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MANAGEMENT: How to develop a proper problem solving approach for your business process
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How to develop a proper problem solving approach

for your business process

By Marwan Emile Faddoul (Managing Partner NFG Consulting LLC)

BT 201612 MANAGEMENT 02Business people and decision makers deal with problems on a daily basis. Going back to basics, a problem is a situation that presents difficulty or perplexity. Problems come in many shapes and sizes and are presented on both business and personal level. These problems arise from every facet of human and mechanical functions as well as from nature. Some problems we cause ourselves, other problems are caused by forces beyond our control. The question is: how to deal with all these problems in a rational and logical fashion?

As management consultants we develop a process to solve difficult problems, problems that qualified CEO’s will not be able to solve on their own. In today’s article I will share with you essential steps that should be applied to solve any type of problem. I will present ways that would help you to adopt an objective approach to problems; help you learn how to anticipate some of them; and prevent some of them from aggravating into bigger problems.

To present this process in a practical way, I will share with you the story of one of our clients Catherine, who was unable to reach her sales objective and was always short on target. Catherine is a well-educated, smart business woman and artist who developed an online e-learning platform to teach high school students fashion and design and help them pursue international education in top universities. She came to me about a month ago and said: “Marwan, we still have 3 months before the end of the way, yet I didn’t reach 50% of this year sales target.”

hl02Before I proceeded with my questions to better understand the situation and eventually give my recommendation, I asked Catherine to calm down, relax and have a cup of coffee with no sugar the way she likes it.

Few minutes later, I took Catherine to our conference room, sat her down, took my notebook and a pen and applied the first step of the problem solving approach, which is defining the problem. Defining the Problem means to clarify exactly what the problem is and what is needed for Catherine or any person to get a proper answer.

I told Catherine that we need to write something that we call “a problem definition” that clearly outlines the challenges so that she knows that this is what she is solving. After a short discussion I realized that her initial problem was that she couldn’t generate enough traffic to her site and attract sufficient students to her online platform.

BT 201612 MANAGEMENT 03As a next step I decided to structure the problem in order for it to become more manageable to solve. The Problem Structure matter is often done by using the issue tree technique which is also called logic and which generates a good overview to see the different dimensions in the problem. The issue tree helps firstly, to break the problem into component parts so that problem solving work can be divided into intellectually manageable pieces as we just mentioned. Priorities can be set between the parts and responsibilities can be allocated to individuals.

Secondly, logic helps insure that integrity of problem solving is maintained. This is done by solving parts that will really solve the problem and making sure that these parts are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Thirdly, the issue tree allows us to build a common understanding within the team of the problem solving framework. In Catherine’s case, I had to build a tree which presents different online and offline channels that her business might ask for, the market size and her target market. This includes the timing and the reason behind each channel and its process.

After structuring the problem and building the framework, I had to Prioritize the Issues and then determine what issues are most important. In this part of problem solving approach we as consultants often work as per the 80/20 rule. This means that 20% of the issues often cause 80% of the problems. Catherine knew her market well and about six months ago I helped her segment it and identify her competitors. In addition, she knew exactly how to approach her clients and how to sell them the message. However, her problem was more on a marketing side - she had so many marketing channels to work on that she couldn’t spend enough time on the proper ones.

Develop Issue Analysis and Work Plan is the fourth step to apply in the problem solving process. After determining what the issues were, I developed a list of analysis that I would like to further analyze with my team. This is usually done to understand the underlying issues of each of these problems and how they could be solved. Further, and as Catherine’s issue was urgent, I agreed with her to put a limited time frame of two weeks to solve the problem.

After almost two hours of conversation, I told Catherine that we will meet soon to ask her and her employees any needed questions and to update her on our progress. She left with a smile, hopping for a quick positive result. At that time I asked Daoming and Xibei, two of my coworkers who had attended the meeting to develop a work plan to ensure delivery on time.

BT 201612 Management 01 Problem SolvingAs a fifth step and after developing a work plan, we started to gather data and analyze critically. When we as consultants have the list of analysis ready that we want to conduct, we then start to do the ground work. This is what is called Conduct the Analysis. This typically includes interviews, customer meetings, Excel data analysis, researching industry trends etc. in order to be able to answer all of the questions from the issue tree. To proceed with that, I asked my coworkers to conduct interviews with Catherine’s sales and marketing managers and even with some of her clients and to collect all the needed data. About three days’ work was enough for us to complete this task.

The next step is known as Synthesize Findings. When we as consultants are done with the analysis we then move into generating what we call "insights" from the analysis. This is the phase where we combine all the pieces from each of the analysis into a general picture. Also, here we ask ourselves three times the “so what” question which includes: so what does this mean? So what does this mean for the client? So what does the client do about it? Answering these questions will lead us to useful and practical recommendations.

As a final step of the problem solving approach we Develop Recommendations. Here we take our synthesis and develop a recommendation to the client based on this. This will however never be the first time that the client will see pieces of the suggested solution. Clients are most often involved and giving input to or working with the consultants throughout each step of the process. This is done in order to ensure alignment and that the client feels ownership and sees a possible way to implement the recommendation.

Just like I mentioned in the last step, Catherine participated and took part in every step of our problem solving process, where she helped us identify the problem and present proper solutions. As an outcome she ended up focusing only on 3 main online marketing channels to promote herself yet going deep into each one of them. She is also doing a monthly lecture and workshop in specific schools. 40 days passed before the end of the year and Catherine is already at 93% of her target, still 6% to go. Job well done!


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