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Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Structured vs Unstructured Problem Solving

Using a structured approach to solve problems can help to ensure the correct problem is being solved, with the right solution. When an unstructured approach to problem solving is used, which is generally the case, the problem is not well understood and the solution addresses a symptom, rather than the root cause. Another major disadvantage of an unstructured approach is that it is easy to hit a roadblock and convince yourself that the problem cannot be solved or that the solution cannot be implemented for a variety reasons.

Each of the five problem solving tools described below approach problem solving in a different way. They can help you to find solutions that that might not be immediately obvious and compare possible solutions before choosing the best one.

Problem Solving Definition

A problem is the distance between how things currently are and the way they should be. Problem solving forms the ‘bridge’ between these two elements. In order to close the gap, you need to understand the way things are (problem) and the way they ought to be (solution).

The Difference Between Problem Solving and Decision Making

Although there is a clear distinction between problem solving and decision making, the two are often confused. Problem solving differs fundamentally from decision making. A problem occurs when something is not behaving as it should, something is deviating from the norm or something goes wrong. Decision making is a case of choosing between different alternatives. Decision making is required in response to the question: “Which computer shall I buy?” Problem solving is needed in response to the statement: “My computer won’t work”.

Most problem solving methods follow a common pattern, beginning with a definition of the problem, moving on to the consideration of potential solutions, and culminating with the selection, testing and implementation of a chosen course of action. Divergent thinking techniques can be helpful in generating creative ideas, while convergent thinking can assist in structuring and evaluating potential solutions.

Problems can be classified into one of two categories: the ‘fix-it’ or the ‘do-it’ scenario:

  • Fix-it – solving an existing problem, (e.g. a current product range is falling short of its sales targets). An immediate short-term solution could be to increase marketing activity, for example.

  • Do-it – moving you in the right direction for what you want to achieve, (e.g. a new product range needs to be introduced to compete with market rivals). This type of problem will require longer term planning in order to achieve its objectives.

Irrespective of the severity or complexity of the problem, the process should:

  • be systematic and thorough

  • provide evidence to show how the problem was solved

  • avoid a rush to a solution without first understanding the cause of the problem

  • enable possible causes to be assessed

1. Six-Step Problem Solving Model

Problem solving models are used extensively in the workplace and the Six Step method is a simple and reliable way to solve problems. This technique uses an analytical and reliable approach to problem solving. Its process keeps the group assigned to solve a problem on track while they carry out their investigation and search for a solution.

2. The Drill Down Technique

In complex organizations problems are inevitable. Successful organizations take the time to identify these complicated problems and plan a practical resolution as soon as possible. The Drill Down Technique is a popular approach to problem solving in complex organizations. As its name suggests you break down a problem into its various components into small practical pieces that enable you to identify a resolution.

3. The Four Frame Model

The Four Frame Model is one of the most popular and in-depth tools that management use to maximize an organization’s potential. The model divides up an organization into ‘four frames’ – Structural, Human Resource, Political and Symbolic – with the objective of better understanding the organization. Each frame must be looked at in a meaningful way; if one or more is discarded the findings will be incomplete.

4. Eight Disciplines of Problem Solving

This problem-solving tool requires that a practical plan is created at the start of this eight step process. It requires a clear definition of the problem, individuals involved in the solution and the resources. Each of the eight disciplines in this process, are designed to move you a step closer to a successful resolution.

5. The Cynefin Framework

The core of the Cynefin framework is the way that it breaks down problems into one of five contexts. You place your problem into one of these specific contexts and it will then help you decide how best to approach it. This problem-solving tool is a level ‘above’ others because it requires you to figure out how you should be thinking about a problem in the first place. The framework is often used in conjunction with other problem-solving tools in finding a solution.

6. The 5-Whys Technique

The 5 Why’s Technique is an easy-to-use method for uncovering the root of an issue. All you need is asking ‘Why?’ five times. Start with an issue and ask why it happened. Make sure your answer is based on unbiased facts. Continue the process of asking ‘Why?’ four more times. Eventually, you reach the root of the issue. Now you can try to find a solution.

Start Using Structured Problem Solving Techniques

Hopefully you find these different techniques useful and they get your imagination rolling with ideas on how to solve different problems. There are other techniques you can use, but when it comes to solving problems from simple to complex, these techniques will work well. And keep in mind that you can combine these techniques as well.

Here are 5 takeaways to use the next time a problem gets you and your team tangled up:

  1. Don’t start by trying to solve the problem (or the symptom). First, aim to understand the root cause of the problem.

  2. Use questions to generate ideas for solving the problem.

  3. Look to previous problems to find the answers to new ones.

  4. Clear your preconceived ideas and past experiences before attempting to tackle the problem.

  5. When you are looking for people to add to your team – look for people that highlight their ability to solve problems!

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