36 Problem-solving techniques, methods and tools

When it comes to solving problems, getting ideas is the easy part. 

But businesses often forget the other four stages of the problem-solving process that will allow them to find the best solution.

Instead of jumping straight to idea generation, your problem-solving framework should look like this:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Reveal why it has occurred
  3. Brainstorm ideas
  4. Select the best solution
  5. Implement

See how idea generation doesn’t appear until stage 3?!

In this extensive resource, we provide techniques, methodologies and tools to guide you through every stage of the problem-solving process.

Once you’ve finished reading, you’ll possess an extensive problem-solving arsenal that will enable you to overcome your biggest workplace challenges.

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11 Problem-solving techniques for clarity and confidence

Before we dive into more comprehensive methodologies for solving problems, there are a few basic techniques you should know. 

The following techniques will set you up for a successful problem-solving session with your team, allowing you to take on your biggest challenges with clarity and confidence.

1. Take a moment, take a breath

When a problem or challenge arises, it’s normal to act too quickly or rely on solutions that have worked well in the past. This is known as entrenched thinking.

But acting impulsively, without prior consideration or planning, can cause you to misunderstand the issue and overlook possible solutions to the problem.

Therefore, the first thing you should always do when you encounter a problem is: breathe in and out.

Take a step back and make a clear plan of action before you act. This will help you to take rational steps towards solving a problem.

2. Ask questions to understand the full extent of the issue

Another common mistake people make when attempting to solve a problem is taking action before fully understanding the problem.

Before committing to a theory, ask enough questions to unearth the true root of the issue. 

Try this!

Later in this article, we cover The 5 Why’s problem-solving methodology which you can use to easily identify the root of your problem. Give this a go at your next meeting and see how your initial understanding of a problem can often be wrong.

3. Consider alternative perspectives

A common problem-solving issue is that of myopia—a narrow-minded view or perception of the problem. Myopia can occur when you’re too involved with the problem or your team isn’t diverse enough.

To give yourself the best chance of resolving a problem, gain insight from a wide range of sources. Collaborate with key stakeholders, customers and on-the-ground employees to learn how the problem affects them and whether they have found workarounds or solutions.

To paint the broadest picture, don’t limit your problem-solving team to a specific archetype. Try to include everyone, from the chief executive to the office janitor.

Try this!

If you’re working with a small team, try the Flip It! problem-solving methodology to view the issue from a fresh angle.

4. Make your office space conducive to problem-solving

The environment in which your host your brainstorming sessions should maximise creativity. When your team members trust each other and feel relaxed, they’re more likely to come up with innovative ideas and solutions to a problem.

Here are a few ways to get your employees’ creative juices flowing:

Try this!

World Café is a problem-solving method that creates a casual environment conducive to creative thinking. 

Keep reading to learn more about how World Café can help your team solve complex organisational problems.

5. Use problem-solving methodologies to guide the process

Because problem-solving is a creative process, it can be hard to keep it on track. As more ideas get banded around, conflicts can arise that derail the session.

That’s why problem-solving methodologies are so helpful. They offer you proven problem-solving frameworks to guide your group sessions and keep them on track.

Try this!

The Six Thinking Hats problem-solving method is a popular technique that guides the process and helps your team analyse a problem from all angles.

We’re going to take a look at our favourite problem-solving methodologies in the next section of this article, XY Tried and tested problem-solving methodologies.

6. Use analogies to solve complex problems

Sometimes, solving a different problem can help you uncover solutions to another problem! 

By stripping back a complex issue and framing it as a simplified analogy, you approach a problem from a different angle, enabling you to come up with alternative ideas.

After solving practice problems, your team might be more aptly equipped to solve real-world issues.

However, coming up with an analogy that reflects your issue can be difficult, so don’t worry if this technique doesn’t work for you.

Try this!

The Speed Boat diagram is a visual tool that helps your employees view existing challenges as anchors holding back a boat which represents your end goals. By assigning a “weight” to each anchor, your team can prioritise which issues to tackle first.

7. Establish clear constraints

Constraints make a big problem more approachable. 

Before you tackle a problem, establish clear boundaries and codes of conduct for the session. This allows your team to focus on the current issue without becoming distracted or veering off on a tangent.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg wrote, “Constraints … provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.” (Why Constraints Are Good for Innovation, 2019)

Try this!

Lightning Decision Jam is a prime example of how constraints can assist the creative process. Here, your team are given strict time constraints and isn’t permitted to discuss ideas until the end.

8. Dislodge preconceived ideas

Humans are creatures of habit. 

We defer to strategies that have produced positive results in the past. This is typically beneficial because recalling our previous successes means we don’t need to constantly re-learn similar tasks.

But when it comes to problem-solving, this way of thinking can trip us up. We become fixated on a solution that worked in the past, but when this fails we’re dismayed and left wondering what to do next.

To resolve problems effectively, your employees need to escape the precincts of their imaginations. This helps to eliminate functional fixedness—the belief that an item serves only its predefined function.

Try this!

Alternative Application is an icebreaker game that encourages employees to think outside the box by coming up with different uses for everyday objects. Try this at your next meeting or team-building event and watch your team tap into their creativity.

9. Level the playing field

Having a diverse group of employees at your brainstorming sessions is a good idea, but there’s one problem: the extroverted members of your team will be more vocal than the introverts.

To ensure you’re gaining insight from every member of your team, you need to give your quieter employees equal opportunities to contribute by eliminating personality biases.

Read more: What icebreaker games and questions work best for introverts?

The obvious solution, then, is to “silence” the louder participants (it’s not as sinister as it sounds, promise)—all you have to do is ban your team from debating suggestions during the ideation process. 

Try this!

The Lightning Decision Jam methodology gives your employees equal opportunities to contribute because much of the problem-solving process is carried out in silence.

10. Take a break from the problem

Have you ever noticed how the best ideas seem to come when you’re not actively working on a problem? You may have spent hours slumped over your desk hashing out a solution, only for the “eureka!” moment to come when you’re walking your dog or taking a shower.

In James Webb Young’s book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, phase three of the process is “stepping away from the problem.” Young proclaims that after putting in the hard work, the information needs to ferment in the mind before any plausible ideas come to you.

So next time you’re in a meeting with your team trying to solve a problem, don’t panic if you don’t uncover groundbreaking ideas there and then. Allow everybody to mull over what they’ve learned, then reconvene at a later date.

Try this!

The Creativity Dice methodology is a quick-fire brainstorming game that allows your team to incubate ideas while concentrating on another.

11. Limit feedback sessions

The way your team delivers feedback at the end of a successful brainstorming session is critical. Left unsupervised, excessive feedback can undo all of your hard work.

Therefore, it’s wise to put a cap on the amount of feedback your team can provide. One great way of doing this is by using the One Breath Feedback technique.

By limiting your employees to one breath, they’re taught to be concise with their final comments. 

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16 Tried and tested problem-solving methodologies

Problem-solving methodologies keep your brainstorming session on track and encourage your team to consider all angles of the issue.

Countless methods have wiggled their way into the world of business, each one with a unique strategy and end goal.

Here are 12 of our favourite problem-solving methodologies that will help you find the best-fit solution to your troubles.

12. Six Thinking Hats

Six Thinking Hats is a methodical problem-solving framework that helps your group consider all possible problems, causes, solutions and repercussions by assigning a different coloured hat to each stage of the problem-solving process.

The roles of each hat are as follows:

For Six Thinking Hats to work effectively, ensure your team acts within the confines of each role. 

While wearing The Yellow Hat, for example, your team should only discuss the positives. Any negative implications should be left for the Black or Grey hat.

Note: Feel free to alter the hat colours to align with your cultural context.

13. Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)

Lightning Decision Jam is a nine-stage problem-solving process designed to uncover a variety of perspectives while keeping the session on track.

The process starts by defining a general topic like the internal design process, interdepartmental communication, the sales funnel, etc.

Then, armed with pens and post-it notes, your team will work through the nine stages in the following order:

  1. Write problems (7 minutes)
  2. Present problems (4 minutes/person)
  3. Select problems (6 minutes)
  4. Reframe the problems (6 minutes)
  5. Offer solutions (7 minutes)
  6. Vote on solutions (10 minutes)
  7. Prioritise solutions (30 seconds)
  8. Decide what to execute (10 minutes)
  9. Create task lists (5 minutes)

The philosophy behind LDJ is that of constraint. By limiting discussion, employees can focus on compiling ideas and coming to democratic decisions that benefit the company without being distracted or going off on a tangent.

14. The 5 Why’s

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the process of unearthing a problem and finding the underlying cause. To help you through this process, you can use The 5 Why’s methodology.

The idea is to ask why you’re experiencing a problem, reframe the problem based on the answer, and then ask “why?” again. If you do this five times, you should come pretty close to the root of your original challenge.

While this might not be a comprehensive end-to-end methodology, it certainly helps you to pin down your core challenges.

15. World Café

If you’ve had enough of uninspiring corporate boardrooms, World Café is the solution. 

This problem-solving strategy facilitates casual conversations around given topics, enabling players to speak more openly about their grievances without the pressure of a large group.

Here’s how to do it:

World Café is a useful way of uncovering hidden causes and pitfalls by having multiple simultaneous conversations about a given topic.

16. Discovery and Action Dialogue (DAD)

Discovery and Actions Dialogues are a collaborative method for employees to share and adopt personal behaviours in response to a problem. 

This crowdsourcing approach provides insight into how a problem affects individuals throughout your company and whether some are better equipped than others.

A DAD session is guided by a facilitator who asks seven open-ended questions in succession. Each person is given equal time to participate while a recorder takes down notes and valuable insights. 

This is a particularly effective method for uncovering preexisting ideas, behaviours and solutions from the people who face problems daily.

17. Design Sprint 2.0

The Design Sprint 2.0 model by Jake Knapp helps your team to focus on finding, developing measuring a solution within four days. Because theorising is all well and good, but sometimes you can learn more by getting an idea off the ground and observing how it plays out in the real world.

Here’s the basic problem-solving framework:

This technique is great for testing the viability of new products or expanding and fixing the features of an existing product.

18. Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology is a method for large groups to create a problem-solving agenda around a central theme. It works best when your group is comprised of subject-matter experts and experienced individuals with a sufficient stake in the problem.

Open Space Technology works like this:

  1. Establish a core theme for your team to centralise their efforts.
  2. Ask the participants to consider their approach and write it on a post-it note.
  3. Everybody writes a time and place for discussion on their note and sticks it to the wall.
  4. The group is then invited to join the sessions that most interest them.
  5. Everybody joins and contributes to their chosen sessions
  6. Any significant insights and outcomes are recorded and presented to the group.

This methodology grants autonomy to your team and encourages them to take ownership of the problem-solving process.

19. Round-Robin Brainstorming Technique

While not an end-to-end problem-solving methodology, the Round-Robin Brainstorming Technique is an effective way of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from your ideation sessions.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Decide on a problem that needs to be solved
  2. Sitting in a circle, give each employee a chance to offer an idea
  3. Have somebody write down each idea as they come up
  4. Participants can pass if they don’t have anything to contribute
  5. The brainstorming session ends once everybody has passed

Once you’ve compiled a long list of ideas, it’s up to you how you move forward. You could, for example, borrow techniques from other methodologies, such as the “vote on solutions” phase of the Lightning Decision Jam.

20. Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA)

Failure Modes and Effects Analysis is a method for preventing and mitigating problems within your business processes.

This technique starts by examining the process in question and asking, “What could go wrong?” From here, your team starts to brainstorm a list of potential failures.

Then, going through the list one by one, ask your participants, “Why would this failure happen?” 

Once you’ve answered this question for each list item, ask yourselves, “What would the consequences be of this failure?”

This proactive method focuses on prevention rather than treatment. Instead of waiting for a problem to occur and reacting, you’re actively searching for future shortcomings.

21. Flip It!

The Flip It! Methodology teaches your team to view their concerns in a different light and frame them instead as catalysts for positive change.

The game works like this:

  1. Select a topic your employees are likely to be concerned about, like market demand for your product or friction between departments.
  2. Give each participant a pile of sticky notes and ask them to write down all their fears about the topic.
  3. Take the fears and stick them to an area of the wall marked “fears.”
  4. Then, encourage your team to look at these fears and ask them to reframe them as “hope” by writing new statements on different sticky notes.
  5. Take these “hope” statements and stick them to an area of the wall marked “hope.”
  6. Discuss the statements, then ask them to vote on the areas they feel they can start to take action on. They can do this by drawing a dot on the corner of the sticky note.
  7. Move the notes with the most votes to a new area of the wall marked “traction.”
  8. Discuss the most popular statements as a group and brainstorm actionable items related to each.
  9. Write down the actions that need to be made and discuss them again as a group.

This brainstorming approach teaches your employees the danger of engrained thinking and helps them to reframe their fears as opportunities.

22. The Creativity Dice

The Creativity Dice teaches your team to incubate ideas as they focus on different aspects of a problem. As we mentioned earlier in the article, giving ideas time to mature can be a highly effective problem-solving strategy. Here’s how the game works:

Choose a topic to focus on, It can be as specific or open-ended as you like. Write this down as a word or sentence.
Roll the die, start a timer of three minutes and start writing down ideas within the confines of what that number resembles. The roles of each number are as follows:

  1. Specification: Write down goals you want to achieve.
  2. Investigation: Write down existing factual information you know about the topic.
  3. Ideation: Write down creative or practical ideas related to the topic.
  4. Incubation: Do something else unrelated to the problem.
  5. Iteration: Look at what you’ve already written and come up with related ideas (roll again if you didn’t write anything yet).
  6. Integration: Look at everything you have written and try to create something cohesive from your ideas like a potential new product or actionable next step.

Once you’ve finished the activity, review your findings and decide what you want to take with you.

23. SWOT Analysis

The SWOT Analysis is a long-standing method for analysing the current state of your business and considering how this affects the desired end state.

The basic idea is this:

  1. Before the meeting, come up with a “Desired end state” and draw a picture that represents this on a flipchart or whiteboard.
  2. Divide a large piece of paper into quadrants marked “Strengths”, “Weaknesses”, “Opportunities” and “Threats.”
  3. Starting with “Strengths”, work through the quadrants, coming up with ideas that relate to the desired end state.
  4. Ask your team to vote for the statements or ideas of each category that they feel are most relevant to the desired end state.
  5. As a group, discuss the implications that these statements have on the desired end state. Spark debate by asking thought-provoking and open-ended questions.

The SWOT Analysis is an intuitive method for understanding which parts of your business could be affecting your long-term goals.

24. The Journalistic Six

When learning to cover every aspect of a story, journalists are taught to ask themselves six essential questions: 

Now, this approach has been adopted by organisations to help understand every angle of a problem. All you need is a clear focus question, then you can start working through the six questions with your team until you have a 360-degree view of what has, can and needs to be done.

25. Gamestorming

Gamestorming is a one-stop creative-thinking framework that uses various games to help your team come up with innovative ideas.

Originally published as a book 10 years ago, Gamestorming contained a selection of creative games used by Silicon Valley’s top-performing businesses to develop groundbreaking products and services.

This collection of resources, plucked from the minds of founders and CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, allows you to tap into the potentially genius ideas lying dormant in the minds of your employees.

26. Four-Step Sketch

The Four-Step Sketch is a visual brainstorming that provides an alternative to traditional discussion-based ideation techniques.

This methodology requires prior discussion to clarify the purpose of the activity. Imagine you’re on a startup retreat, for example, and your team is taking part in a design sprint or hackathon.

Once you’ve brainstormed a list of ideas with your team, participants can look at the suggestions and take down any relevant notes. They then take these notes and turn them into rough sketches that resemble the idea.

Then, as a warm-up, give each participant eight minutes to produce eight alternative sketches (eight minutes per sketch) of the idea. These ideas are not to be shared with the group.

Finally, participants create new sketches based on their favourite ideas and share them with the group. The group can then vote on the ideas they think offer the best solution.

27. 15% Solutions

15% Solutions is a problem-solving strategy for motivating and inspiring your employees. By encouraging your team to gain small victories, you pave the way for bigger changes.

First, ask your participants to think about things they can personally do within the confines of their role.

Then, arrange your team into small groups of three to four and give them time to share their ideas and consult with each other.

This simple problem-solving process removes negativity and powerlessness and teaches your team to take responsibility for change. 

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9 Problem-solving tools for gathering and selecting ideas

Problem-solving tools support your meeting with easy-to-use graphs, visualisations and techniques. 

By implementing a problem-solving tool, you break the cycle of mundane verbal discussion, enabling you to maintain engagement throughout the session.

28. Fishbone Diagram

The Fishbone Diagram (otherwise known as the Ishikawa Diagram or Cause and Effect Diagram), is a tool for identifying the leading causes of a problem. You can then consolidate these causes into a comprehensive “Problem Statement.”

The term “Fishbone Diagram” is derived from the diagram’s structure. The problem itself forms the tail, possible causes radiate from the sides to form the fish skeleton while the final “Problem Statement” appears as the “head” of the fish.

Example: A fast-food chain is investigating the declining quality of their food. As the team brainstorms potential causes, they come up with reasons like “poorly trained personnel”, “lack of quality control”, and “incorrect quantity of spices.” Together with other causes, the group summarises that these problems lead to “bad burgers.” They write this as the Problem Statement and set about eliminating the main contributing factors.

29. The Problem Tree

A Problem Tree is a useful tool for assessing the importance or relevance of challenges concerning the core topic. If you’re launching a new product, for example, gather your team and brainstorm the current issues, roadblocks and bottlenecks that are hindering the process.

Then, work together to decide which of these are most pressing. Place the most relevant issues closer to the core topic and less relevant issues farther away.

30. SQUID Diagram

The Squid Diagram is an easy-to-use tool that charts the progress of ideas and business developments as they unfold. Your SQUID Diagram can remain on a wall for your team to add to over time.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Write down a core theme on a sticky note such as “customer service” or “Innovation”—this will be the “head” of your SQUID.
  2. Hand two sets of different coloured sticky notes to your participants and choose one colour to represent “questions” and the other to represent “answers.”
  3. Ask your team to write down questions pertaining to the success of the main topic. In the case of “Innovation,” your team might write things like “How can we improve collaboration between key stakeholders?”
  4. Then, using the other coloured sticky notes, ask your team to write down possible answers to these questions. In the example above, this might be “Invest in open innovation software.”
  5. Over time, you’ll develop a spawling SQUID Diagram that reflects the creative problem-solving process.

31. The Speed Boat

The Speed Boat Diagram is a visual metaphor used to help your team identify and solve problems in the way of your goals.

Here’s how it works: 

  1. Draw a picture of a boat and name it after the core objective.
  2. With your team, brainstorm things that are slowing progress and draw each one as an anchor beneath the boat.
  3. Discuss possible solutions to each problem on the diagram.

This is an easy-to-use tool that sparks creative solutions. If you like, your team can assign a “weight” to each anchor which determines the impact each problem has on the end goal.

32. The LEGO Challenge

LEGO is an excellent creative-thinking and problem-solving tool used regularly by event facilitators to help teams overcome challenges. 

In our article 5 and 10-minute Team-Building Activities, we introduce Sneak a Peek—a collaborative team-building game that develops communication and leadership skills.

33. The Three W’s: What? So What? Now What?

Teams aren’t always aligned when it comes to their understanding of a problem. While the problem remains the same for everyone, they might have differing opinions as to how it occurred at the implications it had.

Asking “What? So What? Now What?” Helps you to understand different perspectives around a problem.

It goes like this:

  1. Alone or in small groups, ask your employees to consider and write What happened. This should take between five and 10 minutes.
  2. Then ask So What? What occurred because of this? Why was what happened important? What might happen if this issue is left unresolved?
  3. Finally, ask your team Now What? What might be a solution to the problem? What actions do you need to take to avoid this happening again?

This approach helps your team understand how problems affect individuals in different ways and uncovers a variety of ways to overcome them.

34. Now-How-Wow Matrix

Gathering ideas is easy—but selecting the best ones? That’s a different story. 

If you’ve got a bunch of ideas, try the Now-How-Wow Matrix to help you identify which ones you should implement now and which ones should wait until later.

Simply draw a two-axis graph with “implementation difficulty” on the Y axis and “idea originality” on the X axis. Divide this graph into quadrants and write “Now!” in the bottom left panel, “Wow!” in the bottom right panel, and “How?” in the top right panel. You can leave the top left panel blank.

Then, take your ideas and plot them on the graph depending on their implementation difficulty and level of originality.

By the end, you’ll have a clearer picture of which ideas to ignore, which ones to implement now, and which ones to add to the pipeline for the future.

35. Impact-Effort Matrix

The Impact-Effort Matrix is a variation of the Now-How-Wow Matrix where the Y axis is marked “Impact” and the X axis is marked “Effort.”

Then, divide the graph into quadrants and plot your ideas. 

The Impact-Effort Matrix is a simple way for your team to weigh the benefits of an idea against the amount of investment required.

36. Dot Voting

Once you’ve gathered a substantial list of ideas from your employees, you need to sort the good from the bad. 

Dot voting is a simple tool used by problem-solving facilitators as a fast and effective way for large groups to vote on their favourite ideas. You’ll have seen this method used in problem-solving methods like Flip It! and Lightning Decision Jam.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Participants write their ideas on sticky notes and stick them to the wall or a flipchart.
  2. When asked, participants draw a small dot on the corner of the idea they like the most.
  3. Participants can be given as many votes as necessary.
  4. When voting ends, arrange the notes from “most popular” to “least popular.”

This provides an easy-to-use visual representation of the best and worst ideas put forward by your team.

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Give your problems the attention they deserve at an offsite retreat

While working from home or at the office, your team is often too caught up in daily tasks to take on complex problems. 

By escaping the office and uniting at an offsite location, you can craft a purposeful agenda of team-building activities and problem-solving sessions. This special time away from the office can prove invaluable when it comes to keeping your business on track.

If you have problems that need fixing (who doesn’t?), reach out to Surf Office and let us put together a fully-customised offsite retreat for you.

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