action can help in many aspects of your business model, not just problem solving in project management.

4. Be creative

We have already talked about design thinking which, among the tools it offers, reframes problems and challenges assumptions. There is a lot of truth to the old adage that your best ideas always occur in the shower or during a long walk: when you are not actively seeking an answer to something, your brain is free to meander at will. This has even been shown to be the case in a 2012 study by Benjamin Baird. Giving the brain something to do while allowing for “mind-wandering” allows it to be more creative.

And, as Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Make sure you and your team are ready and willing to think creatively.

5. Utilise all the problem-solving strategies that best suit your project

There are many creative and less ways to approach problems when they crop up. Depending on the problem, the size of your team, how your company works, and many other variables, there will be times when certain problem-solving strategies are likely to work better than others.

Make sure you are aware of the most effective ones out there, and remember they can be used separately or together. Here are a few of the most useful strategies you can employ when you are problem solving.

Brainstorming

There is a lot to be said for this simple approach. Brainstorming, which is also part of the design thinking process, can produce multiple ideas and options in a short amount of time. Again, the more diverse your team, the more likely you are to get a broad spectrum of ideas and suggestions that will help you think around a problem.

5 Whys

The 5 Whys is an iterative interrogative technique that asks a series of ‘Why?’-based questions to get to the root of a problem. It originated at Toyota in the 1930s. It is best illustrated with an example:

  • Problem: the car won’t start
  • Question 1 – Why won’t the car start?
  • Answer – Because the battery is dead.
  • Question 2 – Why is the battery dead?
  • Answer – Because the alternator isn’t working properly.
  • Question 3 – Why isn’t the alternator working properly?
  • Answer – Because I forgot to book the car in for a service.
  • Question 4 – Why did you forget to book it in for a service?
  • Answer – I didn’t get a reminder from the garage I’ve used in the past.
  • Question 5 – Why didn’t you get a reminder?
  • Answer – Because that garage has shut down.
  • Solution: Find a new garage and book the car in.

This strategy may take more than 5 questions, as it can take fewer: you can keep going until you get to the answer you need. It looks past symptoms to find the cause of a problem, and the answers may not be immediately obvious.

SWOT analysis

SWOT analysis looks at potential solutions to problems based on how their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) can be assessed. It is a way of evaluating a solution to see how effective or appropriate it might be.

By setting up 4 quadrants/lists identifying all the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in relation to a given subject you will have a good overview. You can then look at matching your strengths with your opportunities. Knowing any weaknesses can help you work to convert them into strengths, and you can also mitigate against any known threats.

The 8D problem-solving method

The 8D method also originated with the motor industry, and was first implemented by Ford in the 1980s. D stands for discipline. The 8Ds are self-explanatory and are:

  • D0: Make a plan
  • D1: Put a team together
  • D2: Define the problem
  • D3: Develop an interim plan
  • D4: Identify the root of the problem and a solution
  • D5: Confirm the solution works
  • D6: Define and implement any necessary changes
  • D7: Prevent reoccurrence
  • D8: Congratulate the team

Problem solving: wrapping up the best practices

Leaving a problem in the hope it will magically disappear or someone else will sort it out is unlikely to have a positive outcome. Problem solving is an integral part of business. Only those individuals, teams, and companies who can face problems head on and deal with them successfully will thrive.

Problems may vary from team to team, business to business, and sector to sector. However, taking a proactive approach and reframing a problem to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow will stand you in good stead. Chaos theory suggests the butterfly effect can lead to the smallest problems having immense implications down the line.  

Do you have a ‘go-to’ strategy for problem solving? Maybe it’s time to take a broader approach. Here at Klaxoon we have many tools and resources to help you with project management and problem solving: why not check out our resources page to find out more?

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