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Mike Figliuolo


Five-Step Problem Solving

The power of clarity

Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2019 - 12:01

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a business problem that you’re not sure how to solve? This five-step problem solving process is a great place to begin working through any business issue.

At one point I worked with a financial services firm, and we had this really cool program that did really well when we first launched it, from both the customer and financial standpoints. The problem occurred when all the financial numbers suddenly started tanking, and everybody began freaking out. We didn’t know what was going on, and it was pretty important for me to solve it because it was a program I was responsible for. So given the complexity of that problem, I used the five-step problem-solving process.

Issue, stakeholder goals, and previous efforts

The steps of the process are really simple and straightforward. In the first step, you pin the problem. You define what the issue is, what the goals of the stakeholders are, what previous efforts looked like, and you come out of that first step with a really clear definition of what the problem is. You can’t just rush ahead into solving a problem if you don’t know what the issue is.

Problem contributors

Next is identifying all the issues that could be contributing to that problem. A lot of times at first glance you may say, “That’s the issue,” but you’ll find as you go through the process from there, you’re really solving a symptom. So this step of creating a logic map helps you expand what all the possible issues are that are contributing to the problem you identified from the first step. This will enable you to find the real root cause that you’re going to solve for.

Best guess

The third step of the process is identifying your best guess. Once you have all those issues listed out, start to identify small solutions that could solve each of them. Prioritize your efforts because you don’t have time (and I don’t have time) to chase down every single one of these solutions. So, this step is really about deciding, “That’s the one solution that seems like it could be the biggest, and we’re going to chase that one first.”

Prove the guess

The fourth step of the process is taking that one hypothesized answer and doing your analysis. If your organization is anything like the ones I’ve been part of, you need a lot of data and support to address these big ideas and prove your case. During this fourth step you do that analysis and get that in-depth information so you can say, “Yes, that’s really what’s causing this, and that is the size of the prize.”

Pitch the solution

The fifth step of the problem solving process is taking that answer, turning it into a recommendation, and pitching it to your stakeholders. You have to convince people that this is the right answer and the resources you’re asking for to solve it are resources you should be given because you’ve proven your case.

So for the previously mentioned problem with the financial services firm, we walked through that five-step problem solving process. We found the root cause, what the issue really was, and it wasn’t what we initially thought. We were able to prove that case with analysis, make the recommendation to our stakeholders, and make the required changes. Financial performance turned around, and everybody was happy with the result. 

Pick a business problem you’re trying to solve, something you haven’t been able to crack before, something that’s ambiguous and confusing, and apply the five steps of the problem solving process to your problem. On the back end, you should come out with a clear, concise recommendation that’s really going to be the solution.

First published April 2, 2019, on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch and One Piece of Paper. He's the co-author of Lead Inside the Box. He's also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC—a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.