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The FOCUS Model

A simple, efficient problem-solving approach.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Are your business processes perfect, or could you improve them?

In an ever-changing world, nothing stays perfect for long. To stay ahead of your competitors, you need to be able to refine your processes on an ongoing basis, so that your services remain efficient and your customers stay happy.

This article looks the FOCUS Model – a simple quality-improvement tool that helps you do this.

About the Model

The FOCUS Model, which was created by the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), is a structured approach to Total Quality Management (TQM) , and it is widely used in the health care industry.

The model is helpful because it uses a team-based approach to problem solving and to business-process improvement, and this makes it particularly useful for solving cross-departmental process issues. Also, it encourages people to rely on objective data rather than on personal opinions, and this improves the quality of the outcome.

It has five steps:

  • F ind the problem.
  • O rganize a team.
  • C larify the problem.
  • U nderstand the problem.
  • S elect a solution.

Applying the FOCUS Model

Follow the steps below to apply the FOCUS Model in your organization.

Step 1: Find the Problem

The first step is to identify a process that needs to be improved. Process improvements often follow the Pareto Principle , where 80 percent of issues come from 20 percent of problems. This is why identifying and solving one real problem can significantly improve your business, if you find the right problem to solve.

According to a popular analogy, identifying problems is like harvesting apples. At first, this is easy – you can pick apples up from the ground and from the lower branches of the tree. But the more fruit you collect, the harder it becomes. Eventually, the remaining fruit is all out of reach, and you need to use a ladder to reach the topmost branches.

Start with a simple problem to get the team up to speed with the FOCUS method. Then, when confidence is high, turn your attention to more complex processes.

If the problem isn't obvious, use these questions to identify possible issues:

  • What would our customers want us to improve?
  • How can we improve quality ?
  • What processes don't work as efficiently as they could?
  • Where do we experience bottlenecks in our processes?
  • What do our competitors or comparators do that we could do?
  • What frustrates and irritates our team?
  • What might happen in the future that could become a problem for us?

If you have several problems that need attention, list them all and use Pareto Analysis , Decision Matrix Analysis , or Paired Comparison Analysis to decide which problem to address first. (If you try to address too much in one go, you'll overload team members and cause unnecessary stress.)

Step 2: Organize a Team

Your next step is to assemble a team to address the problem.

Where possible, bring together team members from a range of disciplines – this will give you a broad range of skills, perspectives, and experience to draw on.

Select team members who are familiar with the issue or process in hand, and who have a stake in its resolution. Enthusiasm for the project will be greatest if people volunteer for it, so emphasize how individuals will benefit from being involved.

If your first choice of team member isn't available, try to appoint someone close to them, or have another team member use tools like Perceptual Positioning and Rolestorming to see the issue from their point of view.

Keep in mind that a diverse team is more likely to find a creative solution than a group of people with the same outlook.

Step 3: Clarify the Problem

Before the team can begin to solve the problem, you need to define it clearly and concisely.

According to " Total Quality Management for Hospital Nutrition Services ," a key text on the FOCUS Model, an enthusiastic team may be keen to attack an "elephant-sized" problem, but the key to success is to break it down into "sushi-sized" pieces that can be analyzed and solved more easily.

Use the Drill Down technique to break big problems down into their component parts. You can also use the 5 Whys Technique , Cause and Effect Analysis , and Root Cause Analysis to get to the bottom of a problem.

Record the details in a problem statement, which will then serve as the focal point for the rest of the exercise ( CATWOE can help you do this effectively.) Focus on factual events and measurable conditions such as:

  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What has happened?
  • Where is it occurring?
  • When does it happen?

The problem statement must be objective, so avoid relying on personal opinions, gut feelings, and emotions. Also, be on guard against "factoids" – statements that appear to be facts, but that are really opinions that have come to be accepted as fact.

Step 4: Understand the Problem

Once the problem statement has been completed, members of the team gather data about the problem to understand it more fully.

Dedicate plenty of time to this stage, as this is where you will identify the fundamental steps in the process that, when changed, will bring about the biggest improvement.

Consider what you know about the problem. Has anyone else tried to fix a similar problem before? If so, what happened, and what can you learn from this?

Use a Flow Chart or Swim Lane Diagram to organize and visualize each step; this can help you discover the stage at which the problem is happening. And try to identify any bottlenecks or failures in the process that could be causing problems.

As you develop your understanding, potential solutions to the problem may become apparent. Beware of jumping to "obvious" conclusions – these could overlook important parts of the problem, and could create a whole new process that fails to solve the problem.

Generate as many possible solutions as you can through normal structured thinking, brainstorming , reverse brainstorming , and Provocation . Don't criticize ideas initially – just come up with lots of possible ideas to explore.

Step 5: Select a Solution

The final stage in the process is to select a solution.

Use appropriate decision-making techniques to select the most viable option. Decision Trees , Paired Comparison Analysis , and Decision Matrix Analysis are all useful tools for evaluating your options.

Once you've selected an idea, use tools such as Risk Analysis , "What If" Analysis , and the Futures Wheel to think about the possible consequences of moving ahead, and make a well-considered go/no-go decision to decide whether or not you should run the project.

People commonly use the FOCUS Model in conjunction with the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Use this approach to implement your solutions in a controlled way.

The FOCUS Model is a simple quality-improvement tool commonly used in the health care industry. You can use it to improve any process, but it is particularly useful for processes that span different departments.

The five steps in FOCUS are as follows:

People often use the FOCUS Model in conjunction with the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which allows teams to implement their solution in a controlled way.

Bataldan, P. (1992). 'Building Knowledge for Improvement: an Introductory Guide to the Use of FOCUS-PDCA,' Nashville: TN Quality Resource Group, Hospital Corporation of America.

Schiller, M., Miller-Kovach, M., and Miller-Kovach, K. (1994). 'Total Quality Management for Hospital Nutrition Services,' Aspen Publishers Inc. Available here .

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focus model problem solving disadvantages

David Summerton Business Consulting

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Solving Problems With The FOCUS Model

Solving Problems With The FOCUS Model

Are your business processes perfect, or could you improve them?

Nothing stays the way you want it to for very long and perfection is something that is always short-lived. To stay ahead of your competitors, you need to be able to refine your processes on an ongoing basis, so that your products and services remain efficient and, most importantly, your customers remain with you.

The FOCUS model is valuable in problem solving because it uses a team-based approach to business-process improvement which works well for solving cross-departmental process issues. The approach also encourages staff to rely on objective data rather than on personal opinions which increases the quality of the outcome.

The FOCUS model has five steps:

  • F ind the problem.
  • O rganise a team to deal with the problem.
  • C larify the problem.
  • U nderstand the problem.
  • S elect a solution.

Step 1: Find the Problem

Start with a simple problem to get the team up to speed with the FOCUS method. Then, when confidence is high, turn your attention to more complex processes.

To get the ball rolling and, very importantly, to generate some energy and confidence, try looking at the following issues to stimulate some debate:

  • What would our customers want us to improve?
  • How can we improve quality ?
  • What processes do not work as efficiently as they could?
  • Where do we experience bottlenecks in our processes?
  • What do our competitors do that we could do?
  • What might happen in the future that could become a problem for us?

Step 2: Organise a Team to deal with the problem

Where possible, bring together team members from a range of disciplines – this will give you a broad range of skills, perspectives, and experience to draw on.

Select team members who are familiar with the issue or process in hand, and who have a stake in its resolution. Enthusiasm for the project will be greatest if people volunteer for it.

Keep in mind that a diverse team is more likely to find a creative solution than a group of people with the same outlook.

Step 3: Clarify the Problem

Before the team can begin to solve the problem, you need to define it clearly and concisely.

Working on a very big problem or issue can be an attractive process but, due to the size and scale of the topic, positive results can be hard to record relatively quickly. Far better to break down large problems into smaller pieces so that some quick gains can be realized, which will them help increase motivation and application.

Writing a Problem Statement effectively anchors the activity and gives some direction – written as an objective statement.

Key questions to ask in the process are:

  • Who does the problem affect?
  • What has happened?
  • Where is it occurring?
  • When does it happen?

Step 4: Understand the Problem

Once the problem statement has been completed, members of the team gather data about the problem to understand it more fully. It is here where you will identify the fundamental steps in the process that, when changed, will bring about the biggest improvement.

Consider what you know about the problem. Has anyone else tried to fix a similar problem before? If so, what happened, and what can you learn from this? It is important at this stage to identify any bottlenecks or failures in the process that could be causing problems.

As understanding grows and develops, potential solutions to the problem may become apparent. Beware of jumping to “obvious” conclusions – these could overlook important parts of the problem, potentially creating a whole new process that fails to solve the problem.

Generate as many possible solutions as you can through normal structured thinking combined with a rule that no ideas are out of scope. The richer the mix of potential solutions the better!

Step 5: Select a Solution

The final stage in the process is to select a solution.

Use appropriate decision-making techniques to select the most viable option, making sure that they link back to the Problem Statement in Step 1.

Once identified, carefully consider the possible consequences of moving ahead, always remembering that one option might be to leave things as they are currently and wait for more information/clarification on the issue at hand.

For more details about our services visit the website www.davidsummertonconsulting.co.uk

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outsource decisions

What is Focus Model Problem Solving: A Guide to Effective Decision-Making

  • Updated May 10, 2024
  • Posted in Problem Solving
  • Tagged as Problem Solving
  • 10 mins read

focus model problem solving

Have you ever felt stuck when facing a tricky problem or important decision? You’re not alone! Solving problems and making choices can be tough, especially when there are lots of factors to consider.

But don’t worry, there’s a super useful approach called the “Focus Model” that can help guide you through the process step-by-step. By breaking it down into clear stages, the Focus Model makes problem-solving much easier and more organized.

In this blog post, we’ll dive deep into the Focus Model and learn how to apply it to all kinds of situations. Get ready to become a master problem-solver!

What is the Focus Model?

The Focus Model is a simple but incredibly powerful framework for solving problems. It breaks the process down into six clear stages:

D efine the problem I dentify alternatives E valuate options C hoose a solution U se the solution S ee if it worked

This step-by-step approach helps you analyze a situation from every angle before taking action. By methodically working through each stage, you can make well-informed decisions with confidence.

The Six Stages of the Focus Model

Let’s take a closer look at what each stage involves:

  • Define the Problem

The first step is to identify and describe the challenge you’re facing. Ask yourself:

  • What is the core issue?
  • Who is affected by it?
  • What are the constraints or requirements?

Getting super specific about the problem upfront is crucial. It sets you up to find the best possible solution later on.

  • Identify Alternatives

Next, you want to generate as many potential solutions as possible – even the crazy or “out there” ideas. The goal here is to explore all available options without judging them yet.

Some effective techniques for this stage include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Reversal (considering the opposite approach)
  • Adapting solutions from other situations

The more alternatives you have on the table initially, the better your final decision is likely to be.

  • Evaluate Options

With a full list of possibilities in hand, it’s time to start evaluating the pros and cons of each one. Carefully consider factors like:

  • Feasibility and potential obstacles
  • Costs and resources required
  • Risks involved
  • Alignment with goals/values

You can use tools like decision matrices or cost-benefit analyses to compare options objectively.

  • Make a Decision

Weighing all the information from the previous stage, you’re now ready to select the best course of action. Don’t be afraid to get input and buy-in from others who may be affected by your decision.

If you’re torn between two strong options, techniques like Ben Franklin’s “Pros and Cons” approach can help you determine which one is superior.

  • Execute the Solution

With a solid decision made, it’s time to put your plan into action! Develop a roadmap that breaks the solution down into specific, manageable steps.

Assign roles, responsibilities, and deadlines to keep things on track. Communication is key during this stage to ensure everyone stays aligned.

  • Review and Learn

After executing your solution, take a step back to evaluate how well it worked. What went right? What could have been improved? Use this reflection to update your knowledge for the next problem you face.

Continuous learning is vital for becoming an even stronger problem solver over time. Adopt a growth mindset and always be open to adjusting your approach.

Combining Focus with PDCA

In many organizations, the Focus Model is used in conjunction with the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle for maximum effectiveness:

  • Plan : Use the Focus stages 1-5 to methodically analyze the problem and identify the optimal solution approach.
  • Do : Execute the planned solution through a pilot implementation or rolled out in contained batches. Gather feedback along the way.
  • Check : Evaluate whether the solution had the intended impact and achieved goals using measurable metrics. Identify unintended consequences.
  • Act : Based on the checked results, decide whether to adopt and scale the change solution further, or loop back and revisit the Focus Model with newly uncovered insights.

This integrated approach enables data-driven problem-solving and change management through a controlled, continuously improving process.

Why Use the Focus Model?

At this point, you may be wondering – why bother with this whole rigid process? Doesn’t it just make problem solving more complicated?

Actually, the opposite is true! The Focus Model simplifies decision-making in several key ways:

It Provides Structure Rather than getting overwhelmed, you can systematically work through the problem one piece at a time. The clear stages act as guideposts to keep you on track.

It Minimizes Biases We all have unconscious biases that can lead us astray when solving problems. By forcing you to lay out all the information, the Focus Model reduces the impact of flawed assumptions or emotional decision-making.

It Improves Collaboration Because each stage is so well-defined, the Focus Model facilitates productive discussion and input from multiple people. Everyone understands the process and can contribute meaningfully.

It Enhances Accountability With defined roles, deadlines, and solution plans, there’s a clear record of how decisions were made. This level of transparency leads to better accountability.

It Drives Continuous Improvement The final “Review and Learn” stage pushes you to extractlessons and insights from each problem you solve, enabling more effective decision making over time.

So while it may seem rigid at first, the Focus Model actually results in smarter solutions reached through a more cooperative, unbiased, and intentional process.

Examples of Using the Focus Model

To better illustrate how the Focus Model works in practice, let’s walk through a couple of examples:

Example 1: Choosing a New Family Pet

  • Define the Problem: We want to get a pet, but need to find an animal that fits our family’s lifestyle, living space, and financial situation.
  • Identify Alternatives: Dog, cat, bird, fish, hamster, reptile… even a potbelly pig!
  • Evaluate Options: A high-energy dog may not work well with our small apartment, but a cat could be a good fit. Fish are low maintenance but don’t allow for cuddling.
  • Make a Decision: We’ll get a cat – specifically, an older cat from the shelter who should be calmer.
  • Execute Solution: We contact the local animal shelter, go through the screening process, and finally adopt an 8-year-old tabby.
  • Review and Learn: The cat seemed anxious initially from the shelter environment change. In the future, we’ll look for ways to make the transition easier.

Example 2: Planning a Weekend Trip

  • Define the Problem: We want to take a family trip this upcoming holiday weekend, but we’re not sure where to go or what to do.
  • Identify Alternatives: Camping, going to the beach, visiting a nearby city, having a staycation at home, road trip to a national park, etc.
  • Evaluate Options: Camping could be fun but also a lot of work. A staycation is relaxing but not very exciting. Visiting a national park has activities for everyone but may be a long drive.
  • Make a Decision: We decide to road trip to a national park – it’s a new experience, has activities for all ages, and allows us to spend quality time together.
  • Execute Solution: Pick a conveniently located national park, plan activities and stops, prepare supplies and snacks, and go on the trip!
  • Review and Learn: We underestimated travel times between park attractions. Next time we’ll allow more buffer room in our schedule.

As you can see, the Focus Model provides an easy-to-follow blueprint for tackling any decision, big or small. By consciously working through each stage, you avoid overlooking key factors and increase your chances of reaching an optimal solution.

Tips for Effective Problem Solving

Even with a great framework like the Focus Model, problem-solving and decision-making can still be challenging at times. Here are some top tips to get the most out of the process:

Stay Curious and Open-Minded Avoid making assumptions or getting attached to your first instinct. Approach each problem with a beginner’s mindset, ready to explore new possibilities.

Gather Quality Information Making an informed decision requires having comprehensive, factual data inputs. Don’t rely on guesswork – do your research from credible sources.

Visualize the Impacts Try to anticipate all the potential consequences and ripple effects of each course of action, both short-term and long-term. Future visualization aids in better planning.

Get Additional Perspectives We all have blind spots. Seek out alternative viewpoints from others who may have different areas of expertise or experience levels. Diverse inputs lead to better outputs.

Break It Down Further If you get stuck on a particularly complex problem, break it down into even smaller parts using techniques like issue trees or hierarchical decomposition. Tackle it one piece at a time.

Take Breaks When Needed Sometimes you need to walk away for a bit if you hit a roadblock. Giving your mind a rest can allow for clearer thinking and new creative ideas to emerge.

Learn From Experience Be sure to honestly assess what worked well and what didn’t after implementing your solution. Capture those lessons to continuously refine your problem solving skills.

With practice, consciously applying tactics like these in tandem with the Focus Model process will turn you into an unstoppable problem-solving force!

Q: Doesn’t this model take a lot of time? Sometimes I need to make decisions quickly.

A: While it does involve multiple stages, the Focus Model actually saves time in the long run by leading you to higher quality, more well-rounded solutions upfront. This prevents having to backtrack or pivot later. For true emergencies, you can streamline the process – but the core principle of working through key considerations still applies.

Q: Does the problem’s complexity matter when using this model?

A: No, the Focus Model principles can be applied universally, regardless of whether the problem is straightforward or highly complex with many variables. The beauty is that it provides a consistent framework to work through any situation systematically.

Q: How can I get others on board with using this approach? Seems like an uphill battle.

A: Start small – perhaps use the Focus Model for a problem impacting your team. Once others see the clarity and effectiveness it brings, they’ll be more open to adopting it more widely. You can also explain the accountability and collaboration benefits to leaders.

Q: How does this model account for problems that are fluid and continually evolving?

A: The key is to treat it as an iterative cycle rather than a one-and-done process. For changing situations, you’ll revisit the model stages as new variables emerge, adjusting your approach along the way. The “Review and Learn” checkpoint is perfect for looping back around.

The Focus Model provides a clear, six-stage framework for effective problem-solving and decision-making:

By methodically working through each of these steps, you can analyze challenges from all angles, minimize biases and blindspots, and arrive at well-informed resolutions.

While simple in theory, consciously applying the Focus Model principles of curiosity, diverse perspectives, future visualization, and continuous learning results in higher quality outputs. With practice, it can be adapted for any situation – from simple household decisions to complex business strategies.

Give the Focus Model a try next time you’re stuck on a tough problem or decision. The systematic yet flexible approach may be just what you need to blaze a clear path forward with confidence.

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focus model problem solving disadvantages

Enhancing Process Efficiency with FOCUS PDCA

Updated: May 19, 2024 by Ken Feldman

focus model problem solving disadvantages

PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is a popular iterative methodology to fix a problem or improve a process. 

Developed and promoted by Drs. Deming and Shewhart, it’s used as a cycle of examining a problem, collecting some data, improving the process and then monitoring it to be sure your improvement was successful. If not, you repeat the cycle. 

The preceding FOCUS expands the methodology and combines with PDCA to form a comprehensive approach to problem-solving and process improvement.

Overview: What is FOCUS PDCA? 

The FOCUS PDCA approach was developed for the healthcare industry. It’s an extension of the classic PDCA methodology, where FOCUS is a set of activities that precedes those used in the PDCA cycle. 

The components of FOCUS PDCA are:

  • Find a process to improve: Sometimes the problem is obvious. Sometimes you will discover a problem using such tools as value stream maps , Pareto Diagrams, control charts, or other process tools.
  • Organize a team: Your team should consist of people who are doing the process, process customers and suppliers, and those who might be subject matter experts in specific elements of the process.
  • Clarify the current state of the process or problem: You need to collect data on the process so you have an objective understanding of the process rather than subjective anecdotal information. You might use the 6W approach to ask questions.
  • Understand the problem: After collecting data in the step above, you will want to understand the process variation and what might be the root cause of your problem.
  • Select a strategy for improvement: Using brainstorming and other solution-generating tools, you can start formulating recommendations for improvement.

The PDCA, used in the context of FOCUS, is a variation of the original PDCA. 

  • Plan: In the standard PDCA approach, the Plan step is where the problem is defined and a solution developed. In FOCUS PDCA, that was done in the Select stage. In FOCUS PDCA, Plan is where you start planning for the implementation of your solution. 
  • Do: If it was not done as a part of FOCUS, data must be collected to characterize the condition of the process before changes are made. Then the required changes are made — that is, the plan is implemented.
  • Check: Did your changes make a difference? Collect data and compare the actual results against your projected or target results. If your results were not achieved, you can go back and review the previous steps, possibly even starting at the beginning again.
  • Act: Similar to Control in the DMAIC process, you will want to put things in place to “maintain the gain.”

3 benefits of FOCUS PDCA 

Any improvement methodology will have benefits for the organization. Some of the specific ones related to using FOCUS PDCA are discussed below. 

It’s comprehensive 

The FOCUS PDCA approach starts at the beginning by identifying the problem and ends with a control plan in place to ensure your improvements don’t disappear over time.

It’s simple 

Most of the tools used in FOCUS PDCA do not involve complex statistical analysis. Many are intuitive and don’t require deep analytical skills. This means almost everyone can serve on the team without worrying about whether or not they have the necessary skills. A good attitude, an openness to collaborating, and being open to change are the primary skills your team members will need. 

It provides a framework 

This approach provides a simple 9-step framework and guidelines for consistently addressing and resolving process problems.

Why is FOCUS PDCA important to understand? 

As a simple but powerful tool for improvement, your understanding of how to use it will be beneficial both to you as well as your organization. 

It keeps you focused

As the acronym suggests, by focusing on a specific problem and using a focused problem-solving approach, you will get better results and improvements. 

It fosters engagement 

As the CFO of a well known corporation was fond of saying, “The best ideas come from our people.” Understanding and applying FOCUS PDCA will give you the opportunity to engage a wide range of business employees and foster a culture of continuous improvement.

It helps you understand your process 

The use of FOCUS PDCA forces you to gain greater insight and understanding of your process. Knowing what to do — and how to do it better — will make your organization better able to satisfy your customers. 

An industry example of FOCUS PDCA 

A large healthcare organization had a run of problems regarding the wrong administration of meds to patients on the hospital floor. They initially used a FMEA to explore the specific problem areas. After identifying the possible source, they formed a team to develop specific recommendations to eliminate the problem.

The team utilized the FOCUS PDCA approach to identify, define, understand, and eventually improve the process. Through the use of technology, they were able to come up with a number of solutions. One was the delivery of meds to the patient floor via robotic carts with a safety mechanism that prevented disbursing the wrong med. They used a signature verification technology to prevent mistakes caused by handwritten scripts. They also implemented better drug labeling to prevent accidental administration of the wrong drug or wrong dosage.

3 best practices when thinking about FOCUS PDCA 

Like any improvement method, there is the right way to use it and a not-so-right way to use it. Here are some suggestions for the right way to do it.

1. Involve the right people

Your team should be selected to take advantage of the most appropriate people for the problem at hand. Don’t necessarily rely on volunteers, but hand-select those you feel have the right skills and knowledge to make maximum contribution to the team. 

2. Avoid coming in with a solution 

The purpose of FOCUS PDCA is to fully understand the nature and root causes of the problem. The solution will result from that deep understanding. Don’t come in with preconceived notions of root causes and solutions. Trust the process of FOCUS PDCA.

3. Communicate  

Frequent communication will prevent many unexpected surprises. Keep in close communication with the appropriate level of management, important stakeholders, and other people involved in the process. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about FOCUS PDCA

1. what does focus pdca stand for .

Find, Organize, Clarify, Understand, Select, and then Plan, Do, Check, and Act. 

2. Can FOCUS PDCA be used in any function? 

While FOCUS PDCA was originally developed for application in healthcare, it’s easily adaptable and flexible for solving any problem in any organization. 

3. Is there a difference between FOCUS PDCA and FOCUS PDSA? 

Not really. In the original development of PDCA, the C stood for Check. Dr. W. Edwards Deming revised the acronym a little by substituting Study for Check.

Summing up FOCUS PDCA 

PDCA is a common tool for solving problems and improving processes. The healthcare field expanded the approach by adding five preceding activities they referred to as FOCUS. 

In total, the FOCUS PDCA approach is a powerful yet simple method for addressing a business problem, and through the active involvement of your people, you can identify and implement improvement solutions at your organization.

About the Author

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Ken Feldman


  • The Art of Effective Problem Solving: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

  • Last Updated: February 6, 2023
  • Learn Lean Sigma
  • Problem Solving

Whether we realise it or not, problem solving skills are an important part of our daily lives. From resolving a minor annoyance at home to tackling complex business challenges at work, our ability to solve problems has a significant impact on our success and happiness. However, not everyone is naturally gifted at problem-solving, and even those who are can always improve their skills. In this blog post, we will go over the art of effective problem-solving step by step.

You will learn how to define a problem, gather information, assess alternatives, and implement a solution, all while honing your critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Whether you’re a seasoned problem solver or just getting started, this guide will arm you with the knowledge and tools you need to face any challenge with confidence. So let’s get started!

Problem Solving Methodologies

Individuals and organisations can use a variety of problem-solving methodologies to address complex challenges. 8D and A3 problem solving techniques are two popular methodologies in the Lean Six Sigma framework.

Methodology of 8D (Eight Discipline) Problem Solving:

The 8D problem solving methodology is a systematic, team-based approach to problem solving. It is a method that guides a team through eight distinct steps to solve a problem in a systematic and comprehensive manner.

The 8D process consists of the following steps:

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  • Form a team: Assemble a group of people who have the necessary expertise to work on the problem.
  • Define the issue: Clearly identify and define the problem, including the root cause and the customer impact.
  • Create a temporary containment plan: Put in place a plan to lessen the impact of the problem until a permanent solution can be found.
  • Identify the root cause: To identify the underlying causes of the problem, use root cause analysis techniques such as Fishbone diagrams and Pareto charts.
  • Create and test long-term corrective actions: Create and test a long-term solution to eliminate the root cause of the problem.
  • Implement and validate the permanent solution: Implement and validate the permanent solution’s effectiveness.
  • Prevent recurrence: Put in place measures to keep the problem from recurring.
  • Recognize and reward the team: Recognize and reward the team for its efforts.

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A3 Problem Solving Method:

The A3 problem solving technique is a visual, team-based problem-solving approach that is frequently used in Lean Six Sigma projects. The A3 report is a one-page document that clearly and concisely outlines the problem, root cause analysis, and proposed solution.

The A3 problem-solving procedure consists of the following steps:

  • Determine the issue: Define the issue clearly, including its impact on the customer.
  • Perform root cause analysis: Identify the underlying causes of the problem using root cause analysis techniques.
  • Create and implement a solution: Create and implement a solution that addresses the problem’s root cause.
  • Monitor and improve the solution: Keep an eye on the solution’s effectiveness and make any necessary changes.

Subsequently, in the Lean Six Sigma framework, the 8D and A3 problem solving methodologies are two popular approaches to problem solving. Both methodologies provide a structured, team-based problem-solving approach that guides individuals through a comprehensive and systematic process of identifying, analysing, and resolving problems in an effective and efficient manner.

Step 1 – Define the Problem

The definition of the problem is the first step in effective problem solving. This may appear to be a simple task, but it is actually quite difficult. This is because problems are frequently complex and multi-layered, making it easy to confuse symptoms with the underlying cause. To avoid this pitfall, it is critical to thoroughly understand the problem.

To begin, ask yourself some clarifying questions:

  • What exactly is the issue?
  • What are the problem’s symptoms or consequences?
  • Who or what is impacted by the issue?
  • When and where does the issue arise?

Answering these questions will assist you in determining the scope of the problem. However, simply describing the problem is not always sufficient; you must also identify the root cause. The root cause is the underlying cause of the problem and is usually the key to resolving it permanently.

Try asking “why” questions to find the root cause:

  • What causes the problem?
  • Why does it continue?
  • Why does it have the effects that it does?

By repeatedly asking “ why ,” you’ll eventually get to the bottom of the problem. This is an important step in the problem-solving process because it ensures that you’re dealing with the root cause rather than just the symptoms.

Once you have a firm grasp on the issue, it is time to divide it into smaller, more manageable chunks. This makes tackling the problem easier and reduces the risk of becoming overwhelmed. For example, if you’re attempting to solve a complex business problem, you might divide it into smaller components like market research, product development, and sales strategies.

To summarise step 1, defining the problem is an important first step in effective problem-solving. You will be able to identify the root cause and break it down into manageable parts if you take the time to thoroughly understand the problem. This will prepare you for the next step in the problem-solving process, which is gathering information and brainstorming ideas.

Step 2 – Gather Information and Brainstorm Ideas

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Gathering information and brainstorming ideas is the next step in effective problem solving. This entails researching the problem and relevant information, collaborating with others, and coming up with a variety of potential solutions. This increases your chances of finding the best solution to the problem.

Begin by researching the problem and relevant information. This could include reading articles, conducting surveys, or consulting with experts. The goal is to collect as much information as possible in order to better understand the problem and possible solutions.

Next, work with others to gather a variety of perspectives. Brainstorming with others can be an excellent way to come up with new and creative ideas. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts and ideas when working in a group, and make an effort to actively listen to what others have to say. Be open to new and unconventional ideas and resist the urge to dismiss them too quickly.

Finally, use brainstorming to generate a wide range of potential solutions. This is the place where you can let your imagination run wild. At this stage, don’t worry about the feasibility or practicality of the solutions; instead, focus on generating as many ideas as possible. Write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous or unusual it may appear. This can be done individually or in groups.

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the next step in the problem-solving process, which we’ll go over in greater detail in the following section.

Step 3 – Evaluate Options and Choose the Best Solution

Once you’ve compiled a list of potential solutions, it’s time to assess them and select the best one. This is the third step in effective problem solving, and it entails weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, considering their feasibility and practicability, and selecting the solution that is most likely to solve the problem effectively.

To begin, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. This will assist you in determining the potential outcomes of each solution and deciding which is the best option. For example, a quick and easy solution may not be the most effective in the long run, whereas a more complex and time-consuming solution may be more effective in solving the problem in the long run.

Consider each solution’s feasibility and practicability. Consider the following:

  • Can the solution be implemented within the available resources, time, and budget?
  • What are the possible barriers to implementing the solution?
  • Is the solution feasible in today’s political, economic, and social environment?

You’ll be able to tell which solutions are likely to succeed and which aren’t by assessing their feasibility and practicability.

Finally, choose the solution that is most likely to effectively solve the problem. This solution should be based on the criteria you’ve established, such as the advantages and disadvantages of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and your overall goals.

It is critical to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to problems. What is effective for one person or situation may not be effective for another. This is why it is critical to consider a wide range of solutions and evaluate each one based on its ability to effectively solve the problem.

Step 4 – Implement and Monitor the Solution

Communication the missing peice from Lean Six Sigma - Learnleansigma

When you’ve decided on the best solution, it’s time to put it into action. The fourth and final step in effective problem solving is to put the solution into action, monitor its progress, and make any necessary adjustments.

To begin, implement the solution. This may entail delegating tasks, developing a strategy, and allocating resources. Ascertain that everyone involved understands their role and responsibilities in the solution’s implementation.

Next, keep an eye on the solution’s progress. This may entail scheduling regular check-ins, tracking metrics, and soliciting feedback from others. You will be able to identify any potential roadblocks and make any necessary adjustments in a timely manner if you monitor the progress of the solution.

Finally, make any necessary modifications to the solution. This could entail changing the solution, altering the plan of action, or delegating different tasks. Be willing to make changes if they will improve the solution or help it solve the problem more effectively.

It’s important to remember that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to start from scratch. This is especially true if the initial solution does not effectively solve the problem. In these situations, it’s critical to be adaptable and flexible and to keep trying new solutions until you find the one that works best.

To summarise, effective problem solving is a critical skill that can assist individuals and organisations in overcoming challenges and achieving their objectives. Effective problem solving consists of four key steps: defining the problem, generating potential solutions, evaluating alternatives and selecting the best solution, and implementing the solution.

You can increase your chances of success in problem solving by following these steps and considering factors such as the pros and cons of each solution, their feasibility and practicability, and making any necessary adjustments. Furthermore, keep in mind that problem solving is an iterative process, and there may be times when you need to go back to the beginning and restart. Maintain your adaptability and try new solutions until you find the one that works best for you.

  • Novick, L.R. and Bassok, M., 2005.  Problem Solving . Cambridge University Press.

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Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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Focus Model

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Focus Model: this article provides a practical explanation of the Focus Model . After reading, you’ll have better insight into the various ways in which you can think or communicate about something.

What is the Focus Model?

The five levels of the Focus Model are a variation of David Rock’s ‘Choose Your Focus’ model in his book “Quiet Leadership” . The Focus Model describes five different ways to think or communicate about something. When you are aware of these five levels and realise what the basis of your thoughts or communications is, you can opt to move to a different, more useful level.

The drama level

The least useful thought and communication level is the drama level. The drama level is a level that includes emotion and venting.

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For instance, the majority of one’s energy is spent on repeating: ‘He said, she said, do you know what happened next?’ This is more about the contents of a situation. Although venting can sometimes be beneficial, it’s rarely useful and can hinder you in moving past the emotion to solve the problem.

The problem level

This level focuses on the problem. Both the drama and the details of a situation can contribute to a better understanding of the problem, but it’s important that a conversation (or your thoughts) go beyond the drama and details to better understand the problem or core problem to be solved.

The detail level

The detail level is aimed at the specific characteristics of a situation and the small actions, events or decisions that led to the current situation. Here, details can be useful, depending on how they are used – they are useful when they contribute to understanding a broader problem.

However, when they cause more drama while the emotion around each detail surfaces, the details are merely interesting.

The strategy / planning level

This level is aimed at solving a problem. It is solution-oriented rather than problem or detail-based. Although some detail is required in planning, the focus is higher and more strategic than just the problem itself.

The vision level

The vision level is like looking at the forest (rather than focusing on the trees – which is drama and detail thinking). A vision is what keeps our broader intentions in their place. Why do you do this? Why is this important? What’s the broader goal you want to achieve? When you are guided by the vision, the problems have more context and become less personal. You can then spend these efforts on achieving the broader vision instead of spending your energy on smaller problems.

Five levels of Focus Model - toolshero

Why the Focus Model?

The ‘Choose your focus model’ helps to focus thought processes. It helps to identify your type of thinking at any given moment and offers the possibility to subsequently choose what you wish to focus your attention on. This tool can be useful for any type of conversation, for instance for team meetings or when approaching a difficult thought task.

This model is so easy that it can be applied to any type of conversation. For instance, the author does this by writing it down on paper or a whiteboard, so the concept is visible. The most frequently occurring impact of this model is that people feel lost in details, aren’t clear on what they are trying to achieve or how.

Additionally, the model helps you to recognise the perspective of the thoughts and subsequently lets you choose a different perspective, or has everyone in the conversation speak from the same perspective.

  • Vision: vision thinking is about the ‘why’ or ‘what’. It’s the big picture of what your goal is or what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Planning: strategic thinking is about how you get there.
  • Details: once you know where you’re going and how you can get there, the details come into focus.
  • Problem: problem thinking is the area where events go wrong.
  • Drama: is the place where things have fallen apart and the only thing remaining are emotional feelings.

As David Rock says, “Quiet leaders are very disciplined in their conversations. They are diligently focused on ensuring that each conversation is as productive as possible in each step and if not, they fix this. They know it’s important to organise the process of each conversation before diving into the contents of a dialogue .”

Getting started with the Focus Model

You can use the Choose Your Focus Model to consciously aim your thoughts at vision and planning. You can apply the model in various ways, such as:

First write down the focus areas on a flip chart. Explain these at the start of the meeting. Ask whether the participants would find it useful to focus on clarifying the vision and planning the work. It’s also important to ask for permission to interrupt discussions when you notice these have drifted away from the selected focus areas. If you ask for permission first, people will accept that you interrupt them.

When you see discussions that are headed towards details or problems and that will occur at a certain moment, simply point to the flip chart with the five focus areas. This is usually a clear sign for the group. If you must interrupt, ask the question, “What is the focus area in this discussion?”

The Choose Your Focus Model describes five focus level for your thoughts:

Vision Planning Detail — Problem Drama

The essence of this model is that the three levels above the line (vision – planning – detail) are the productive, solution-oriented levels. In various coaching techniques, you go through these three levels when you are looking to achieve something.

You must have a positive vision that serves as the basis for planning how to get there, the basis for details on how to start and what you should do in practice.

The other two bottom levels (Problem – Drama) are the problem-oriented levels, that are very natural to people but aren’t very productive if you wish to maintain your focus to bring about change.

The Choose Your Focus Model can also be effective in focusing your own thoughts. Have you spent sufficient time on problems today? Perhaps it’s time to consider what you truly want to achieve in the greater whole?

The focus areas are:

  • Vision (for instance, what would you like to achieve? What is the goal?)
  • Planning (for instance, What is the plan? How can you bring about success?)
  • Detail (for instance, Which actions should you take? What should you complete next week?)
  • Problem (for instance, How will you handle these customer complaints?)
  • Drama (for instance, Why do you always fail here?)

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the focus model or do you have anything to add? When do you think this model is effective? What do you believe are success factors that contribute to the practical application of this theory?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  • Hilton, D. J., & Slugoski, B. R. (1986). Knowledge-based causal attribution: The abnormal conditions focus model. Psychological review , 93(1), 75.
  • Kelly, J. R., & Loving, T. J. (2004). Time pressure and group performance: Exploring underlying processes in the attentional focus model. Journal of experimental social psychology, 40(2), 185-198.
  • Leonardelli, G. J., Lakin, J. L., & Arkin, R. M. (2007). A regulatory focus model of self-evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(6), 1002-1009.
  • Rock, D. (2008). SCARF : A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1(1), 44-52.
  • Rock, D. (2009). Managing with the brain in mind. PwC Strategy &.
  • Rock, D. (2010). Your brain at work: Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long. Journal of Behavioral Optometry, 21(5), 130.
  • Rock, D. (2014). Quiet leadership.
  • Rock, D., & Page, L. J. (2009). Coaching with the brain in mind: Foundations for practice. John Wiley & Sons.

How to cite this article: Sari, J. (2019). Focus model . Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/focus-model/

Published on: 05/14/2019 | Last update: 05/20/2022

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Jessie Sari

Jessie Sari

Jessie Sari is a content writer at ToolsHero. Jessie studies Trade Management in Asia at the Hogeschool van Rotterdam. As part of her education, she focuses on building fundamental skills, including marketing, importing and exporting products and services in Asia, economy, finance, management, consultancy and project management.


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What is Solution-Focused Therapy: 3 Essential Techniques

What is Solution-Focused Therapy: 3 Essential Techniques

You’re at an important business meeting, and you’re there to discuss some problems your company is having with its production.

At the meeting, you explain what’s causing the problems: The widget-producing machine your company uses is getting old and slowing down. The machine is made up of hundreds of small parts that work in concert, and it would be much more expensive to replace each of these old, worn-down parts than to buy a new widget-producing machine.

You are hoping to convey to the other meeting attendees the impact of the problem, and the importance of buying a new widget-producing machine. You give a comprehensive overview of the problem and how it is impacting production.

One meeting attendee asks, “So which part of the machine, exactly, is getting worn down?” Another says, “Please explain in detail how our widget-producing machine works.” Yet another asks, “How does the new machine improve upon each of the components of the machine?” A fourth attendee asks, “Why is it getting worn down? We should discuss how the machine was made in order to fully understand why it is wearing down now.”

You are probably starting to feel frustrated that your colleagues’ questions don’t address the real issue. You might be thinking, “What does it matter how the machine got worn down when buying a new one would fix the problem?” In this scenario, it is much more important to buy a new widget-producing machine than it is to understand why machinery wears down over time.

When we’re seeking solutions, it’s not always helpful to get bogged down in the details. We want results, not a narrative about how or why things became the way they are.

This is the idea behind solution-focused therapy . For many people, it is often more important to find solutions than it is to analyze the problem in great detail. This article will cover what solution-focused therapy is, how it’s applied, and what its limitations are.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free . These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

This Article Contains:

What is solution-focused therapy, theory behind the solution-focused approach, solution-focused model, popular techniques and interventions, sfbt treatment plan: an example, technologies to execute an sfbt treatment plan (incl. quenza), limitations of sfbt counseling, what does sfbt have to do with positive psychology, a take-home message.

Solution-focused therapy, also called solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), is a type of therapy that places far more importance on discussing solutions than problems (Berg, n.d.). Of course, you must discuss the problem to find a solution, but beyond understanding what the problem is and deciding how to address it, solution-focused therapy will not dwell on every detail of the problem you are experiencing.

Solution-focused brief therapy doesn’t require a deep dive into your childhood and the ways in which your past has influenced your present. Instead, it will root your sessions firmly in the present while working toward a future in which your current problems have less of an impact on your life (Iveson, 2002).

This solution-centric form of therapy grew out of the field of family therapy in the 1980s. Creators Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg noticed that most therapy sessions were spent discussing symptoms, issues, and problems.

De Shazer and Berg saw an opportunity for quicker relief from negative symptoms in a new form of therapy that emphasized quick, specific problem-solving rather than an ongoing discussion of the problem itself.

The word “brief” in solution-focused brief therapy is key. The goal of SFBT is to find and implement a solution to the problem or problems as soon as possible to minimize time spent in therapy and, more importantly, time spent struggling or suffering (Antin, 2018).

SFBT is committed to finding realistic, workable solutions for clients as quickly as possible, and the efficacy of this treatment has influenced its spread around the world and use in multiple contexts.

SFBT has been successfully applied in individual, couples, and family therapy. The problems it can address are wide-ranging, from the normal stressors of life to high-impact life events.

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The solution-focused approach of SFBT is founded in de Shazer and Berg’s idea that the solutions to one’s problems are typically found in the “exceptions” to the problem, meaning the times when the problem is not actively affecting the individual (Iveson, 2002).

This approach is a logical one—to find a lasting solution to a problem, it is rational to look first at those times in which the problem lacks its usual potency.

For example, if a client is struggling with excruciating shyness, but typically has no trouble speaking to his or her coworkers, a solution-focused therapist would target the client’s interactions at work as an exception to the client’s usual shyness. Once the client and therapist have discovered an exception, they will work as a team to find out how the exception is different from the client’s usual experiences with the problem.

The therapist will help the client formulate a solution based on what sets the exception scenario apart, and aid the client in setting goals and implementing the solution.

You may have noticed that this type of therapy relies heavily on the therapist and client working together. Indeed, SFBT works on the assumption that every individual has at least some level of motivation to address their problem or problems and to find solutions that improve their quality of life .

This motivation on the part of the client is an essential piece of the model that drives SFBT (Miller & Rollnick, 2013).

Solution-Focused Therapy change

Solution-focused theorists and therapists believe that generally, people develop default problem patterns based on their experiences, as well as default solution patterns.

These patterns dictate an individual’s usual way of experiencing a problem and his or her usual way of coping with problems (Focus on Solutions, 2013).

The solution-focused model holds that focusing only on problems is not an effective way of solving them. Instead, SFBT targets clients’ default solution patterns, evaluates them for efficacy, and modifies or replaces them with problem-solving approaches that work (Focus on Solutions, 2013).

In addition to this foundational belief, the SFBT model is based on the following assumptions:

  • Change is constant and certain;
  • Emphasis should be on what is changeable and possible;
  • Clients must want to change;
  • Clients are the experts in therapy and must develop their own goals;
  • Clients already have the resources and strengths to solve their problems;
  • Therapy is short-term;
  • The focus must be on the future—a client’s history is not a key part of this type of therapy (Counselling Directory, 2017).

Based on these assumptions, the model instructs therapists to do the following in their sessions with clients:

  • Ask questions rather than “selling” answers;
  • Notice and reinforce evidence of the client’s positive qualities, strengths, resources, and general competence to solve their own problems;
  • Work with what people can do rather than focusing on what they can’t do;
  • Pinpoint the behaviors a client is already engaging in that are helpful and effective and find new ways to facilitate problem-solving through these behaviors;
  • Focus on the details of the solution instead of the problem;
  • Develop action plans that work for the client (Focus on Solutions, 2013).

SFBT therapists aim to bring out the skills, strengths, and abilities that clients already possess rather than attempting to build new competencies from scratch. This assumption of a client’s competence is one of the reasons this therapy can be administered in a short timeframe—it is much quicker to harness the resources clients already have than to create and nurture new resources.

Beyond these basic activities, there are many techniques and exercises used in SFBT to promote problem-solving and enhance clients’ ability to work through their own problems.

asking questions solution-focused therapy

Working with a therapist is generally recommended when you are facing overwhelming or particularly difficult problems, but not all problems require a licensed professional to solve.

For each technique listed below, it will be noted if it can be used as a standalone technique.

Asking good questions is vital in any form of therapy, but SFBT formalized this practice into a technique that specifies a certain set of questions intended to provoke thinking and discussion about goal-setting and problem-solving.

One such question is the “coping question.” This question is intended to help clients recognize their own resiliency and identify some of the ways in which they already cope with their problems effectively.

There are many ways to phrase this sort of question, but generally, a coping question is worded something like, “How do you manage, in the face of such difficulty, to fulfill your daily obligations?” (Antin, 2018).

Another type of question common in SFBT is the “miracle question.” The miracle question encourages clients to imagine a future in which their problems are no longer affecting their lives. Imagining this desired future will help clients see a path forward, both allowing them to believe in the possibility of this future and helping them to identify concrete steps they can take to make it happen.

This question is generally asked in the following manner: “Imagine that a miracle has occurred. This problem you are struggling with is suddenly absent from your life. What does your life look like without this problem?” (Antin, 2018).

If the miracle question is unlikely to work, or if the client is having trouble imagining this miracle future, the SFBT therapist can use “best hopes” questions instead. The client’s answers to these questions will help establish what the client is hoping to achieve and help him or her set realistic and achievable goals.

The “best hopes” questions can include the following:

  • What are your best hopes for today’s session?
  • What needs to happen in this session to enable you to leave thinking it was worthwhile?
  • How will you know things are “good enough” for our sessions to end?
  • What needs to happen in these sessions so that your relatives/friends/coworkers can say, “I’m really glad you went to see [the therapist]”? (Vinnicombe, n.d.).

To identify the exceptions to the problems plaguing clients, therapists will ask “exception questions.” These are questions that ask about clients’ experiences both with and without their problems. This helps to distinguish between circumstances in which the problems are most active and the circumstances in which the problems either hold no power or have diminished power over clients’ moods or thoughts.

Exception questions can include:

  • Tell me about the times when you felt the happiest;
  • What was it about that day that made it a better day?
  • Can you think of times when the problem was not present in your life? (Counselling Directory, 2017).

Another question frequently used by SFBT practitioners is the “scaling question.”

It asks clients to rate their experiences (such as how their problems are currently affecting them, how confident they are in their treatment, and how they think the treatment is progressing) on a scale from 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest). This helps the therapist to gauge progress and learn more about clients’ motivation and confidence in finding a solution.

For example, an SFBT therapist may ask, “On a scale from 0 to 10, how would you rate your progress in finding and implementing a solution to your problem?” (Antin, 2018).

Do One Thing Different

This exercise can be completed individually, but the handout may need to be modified for adult or adolescent users.

This exercise is intended to help the client or individual to learn how to break his or her problem patterns and build strategies to simply make things go better.

The handout breaks the exercise into the following steps (Coffen, n.d.):

  • Think about the things you do in a problem situation. Change any part you can. Choose to change one thing, such as the timing, your body patterns (what you do with your body), what you say, the location, or the order in which you do things;
  • Think of a time that things did not go well for you. When does that happen? What part of that problem situation will you do differently now?
  • Think of something done by somebody else does that makes the problem better. Try doing what they do the next time the problem comes up. Or, think of something that you have done in the past that made things go better. Try doing that the next time the problem comes up;
  • Think of something that somebody else does that works to make things go better. What is the person’s name and what do they do that you will try?
  • Think of something that you have done in the past that helped make things go better. What did you do that you will do next time?
  • Feelings tell you that you need to do something. Your brain tells you what to do. Understand what your feelings are but do not let them determine your actions. Let your brain determine the actions;
  • Feelings are great advisors but poor masters (advisors give information and help you know what you could do; masters don’t give you choices);
  • Think of a feeling that used to get you into trouble. What feeling do you want to stop getting you into trouble?
  • Think of what information that feeling is telling you. What does the feeling suggest you should do that would help things go better?
  • Change what you focus on. What you pay attention to will become bigger in your life and you will notice it more and more. To solve a problem, try changing your focus or your perspective.
  • Think of something that you are focusing on too much. What gets you into trouble when you focus on it?
  • Think of something that you will focus on instead. What will you focus on that will not get you into trouble?
  • Imagine a time in the future when you aren’t having the problem you are having right now. Work backward to figure out what you could do now to make that future come true;
  • Think of what will be different for you in the future when things are going better;
  • Think of one thing that you would be doing differently before things could go better in the future. What one thing will you do differently?
  • Sometimes people with problems talk about how other people cause those problems and why it’s impossible to do better. Change your story. Talk about times when the problem was not happening and what you were doing at that time. Control what you can control. You can’t control other people, but you can change your actions, and that might change what other people do;
  • Think of a time when you were not having the problem that is bothering you. Talk about that time.
  • If you believe in a god or a higher power, focus on God to get things to go better. When you are focused on God or you are asking God to help you, things might go better for you.
  • Do you believe in a god or a higher power? Talk about how you will seek help from your god to make things go better.
  • Use action talk to get things to go better. Action talk sticks to the facts, addresses only the things you can see, and doesn’t address what you believe another person was thinking or feeling—we have no way of knowing that for sure. When you make a complaint, talk about the action that you do not like. When you make a request, talk about what action you want the person to do. When you praise someone, talk about what action you liked;
  • Make a complaint about someone cheating at a game using action talk;
  • Make a request for someone to play fairly using action talk;
  • Thank someone for doing what you asked using action talk.

Following these eight steps and answering the questions thoughtfully will help people recognize their strengths and resources, identify ways in which they can overcome problems, plan and set goals to address problems, and practice useful skills.

While this handout can be extremely effective for SFBT, it can also be used in other therapies or circumstances.

To see this handout and download it for you or your clients, click here .

Presupposing Change

one thing different solution-focused therapy

The “presupposing change” technique has great potential in SFBT, in part because when people are experiencing problems, they have a tendency to focus on the problems and ignore the positive changes in their life.

It can be difficult to recognize the good things happening in your life when you are struggling with a painful or particularly troublesome problem.

This technique is intended to help clients be attentive to the positive things in their lives, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Any positive change or tiny step of progress should be noted, so clients can both celebrate their wins and draw from past wins to facilitate future wins.

Presupposing change is a strikingly simple technique to use: Ask questions that assume positive changes. This can include questions like, “What’s different or better since I saw you last time?”

If clients are struggling to come up with evidence of positive change or are convinced that there has been no positive change, the therapist can ask questions that encourage clients to think about their abilities to effectively cope with problems, like, How come things aren’t worse for you? What stopped total disaster from occurring? How did you avoid falling apart? (Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, 2009).

The most powerful word in the Solution Focused Brief Therapy vocabulary – The Solution Focused Universe

A typical treatment plan in SFBT will include several factors relevant to the treatment, including:

  • The reason for referral, or the problem the client is experiencing that brought him or her to treatment;
  • A diagnosis (if any);
  • List of medications taken (if any);
  • Current symptoms;
  • Support for the client (family, friends, other mental health professionals, etc.);
  • Modality or treatment type;
  • Frequency of treatment;
  • Goals and objectives;
  • Measurement criteria for progress on goals;
  • Client strengths ;
  • Barriers to progress.

All of these are common and important components of a successful treatment plan. Some of these components (e.g., diagnosis and medications) may be unaddressed or acknowledged only as a formality in SFBT due to its usual focus on less severe mental health issues. Others are vital to treatment progress and potential success in SFBT, including goals, objectives, measurement criteria, and client strengths.

Quenza Problem-Solving Exercise

To this end, therapists are increasingly leveraging the benefits of technology to help develop, execute, and evaluate the outcomes of treatment plans efficiently.

Among these technologies are many digital platforms that therapists can use to carry out some steps in clients’ treatment plans outside of face-to-face sessions.

For example, by adopting a versatile blended care platform such as Quenza , an SFBT practitioner may carry out some of the initial steps in the assessment/diagnosis phase of a treatment plan, such as by inviting the client to complete a digital diagnostic questionnaire.

Likewise, the therapist may use the platform to send digital activities to the client’s smartphone, such as an end-of-day reflection inviting the client to recount their application of the ‘Do One Thing Different’ technique to overcome a problem.

These are just a few ideas for how you might use a customizable blended care tool such as Quenza to help carry out several of the steps in an SFBT treatment plan.

Empathy solution-focused therapy

Some of the potential disadvantages for therapists include (George, 2010):

  • The potential for clients to focus on problems that the therapist believes are secondary problems. For example, the client may focus on a current relationship problem rather than the underlying self-esteem problem that is causing the relationship woes. SFBT dictates that the client is the expert, and the therapist must take what the client says at face value;
  • The client may decide that the treatment is successful or complete before the therapist is ready to make the same decision. This focus on taking what the client says at face value may mean the therapist must end treatment before they are convinced that the client is truly ready;
  • The hard work of the therapist may be ignored. When conducted successfully, it may seem that clients solved their problems by themselves, and didn’t need the help of a therapist at all. An SFBT therapist may rarely get credit for the work they do but must take all the blame when sessions end unsuccessfully.

Some of the potential limitations for clients include (Antin, 2018):

  • The focus on quick solutions may miss some important underlying issues;
  • The quick, goal-oriented nature of SFBT may not allow for an emotional, empathetic connection between therapist and client.
  • If the client wants to discuss factors outside of their immediate ability to effect change, SFBT may be frustrating in its assumption that clients are always able to fix or address their problems.

Generally, SFBT can be an excellent treatment for many of the common stressors people experience in their lives, but it may be inappropriate if clients want to concentrate more on their symptoms and how they got to where they are today. As noted earlier, it is also generally not appropriate for clients with major mental health disorders.

focus model problem solving disadvantages

World’s Largest Positive Psychology Resource

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Updated monthly. 100% Science-based.

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First, both SFBT and positive psychology share a focus on the positive—on what people already have going for them and on what actions they can take. While problems are discussed and considered in SFBT, most of the time and energy is spent on discussing, thinking about, and researching what is already good, effective, and successful.

Second, both SFBT and positive psychology consider the individual to be his or her own best advocate, the source of information on his or her problems and potential solutions, and the architect of his or her own treatment and life success. The individual is considered competent, able, and “enough” in both SFBT and positive psychology.

This assumption of the inherent competence of individuals has run both subfields into murky waters and provoked criticism, particularly when systemic and societal factors are considered. While no respectable psychologist would disagree that an individual is generally in control of his or her own actions and, therefore, future, there is considerable debate about what level of influence other factors have on an individual’s life.

While many of these criticisms are valid and bring up important points for discussion, we won’t dive too deep into them in this piece. Suffice it to say that both SFBT and positive psychology have important places in the field of psychology and, like any subfield, may not apply to everyone and to all circumstances.

However, when they do apply, they are both capable of producing positive, lasting, and life-changing results.

Solution-focused therapy puts problem-solving at the forefront of the conversation and can be particularly useful for clients who aren’t suffering from major mental health issues and need help solving a particular problem (or problems). Rather than spending years in therapy, SFBT allows such clients to find solutions and get results quickly.

Have you ever tried Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, as a therapist or as a client? What did you think of the focus on solutions? Do you think SFBT misses anything important by taking the spotlight off the client’s problem(s)? Let us know in the comments section.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free .

Antin, L. (2018). Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT). Good Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/solution-focused-therapy

  • Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. (2009, March 30). Solution-focused techniques. Counseling Connection. Retrieved from http://www.counsellingconnection.com/index.php/2009/03/30/solution-focused-techniques/
  • Berg, I. K. (n.d.). About solution-focused brief therapy. SFBTA . Retrieved from http://www.sfbta.org/about_sfbt.html
  • Coffen, R. (n.d.). Do one thing different [Handout]. Retrieved from https://www.andrews.edu/~coffen/Do%20one%20thing%20different.pdf
  • Focus on Solutions. (2013, October 28). The brief solution-focused model. Focus on solutions: Leaders in solution-focused training. Retrieved from http://www.focusonsolutions.co.uk/solutionfocused/
  • George, E. (2010). Disadvantages of solution focus? BRIEF. Retrieved from https://www.brief.org.uk/resources/faq/disadvantages-of-solution-focus
  • Iveson, C. (2002). Solution-focused brief therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 8 (2), 149-156.
  • Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Vinnicombe, G. (n.d.). Greg’s SFBT handout. Useful Conversations. Retrieved from http://www.usefulconversations.com/downloads

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Thank you. I’m about to start an MMFT internship, and SFBT is the model I prefer. You put everything in perspective.


Great insights. I have a client who has become a bit disengaged with our work together. This gives me a really helpful new approach for our upcoming sessions. He’s very focused on the problem and wanting a “quick fix.” This might at least get us on that path. Thank you!


Hi Courtney, great paper! I will like to know more about the limitations to SFT and noticed that you provided an intext citation to Antin 2016. Would you be able to provide the full reference? Thank you!

Nicole Celestine

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The reference has now been updated in the reference list — this should be Antin (2018):

– Nicole | Community Manager

Randy H.

The only thing tat was revealed to me while reading this article is the client being able to recognize the downfall of what got them into their problem in the first place. I felt that maybe a person should understand the problem to the extent that they may understand how to recognize what led to the problem in the first place. Understanding the process of how something broke down would give one knowledge and wisdom that may be able to be applied in future instances when something may go wrong again. Even if the thing is new (machine or person) having the wisdom and understanding of the cause that led to the effect may help prevent and or overcome an arising problem in the future. Not being able to recognize the process that brought down the machine and or human may be like adhering to ignorance, although they say ignorance is bliss in case of an emergency it would be better to be informed rather then blindly ignorant, as the knowledge of how the problem surfaced in the first place may alleviate unwarranted suffering sooner rather than later. But then again looking at it this way I may work myself out of a job if my clients never came back to see me. However is it about me or them or the greater societal structural good that we can induce through our education, skills, training, experience, and good will good faith effort to instill social justice coupled with lasting change for the betterment of human society and the world as a whole.

Matthew McMahon

Very very helpful, thank you for writing. Just one point “While no respectable psychologist would disagree that an individual is generally in control of his or her own actions and, therefore, future, there is considerable debate about what level of influence other factors have on an individual’s life.” I think any psychologist that has worked in neurological dysfunction would probably acknowledge consciousness and ‘voluntary control’ are not that straight-forward. Generally though, I suppose there’s that whole debate of if we are ever in control of our actions or even our thoughts. It may well boil down to what we mean by ‘we’, as in what are we? A bundle of fibres acting on memories and impulses? A unique body of energy guided by intangible forces? Maybe I am not a respectable psychologist 🙂


This article provided me with insight on how to proceed with a role-play session in my CBT graduate course. Thank you!

Hi Derrick, That’s fantastic that you were able to find some guidance in this post. Best of luck with your grad students! – Nicole | Community Manager

Fisokuhle Thwala

Thank You…Great input and clarity . I now have light…


I was looking everywhere for a simple explanation for my essay and this is it!! thank you so much for this is was very useful and I learned a lot.

Penelope Wauterz

Very well done. Thank you for the multitude of insights.

Will My Marriage Last

Thank you for such a good passage discussed. I really have a great time understanding it.

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Problem-Based Learning: Benefits and Risks

  • November 12, 2009
  • Maryellen Weimer, PhD

Problem-based learning, the instructional approach in which carefully constructed, open-ended problems are used by groups of students to work through content to a solution, has gained a foothold in many segments of higher education.

Originally PBL, as it’s usually called, was used in medical school and in some business curricula for majors. But now it is being used in a wide range of disciplines and with students at various educational levels. The article (reference below) from which material is about to be cited “makes a critical assessment” of how PBL is being used in the field of geography.

Much of the content is relevant to that discipline specifically, but the article does contain a useful table that summarizes the benefits and risks of PBL for students, instructors, and institutions. Material on the table is gleaned from an extensive review of the literature (all referenced in the article). Here’s some of the information contained in the table.

Benefits of Problem-Based Learning

For Students

  • It’s a student-centered approach.
  • Typically students find it more enjoyable and satisfying.
  • It encourages greater understanding.
  • Students with PBL experience rate their abilities higher.
  • PBL develops lifelong learning skills.

For Instructors

  • Class attendance increases.
  • The method affords more intrinsic reward.
  • It encourages students to spend more time studying.
  • It promotes interdisciplinarity.

For Institutions

  • It makes student learning a priority.
  • It may aid student retention.
  • It may be taken as evidence that an institution values teaching.

Risks of Problem-Based Learning

  • Prior learning experiences do not prepare students well for PBL.
  • PBL requires more time and takes away study time from other subjects.
  • It creates some anxiety because learning is messier.
  • Sometimes group dynamics issues compromise PBL effectiveness.
  • Less content knowledge may be learned.
  • Creating suitable problem scenarios is difficult.
  • It requires more prep time.
  • Students have queries about the process.
  • Group dynamics issues may require faculty intervention.
  • It raises new questions about what to assess and how.
  • It requires a change in educational philosophy for faculty who mostly lecture.
  • Faculty will need staff development and support.
  • It generally takes more instructors.
  • It works best with flexible classroom space.
  • It engenders resistance from faculty who question its efficacy.

Reference: Pawson, E., Fournier, E., Haight, M., Muniz, O., Trafford, J., and Vajoczki, S. 2006. Problem-based learning in geography: Towards a critical assessment of its purposes, benefits and risks. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1): 103–16.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor , February 2007.

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Adopting the right problem-solving approach

May 4, 2023 You’ve defined your problem, ensured stakeholders are aligned, and are ready to bring the right problem-solving approach and focus to the situation to find an optimal solution. But what is the right problem-solving approach? And what if there is no single ideal course of action? In our 2013 classic  from the Quarterly , senior partner Olivier Leclerc  highlights the value of taking a number of different approaches simultaneously to solve difficult problems. Read on to discover the five flexons, or problem-solving languages, that can be applied to the same problem to generate richer insights and more innovative solutions. Then check out more insights on problem-solving approaches, and dive into examples of pressing challenges organizations are contending with now.

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5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning [+ Activity Design Steps]

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Written by Marcus Guido

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Advantages of Problem-Based Learning

Disadvantages of problem-based learning, steps to designing problem-based learning activities.

Used since the 1960s, many teachers express concerns about the effectiveness of problem-based learning (PBL) in certain classroom settings.

Whether you introduce the student-centred pedagogy as a one-time activity or mainstay exercise, grouping students together to solve open-ended problems can present pros and cons.

Below are five advantages and disadvantages of problem-based learning to help you determine if it can work in your classroom.

If you decide to introduce an activity, there are also design creation steps and a downloadable guide to keep at your desk for easy reference.

1. Development of Long-Term Knowledge Retention

Students who participate in problem-based learning activities can improve their abilities to retain and recall information, according to a literature review of studies about the pedagogy .

The literature review states “elaboration of knowledge at the time of learning” -- by sharing facts and ideas through discussion and answering questions -- “enhances subsequent retrieval.” This form of elaborating reinforces understanding of subject matter , making it easier to remember.

Small-group discussion can be especially beneficial -- ideally, each student will get chances to participate.

But regardless of group size, problem-based learning promotes long-term knowledge retention by encouraging students to discuss -- and answer questions about -- new concepts as they’re learning them.

2. Use of Diverse Instruction Types

focus model problem solving disadvantages

You can use problem-based learning activities to the meet the diverse learning needs and styles of your students, effectively engaging a diverse classroom in the process. In general, grouping students together for problem-based learning will allow them to:

  • Address real-life issues that require real-life solutions, appealing to students who struggle to grasp abstract concepts
  • Participate in small-group and large-group learning, helping students who don’t excel during solo work grasp new material
  • Talk about their ideas and challenge each other in a constructive manner, giving participatory learners an avenue to excel
  • Tackle a problem using a range of content you provide -- such as videos, audio recordings, news articles and other applicable material -- allowing the lesson to appeal to distinct learning styles

Since running a problem-based learning scenario will give you a way to use these differentiated instruction approaches , it can be especially worthwhile if your students don’t have similar learning preferences.

3. Continuous Engagement

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Providing a problem-based learning challenge can engage students by acting as a break from normal lessons and common exercises.

It’s not hard to see the potential for engagement, as kids collaborate to solve real-world problems that directly affect or heavily interest them.

Although conducted with post-secondary students, a study published by the Association for the Study of Medical Education reported increased student attendance to -- and better attitudes towards -- courses that feature problem-based learning.

These activities may lose some inherent engagement if you repeat them too often, but can certainly inject excitement into class.

4. Development of Transferable Skills

Problem-based learning can help students develop skills they can transfer to real-world scenarios, according to a 2015 book that outlines theories and characteristics of the pedagogy .

The tangible contexts and consequences presented in a problem-based learning activity “allow learning to become more profound and durable.” As you present lessons through these real-life scenarios, students should be able to apply learnings if they eventually face similar issues.

For example, if they work together to address a dispute within the school, they may develop lifelong skills related to negotiation and communicating their thoughts with others.

As long as the problem’s context applies to out-of-class scenarios, students should be able to build skills they can use again.

5. Improvement of Teamwork and Interpersonal Skills

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Successful completion of a problem-based learning challenge hinges on interaction and communication, meaning students should also build transferable skills based on teamwork and collaboration . Instead of memorizing facts, they get chances to present their ideas to a group, defending and revising them when needed.

What’s more, this should help them understand a group dynamic. Depending on a given student, this can involve developing listening skills and a sense of responsibility when completing one’s tasks. Such skills and knowledge should serve your students well when they enter higher education levels and, eventually, the working world.

1. Potentially Poorer Performance on Tests

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Devoting too much time to problem-based learning can cause issues when students take standardized tests, as they may not have the breadth of knowledge needed to achieve high scores. Whereas problem-based learners develop skills related to collaboration and justifying their reasoning, many tests reward fact-based learning with multiple choice and short answer questions. Despite offering many advantages, you could spot this problem develop if you run problem-based learning activities too regularly.

2. Student Unpreparedness

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Problem-based learning exercises can engage many of your kids, but others may feel disengaged as a result of not being ready to handle this type of exercise for a number of reasons. On a class-by-class and activity-by-activity basis, participation may be hindered due to:

  • Immaturity  -- Some students may not display enough maturity to effectively work in a group, not fulfilling expectations and distracting other students.
  • Unfamiliarity  -- Some kids may struggle to grasp the concept of an open problem, since they can’t rely on you for answers.
  • Lack of Prerequisite Knowledge  -- Although the activity should address a relevant and tangible problem, students may require new or abstract information to create an effective solution.

You can partially mitigate these issues by actively monitoring the classroom and distributing helpful resources, such as guiding questions and articles to read. This should keep students focused and help them overcome knowledge gaps. But if you foresee facing these challenges too frequently, you may decide to avoid or seldom introduce problem-based learning exercises.

3. Teacher Unpreparedness

If supervising a problem-based learning activity is a new experience, you may have to prepare to adjust some teaching habits . For example, overtly correcting students who make flawed assumptions or statements can prevent them from thinking through difficult concepts and questions. Similarly, you shouldn’t teach to promote the fast recall of facts. Instead, you should concentrate on:

  • Giving hints to help fix improper reasoning
  • Questioning student logic and ideas in a constructive manner
  • Distributing content for research and to reinforce new concepts
  • Asking targeted questions to a group or the class, focusing their attention on a specific aspect of the problem

Depending on your teaching style, it may take time to prepare yourself to successfully run a problem-based learning lesson.

4. Time-Consuming Assessment

focus model problem solving disadvantages

If you choose to give marks, assessing a student’s performance throughout a problem-based learning exercise demands constant monitoring and note-taking. You must take factors into account such as:

  • Completed tasks
  • The quality of those tasks
  • The group’s overall work and solution
  • Communication among team members
  • Anything you outlined on the activity’s rubric

Monitoring these criteria is required for each student, making it time-consuming to give and justify a mark for everyone.

5. Varying Degrees of Relevancy and Applicability

It can be difficult to identify a tangible problem that students can solve with content they’re studying and skills they’re mastering. This introduces two clear issues. First, if it is easy for students to divert from the challenge’s objectives, they may miss pertinent information. Second, you could veer off the problem’s focus and purpose as students run into unanticipated obstacles. Overcoming obstacles has benefits, but may compromise the planning you did. It can also make it hard to get back on track once the activity is complete. Because of the difficulty associated with keeping activities relevant and applicable, you may see problem-based learning as too taxing.

If the advantages outweigh the disadvantages -- or you just want to give problem-based learning a shot -- follow these steps:

1. Identify an Applicable Real-Life Problem

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Find a tangible problem that’s relevant to your students, allowing them to easily contextualize it and hopefully apply it to future challenges. To identify an appropriate real-world problem, look at issues related to your:

  • Students’ shared interests

You must also ensure that students understand the problem and the information around it. So, not all problems are appropriate for all grade levels.

2. Determine the Overarching Purpose of the Activity

Depending on the problem you choose, determine what you want to accomplish by running the challenge. For example, you may intend to help your students improve skills related to:

  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Curriculum-aligned topics
  • Processing diverse content

A more precise example, you may prioritize collaboration skills by assigning specific tasks to pairs of students within each team. In doing so, students will continuously develop communication and collaboration abilities by working as a couple and part of a small group. By defining a clear purpose, you’ll also have an easier time following the next step.

3. Create and Distribute Helpful Material

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Handouts and other content not only act as a set of resources, but help students stay focused on the activity and its purpose. For example, if you want them to improve a certain math skill , you should make material that highlights the mathematical aspects of the problem. You may decide to provide items such as:

  • Data that helps quantify and add context to the problem
  • Videos, presentations and other audio-visual material
  • A list of preliminary questions to investigate

Providing a range of resources can be especially important for elementary students and struggling students in higher grades, who may not have self-direction skills to work without them.

4. Set Goals and Expectations for Your Students

Along with the aforementioned materials, give students a guide or rubric that details goals and expectations. It will allow you to further highlight the purpose of the problem-based learning exercise, as you can explain what you’re looking for in terms of collaboration, the final product and anything else. It should also help students stay on track by acting as a reference throughout the activity.

5. Participate

focus model problem solving disadvantages

Although explicitly correcting students may be discouraged, you can still help them and ask questions to dig into their thought processes. When you see an opportunity, consider if it’s worthwhile to:

  • Fill gaps in knowledge
  • Provide hints, not answers
  • Question a student’s conclusion or logic regarding a certain point, helping them think through tough spots

By participating in these ways, you can provide insight when students need it most, encouraging them to effectively analyze the problem.

6. Have Students Present Ideas and Findings

If you divided them into small groups, requiring students to present their thoughts and results in front the class adds a large-group learning component to the lesson. Encourage other students to ask questions, allowing the presenting group to elaborate and provide evidence for their thoughts. This wraps up the activity and gives your class a final chance to find solutions to the problem.

Wrapping Up

The effectiveness of problem-based learning may differ between classrooms and individual students, depending on how significant specific advantages and disadvantages are to you. Evaluative research consistently shows value in giving students a question and letting them take control of their learning. But the extent of this value can depend on the difficulties you face.It may be wise to try a problem-based learning activity, and go forward based on results.

Create or log into your teacher account on Prodigy -- an adaptive math game that adjusts content to accommodate player trouble spots and learning speeds. Aligned to US and Canadian curricula, it’s used by more than 350,000 teachers and 10 million students. It may be wise to try a problem-based learning activity, and go forward based on results.

Problem solving in mathematics education: tracing its foundations and current research-practice trends

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  • Published: 30 April 2024

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focus model problem solving disadvantages

  • Manuel Santos-Trigo   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7144-2098 1  

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In tracing recent research trends and directions in mathematical problem-solving, it is argued that advances in mathematics practices occur and take place around two intertwined activities, mathematics problem formulation and ways to approach and solve those problems. In this context, a problematizing principle emerges as central activity to organize mathematics curriculum proposals and ways to structure problem-solving learning environments. Subjects’ use of concrete, abstract, symbolic, or digital tools not only influences the ways to pose and pursue mathematical problems; but also shapes the type of representation, exploration, and reasoning they engage to work and solve problems. Problem-solving foundations that privilege learners’ development of habits of mathematical practices that involve an inquiry method to formulate conjectures, to look for different ways to represent and approach problems, and to support and communicate results shed light on directions of current research trends and the relevance of rethinking curriculum proposals and extending problem-solving environments in terms of teachers/students’ consistent use of digital tools and online developments.

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1 Introduction and rationale

Mathematical problem solving has been a prominent theme and research area in the mathematics education agenda during the last four decades. Problem-solving perspectives have influenced and shaped mathematics curriculum proposals and ways to support learning environments worldwide (Törner et al., 2007 ; Toh et al., 2023 ). Various disciplinary communities have identified and contributed to connect problem-solving approaches with the students’ learning, construction, and application of mathematical knowledge. The mathematics community recognizes that the formulation and resolution of problems are central activities in the development of the discipline (Halmos, 1980 , Polya, 1945 ). Indeed, the identification and presentation of lists of unsolved mathematical problems have been a tradition that has inspired the mathematics community to approach mathematical problems and to generate mathematical knowledge (Hilbert, 1902 ; Devlin, 2002 ). Thus, mathematical problems, results, and solution attempts provide information regarding what areas and contents were studied at different times during the development of the discipline (Santos-Trigo, 2020a , b ). Cai et al. ( 2023 ) stated that “ …[E]ngaging learners in the activity of problem posing reflects a potentially strong link to the discipline of mathematics” (p. 5). Thurston ( 1994 ) recognized that understanding and applying a mathematical concept implies analysing, coordinating, and integrating diverse meanings (geometric, visual, intuitive, and formal definition) associated with such concept and ways to carry out corresponding procedures and operations in problematic situations.

The centrality of problem-solving in mathematicians’ own work and in their teaching, is incontrovertible. Problem-solving is also a central topic for mathematics educators, who have developed conceptual frameworks to formulate general ideas about problem-solving (as opposed to the specific ideas needed for solving specific problems) (Fried, 2014 ; p.17).

That is, the mathematics education community is interested in analysing and documenting the students’ cognitive and social behaviours to understand and develop mathematical knowledge and problem-solving competencies. “…the idea of understanding how mathematicians treat and solve problems, and then implementing this understanding in instruction design, was pivotal in mathematics education research and practice” (Koichu, 2014 ). In addition, other disciplines such as psychology, cognitive science or artificial intelligence have provided tools and methods to delve into learners’ ways to understand mathematical concepts and to work on problem situations. Thus, members of various communities have often worked in collaboration to identify and relate relevant aspects of mathematical practices with the design and implementation of learning scenarios that foster and enhance students’ mathematical thinking and the development of problem-solving competencies.

2 Methods and procedures

Research focus, themes, and inquiry methods in the mathematical problem-solving agenda have varied and been influenced and shaped by theoretical and methodological developments of mathematics education as a discipline (English & Kirshner, 2016 ; Liljedahl & Cai, 2021 ). Further, research designs and methods used in cognitive, social, and computational fields have influenced the ways in which mathematical problem-solving research are framed. An overarching question to capture shifts and foundations in problem-solving developments was: How has mathematical problem-solving research agenda varied and evolved in terms of ways to frame, pose, and pursue research questions? In addressing this question, it was important to identify and contrast the structure and organization around some published problem-solving reviews (Lester, 1994 ; Törner et al., 2007 ; Rott et al., 2021 ; Liljedahl & Cai, 2021 ; Toh et al., 2023 ) to shed light on a possible route to connect seminal developments in the field with current research trends and perspectives in mathematical problem-solving developments. The goal was to identify common problem-solving principles that have provided a rational and foundations to support recent problem-solving approaches for learners to construct mathematical knowledge and to develop problem-solving competencies. The criteria to select the set of published peer-reviewed studies, to consider in this review, involved choosing articles published in indexed journals (ZDM-Mathematics Education, Educational Studies in Mathematics, Mathematical Thinking and Learning, Journal of Mathematical Behavior, and Journal for Research in Mathematics Education); contributions that appear in International Handbooks in Mathematics Education; and chapters published in recent mathematical problem-solving books. The initial search included 205 publications whose number was reduced to 55, all published in English, based on reviewing their abstracts and conclusions. Around 100 of the initial selection appeared in the references of an ongoing weekly mathematical problem-solving doctoral seminar that has been implemented during the last six years in our department. In addition, some well-known authors in the field were asked to identify their most representative publications to include in the review list. Here, some suggestions were received, but at the end the list of contributions, that appears in the references section, was chosen based on my vision and experience in the field. The goal was to identify main issues or dimensions to frame and analyse recent research trends and perspectives in mathematical problem-solving developments. Thus, seminal reviews in the field (Schoenfeld, 1992 ; Lester, 1994 ; Törner et al., 2007 ) provided directions on ways to structure and select the questions used to analyse the selected contributions. Table  1 shows chosen issues that resemble features of an adjusted framework that Lester ( 1994 ) proposed to organize, summarize, and analyse problem-solving developments in terms of research emphasis (themes and research questions), methodologies (research designs and methods), and achieved results that the problem-solving community addressed during the 1970–1994 period. Furthermore, relevant shifts in the mathematical problem-solving agenda could be identified and explained in terms of what the global mathematics education and other disciplines pursue at different periods.

It is important to mention that the content and structure of this paper involve a narrative synthesis of selected articles that includes contributions related to mathematical problem-solving foundations and those that address recent developments published in the last 9 years that involve the use of digital technologies. Table  1 shows themes, issues, and overarching questions that were used to delve into problem-solving developments.

To contextualize the current state of art in the field, it is important to revisit problem-solving principles and tenets that provide foundations and a rationale to centre and support the design and implementation of learning environments around problem-solving activities (Santos-Trigo, 2020a , b ). The identification of mathematical problem-solving foundations also implies acknowledging what terms, concepts, and language or discourse that the problem-solving community has used to refer to and frame problem-solving approaches. For example, routine and nonroutine tasks, heuristic and metacognitive strategies, students’ beliefs, mathematical thinking and practices, resources, orientations, etc. are common terms used to explain, foster, and characterize students’ problem-solving behaviours and performances. Recently, the consistent use of digital technologies in educational tasks has extended the problem-solving language to include terms such as subjects’ tool appropriation, dynamic models, dragging or moving orderly objects, tracing loci, visual or empirical solution, ChatGPT prompts, etc.

3 On mathematical problem-solving foundations and the problematizing principle

There might be different ways to interpret and implement a problem-solving approach for students to understand concepts and to solve problems (Törner, Schoenfeld, & Reiss, 2007 ; Toh et al., 2023 ); nevertheless, there are common principles or tenets that distinguish and support a problem-solving teaching/learning environment. A salient feature in any problem-solving approach to learn mathematics is a conceptualization of the discipline that privileges and enhance the students’ development of mathematical practices or reasoning habits of mathematical thinking (Cuoco, et, al., 1996 ; Dick & Hollebrands, 2011 ; Schoenfeld, 2022 ). In this context, students need to conceptualize and think of their own learning as a set of dilemmas that are represented, explored, and solved in terms of mathematical resources and strategies (Santos-Trigo, 2023 ; Hiebert et al., 1996 ).

Furthermore, students’ problem-solving experiences and behaviours reflect and become a way of thinking that is consistent with mathematics practices and is manifested in terms of the activities they engage throughout all problem-solving phases. Thus, they privilege the development of mathematics habits such as to always look for different ways to model and explore mathematical problems, to formulate conjectures, and to search for arguments to support them, share problem solutions, defend their ideas, and to develop a proper language to communicate results. In terms of connecting ways of developing mathematical knowledge and the design of learning environments to develop mathematical thinking and problem-solving competencies, Polya ( 1945 ) identifies an inquiry approach for students to understand, make sense, and apply mathematical concepts. He illustrated the importance for students to pose and pursue different questions around four intertwined problem-solving phases: Understanding and making sense of the problem statement (what is the problem about? What data are provided? What is asked to find? etc.), the design of a solution plan (how the problem can be approached? ), the implementation of such plan (how the plan can be achieved? ), and the looking-back phase that involves reviewing the solution process (data used, checking the involved operations, consistency of units, and partial and global solution), generalizing the solution methods and posing new problems. Indeed, the looking-back phase involves the formulation of new or related problems (Toh et al., 2023 ). “For Pólya, mathematics was about inquiry; it was about sense making; it was about understanding how and why mathematical ideas fit together the ways they do” (cited in Schoenfeld, 2020 , p. 1167).

Likewise, the Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi mentioned that, when he came home from school, “while other mothers asked their kids ‘ Did you learn anything today ?’ [my mother] would say, ‘ Izzy, did you ask a good question today ?’” (Berger, 2014 , p.67).

Thus, the problematizing principle is key for students to engage in mathematical problem-solving activities, and it gets activated by an inquiry or inquisitive method that is expressed in terms of questions that students pose and pursue to delve into concepts meaning, representations, explorations, operations, and to work on mathematical tasks (Santos-Trigo, 2020a , b ).

4 The importance of mathematical tasks and the role of tools in problem-solving perspectives

In a problem-solving approach, learners develop a way of thinking to work on different types of tasks that involve a variety of context and aims (Cai & Hwang, 2023 ). A task might require students to formulate a problem from given information, to estimate how much water a family spend in one year, to prove a geometry theorem, to model genetic sequences or to understand the interplay between climate and geography. In this process, students identify mathematical resources, concepts, and strategies to model and explore partial and global solutions, and ways to extend solution methods and results. Furthermore, mathematical tasks or problems are essential for students to engage in mathematical practice and to develop problem-solving competencies. Task statements should be situated in different contexts including realistic, authentic, or mathematical domains, and prompts or questions to solve or respond or even provide information or data for students to formulate and solve their own problems (problem posing). Current events or problematic situations such as climate change, immigration, or pandemics not only are part of individuals concerns; but also, a challenge for teachers and students to model and analyze those complex problems through mathematics and others disciplines knowledge (English, 2023 ). Santos-Trigo ( 2019 ) proposed a framework to transform exercises or routine textbook problems into a series of nonroutine tasks in which students have an opportunity to dynamically model, explore, and extend, the initial problem. Here, the use of technology becomes important to explore the behavior of some elements within the model to find objects’ mathematical relationships. That is, students work on tasks in such a way that even routine problems become a starting point for them to engage in mathematical reflection to extend the initial nature of the task (Santos-Trigo & Reyes-Martínez, 2019 ). Recently, the emergence of tools such as the ChatGPT has confirmed the importance for learners to problematize situations, including complex problems, in terms of providing prompts or inputs that the tool processes and answers. Here, students analyze the tool’ responses and assess its pertinence to work and solve the task. Indeed, a way to use ChatGPT involves that students understand or make sense of the problem statement and pose questions (inputs or prompts) to ask the tool for concept information or ways to approach or solve the task. Then, students analyze the relevance, viability, and consistency of the tool’s answer and introduce new inputs to continue with the solution process or to look for another way to approach the task. Based on the ChatGPT output or task solution, students could always ask whether the tool can provide other ways to solve the task.

5 Main problem-solving research themes and results

In this section the focus will be on identifying certain problem-solving developments that have permeated recent directions of the field. One relates to the importance of extending research designs to analyse and characterize learners’ problem-solving process to work on different types of tasks. Another development involves ways in which theoretical advances in mathematics education have shaped the mathematical problem-solving research agenda and the extent to which regional or national educational systems or traditions influence the developments of conceptual frameworks in the field and ways to implement problem-solving activities within the corresponding system. Finally, research results in the field have provided directions to design and implement curriculum proposals around the world and these proposals have evolved in terms of both content structure and classroom dynamics including the use of digital technologies. Santos-Trigo ( 2023 ) stated that the teachers and students’ systematic use of digital technologies not only expands their ways of reasoning and solving mathematical problems; but also opens new research areas that aim to analyse the integration of several digital tools in curriculum proposals and learning scenarios. The focus of this review will be on presenting problem-solving directions and results in the last 9 years; however, it became relevant to identify and review what principles and tenets provided bases or foundations to support and define current research trends and directions in the field. That is, accumulated research that has contributed to advance and expand the problem-solving research agenda included shifts in the tools used to delve into learners’ problem approaches, the development of conceptual frameworks to explain and characterize students’ mathematical thinking, the tools used to work on mathematical tasks (from paper and pencil, ruler and compass or semiotic tools to digital apps), and in the design of curriculum proposals and the implementation of problem-solving learning scenarios.

5.1 Relevant shifts in problem-solving developments and results

Questions used to analyse important developments in the field include: What research designs and tools are used to foster and analyse learners’ problem-solving performances? How have conceptual frameworks evolved to pose and frame research questions in the field? How have accumulated research results in the field been used to support curriculum proposals and their implementation?

5.1.1 Methodological and research paradigms

Research designs in problem-solving studies have gradually moved from quantitative or statistical paradigms to qualitative perspectives that involve data collection from different sources such as task-based interviews, fieldnotes from observations, students’ written reports, etc. to analyse students’ problem-solving approaches and performances. Trustworthiness of results included triangulating and interpreting data sources from students’ videotapes transcriptions, outside observer notes, class observations, etc. (Stake, 2000 ). Hence, the work of Krutestkii ( 1976 ) was seminal in providing tools to delve into the students’ thinking while solving mathematical tasks. His research program aimed to study the nature and structure of children’ mathematical abilities. His methodological approach involved the use of student’s task-based interviews, teachers, and mathematicians’ questionaries to explore the nature of mathematical abilities, the analysis of eminent mathematicians and physicists regarding their nature and emergence of their talents and case studies of gifted children in mathematics. A major contribution of his research was the variety of mathematical tasks used to explore and analyse the mathematical abilities of school children. Recently, the mathematical problem-posing agenda has been revisited to advance conceptual frameworks to enhance the students’ formulation of problems to learn concepts and to develop problem-solving competencies (Cai et al., 2023 ). In general, the initial qualitative research tendency privileged case studies where individual students were asked to work on mathematical tasks to document their problem-solving performances. Later, research designs include the students’ participation in small groups and the analysis of students’ collaboration with the entire group (Brady et al., 2023 ). Bricolage frameworks that share tenets and information from different fields have become a powerful tool for researchers to understand complex people’ problem-solving proficiency (Lester, 2005 ; English, 2023 ).

5.1.2 Theoretical developments in mathematics education

In mathematics education, the constructivism perspective became relevant to orient and support research programs. Specifically, the recognition that students construct mathematical concepts and ideas through active participation as a part of a learning community that fosters and values what they bring into the classroom (eliciting students’ understanding) and sharing and discussing with peers their ways to work on mathematical activities. Further, it was recognized that students’ learning of mathematics takes place within a sociocultural environment (situated learning) that promotes the students’ interaction in small groups, pairs, and whole group discussions. Thus, problem-solving environments transited from teachers being a main figure to organize learning activities and to model problem-solving behaviours to being centred on students’ active participation to work on a variety of mathematical tasks as a part of a learning community (Lester & Cai, 2016 ). English ( 2023 ) proposed A STEM-based problem-solving framework that addresses the importance of a multidisciplinary approach and experiences to work on complex problems. Here, students develop a system of inquiry that integrates critical thinking, mathematical modelling, and a creative and innovative approach to deal with problematic situations situated in contexts beyond school problems. The STEM-based problem-solving framework enhances and favours the students’ development of multidisciplinary thinking to formulate and approach challenging problematic situations. To this end, they need to problematize information to characterize local and global problems and to collaboratively work on feasible approaches and solutions. It integrates 21st century skills that include an inquiry problem-solving approach to develop and exhibit critical thinking, creativity, and innovative solutions.

5.1.3 Countries or regional education traditions and their influence on the problem-solving agenda

The emergence of problem-solving frameworks takes place within an educational and socio-cultural context that provides conditions for their development and dissemination, but also limitations in their applications inside the mathematics education community. Brady et al. ( 2023 ) pointed out that:

…shifts in the theoretical frameworks of mathematics education researchers favored a widening of the view on problem solving from information-processing theories toward sociocultural theories that encouraged a conception of problem-solving as situated cognition unfolding within a community of practice (p. 34).

In addition, regional or national educational systems and research traditions also shape the problem-solving research and practice agenda. For example, in France, problem-solving approaches and research are framed in terms of two relevant theoretical and practical frameworks: Theory of Didactic Situation and the Anthropological Theory of Didactics (Artigue & Houdement, 2007 ). While, in the Netherlands, problem-solving approaches are situated within the theory of Realistic Mathematics that encourages and supports the students’ construction of meaning of concepts and methods in terms of modelling real-life and mathematical situations (Doorman et al., 2007 ). Ding et al. ( 2022 ) stated that the Chinese educational system refers to problem solving as an instructional goal and an approach to learn mathematics. Here, students deal with different types of problem-solving activities that include finding multiple solutions to one problem, one solution to multiple problems, and one problem multiple changes. Thus, ‘teaching with variation’ is emphasized in Chinese instruction in terms of “variations in solutions, presentations, and conditions/conclusions” (p. 482). Cai and Rott ( 2023 ) proposed a general problem-posing process model that distinguishes four problem-posing phases: Orientation (understanding the situation and what is required or is asked to pose); Connection that involves finding out or generating ideas and strategies to pose problems in different ways such as varying the given situation, or posing new problems; Generation refers to making the posed problem visible for others to understand it; and Reflection involves reflecting on her/his own process to pose the problem including ways to improve problem statements. The challenge in this model is to make explicit how the use of digital technologies can contribute to providing conditions for students to engage in all phases around problem- posing process.

5.1.4 Curriculum proposals and problem-solving teaching/learning scenarios

In the USA, the Common Core State Mathematics Standards curriculum proposal (CCSMS) identifies problem solving as a process standard that supports core mathematical practices that involve reasoning and proof, communication, representation, and connections. Thus, making sense of problems and persevering in solving them, reasoning abstractly and quantitatively, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, modelling with mathematics, etc. are essential activities for students to develop mathematics proficiency and problem-solving approaches (Schoenfeld, 2023 ). In Singapore, the curriculum proposal identifies problem solving as the centre of its curriculum framework that relates its development with the study of concepts, skills, processes, attitudes, and metacognition (Lee et al., 2019 ). Recently, educational systems have begun to reform curriculum proposals to relate what the use of digital technologies demands in terms of selecting and structuring mathematical contents and ways to extend instructional settings (Engelbrecht & Borba, 2023 ). Indeed, Engelbrecht et al. ( 2023 ) identify what they call a classroom in movement or a distributed classroom - that transforms traditional cubic spaces to study the discipline into a movable setting that might combine remote and face-to-face students work.

It is argued that previous results in mathematical problem-solving research not only have contributed to recognize what is relevant and what common tenets distinguish and support problem-solving approaches; but also have provided bases to identify and pursue current problem-solving developments and directions. Hence, the consistent and coordinated use of several digital technologies and online developments (teaching and learning platforms) has opened new routes for learners to represent, explore, and work on mathematical problems; and to engage them in mathematical discussions beyond formal class settings. How does the students’ use of digital technologies expand the ways they reason and solve mathematical problems? What changes in classroom environments and physical settings are needed to recognize and include students’ face-to-face and remote work? (Engelbrecht et al., 2023 ).

In the next sections, the goal is to characterize the extent to which the consistent use of digital technologies and online developments provides affordances to restructure mathematical curriculum proposals and classrooms or learning settings and to enhance and expand students’ mathematical reasoning.

6 Current mathematical problem-solving trends and developments: the use of digital technologies

Although the use of technologies has been a recurrent theme in research studies, curriculum proposals, and teaching practices in mathematics education; during the COVID-pandemic lockdown, all teachers and students relied on digital technologies to work on mathematical tasks. At different phases, they developed and implemented not only novel paths to present, discuss, and approach teaching/learning activities; but also, ways to monitor and assess students’ problem-solving performances. When schools returned to teachers and students’ face-to-face activities, some questions emerged: What adjustments or changes in school practices are needed to consider and integrate those learning experiences that students developed during the social confinement? What digital tools should teachers and students use to work on mathematical tasks? How should teaching/learning practices reconcile students remote and face-to-face work? To address these questions, recent studies that involve ways to integrate technology in educational practices were reviewed, and their main themes and findings are organized and problematized to shed light on what the use of digital technologies contributes to frame and support learning environments.

6.1 The use of technology to reconceptualize students mathematical learning

There are different studies that document the importance and ways in which the students’ use of tools such as CAS or Excel offers an opportunity for them to think of concepts and problems in terms of different representations to transit from intuitive, visual, or graphic to formal or analytical reasoning (Arcavi et al., 2017 ). Others digital technologies, such as a Dynamic Geometry System Footnote 1 DGS, provide affordances for students to dynamically represent and explore mathematical problems. In students’ use of digital technologies, the problematizing principle becomes relevant to transform the tool into an instrument to work on mathematical tasks. Santos-Trigo ( 2019 ) provides examples where students rely on GeoGebra affordances to reconstruct figures that are given in problem statements; to transform routine problem into an investigation task; to model and explore tasks that involve variational reasoning; and to construct dynamic configurations to formulate and support mathematical relations. In this process, students not only exhibit diverse problem-solving strategies; but also, identify and integrate and use different concepts and resources that are studied in algebra, geometry, and calculus. That is, the use of technology provides an opportunity for students to integrate and connect knowledge from diverse areas or domains. For instance, Sinclair and Ferrara ( 2023 ) used the multi-touch application (TouchCounts) for children to work on mathematical challenging tasks.

6.2 The use of digital technologies to design a didactic route

There is indication, that the use of digital technologies offers different paths for students to learn mathematics (Leung & Bolite-Frant, 2015 ; Leung & Baccaglini-Frank, 2017 ). For instance, in the construction of a dynamic model of a problem, they are required to think of concepts and information embedded in the problem in terms of geometric representation or meaning. Thus, focusing on ways for students to represent and explore concepts geometrically could be the departure point to understand concepts and to solve mathematical problems. In addition, students can explore problems’ dynamic models (dragging schemes) in terms of visual, empirical, and graphic representations to initially identify relations that become relevant to approach and solve the problems. Thus, tool affordances become relevant for students to detect patterns, to formulate conjectures and to transit from empirical to formal argumentation to support problem solutions (Pittalis & Drijvers, 2023 ). Engelbrecht and Borba ( 2023 ) recognized that the prominent use of digital technologies in school mathematics has produced pedagogical shifts in teaching and learning practices to “encourage more active students learning, foster greater engagement, and provide more flexible access to learning’ (p. 1). Multiple use technologies such as internet, communication apps (ZOOM, Teams, Google Meet, etc.) become essential tools for teachers and students to present, communicate, and share information or to collaborate with peers. While tools used to represent, explore, and delve into concepts and to work and solve mathematical problems (Dynamic Geometry Systems, Wolframalpha, etc.) expand the students’ ways of reasoning and solving problems. Both types of technologies are not only important for teachers and students to continue working on school tasks beyond formal settings, but they also provide students with an opportunity to consult online resources such as Wikipedia or KhanAcademy to review or extend their concepts understanding, to analyse solved problems, and to contrast their teachers’ explanation of themes or concepts with those provided in learning platforms.

6.3 Students’ access to mathematics learning

Nowadays, cell phones are essential tools for people or students to interact or to approach diverse tasks and an educational challenge is how teachers/students can use them to work on mathematical tasks. During the COVID-19 social confinement, students relied on communication apps not only to interact with their teachers during class lectures; but also, to keep discussing tasks with peers beyond formal class meetings. That is, students realized that with the use of technology they could expand their learning space to include sharing and discussing ideas and problem solutions with peers beyond class sessions, consulting online learning platforms or material to review or extend their concepts understanding, and to watch videos to contrast experts’ concepts explanations and those provided by their teachers. In this perspective, the use of digital technologies increases the students’ access to different resources and the ways to work on mathematical tasks. Thus, available digital developments seem to extend the students collaborative work in addition to class activities. Furthermore, the flipped classroom model seems to offer certain advantages for students to learn the discipline and this model needs to be analysed in terms of what curriculum changes and ways to assess or monitor students learning are needed in its design and implementation (Cevikbas & Kaiser, 2022 ).

6.4 Changes in curriculum and mathematical assessment

It is recognized that the continuous development and availability of digital technologies is not only altering the ways in which individuals interact and face daily activities; but is also transforming educational practices and settings. Likewise, people’s concerns about multiple events or global problems such climate change, immigration, educational access, renewable resources, or racial conflicts or wars are themes that permeate the educational arena. Thus, curriculum reforms should address ways to connect students’ education with the analysis of these complex problems. English ( 2023 ) stated that:

The ill-defined problems of today, coupled with unexpected disruptions across all walks of life, demand advanced problem-solving by all citizens. The need to update outmoded forms of problem solving, which fail to take into account increasing global challenges, has never been greater (p.5).

In this perspective, mathematics curriculum needs to be structured around essential contents and habits of mathematical thinking for students to understand and make sense of real-world events that lead them to formulate, represent, and deal with a variety of problem situations. “Educators now increasingly seek to emphasise the practical applications of mathematics, such as modelling real-life scenarios and understanding statistical data (Engelbrecht & Borba, 2023 , p. 7). For instance, during the pandemic it was important to problematize the available data to follow, analyze and predict its spread behavior and to propose health measures to reduce people contagion. Thus, exponential functions, graphics, and their interpretations, data analysis, etc. were important mathematics content to understand the pandemic phenomena. Drijvers and Sinclair ( 2023 ) recognized that features of computational thinking share common grounds with mathematical thinking in terms of problem-solving activities that privilege model construction, the use of algorithms, abstraction processes and generalization of results. Thus, “a further integration of computational thinking in the mathematics curriculum is desirable”. In terms of ways to assess and monitor students’ learning, the idea is that with the use of a digital tool (digital wall or log), students could organize, structure, register, and monitor their individual and group work and learning experiences. That is, they could periodically report and share what difficulties they face to understand concepts or to work on a task, what questions they posed, what sources consult, etc. The information that appears in the digital wall is shared within the group and the teacher and students can provide feedback or propose new ideas or solutions (Santos-Trigo et al., 2022 ).

6.5 The integration of technologies and the emergence of conceptual frameworks

Institutions worldwide, in general, are integrating the use of different technologies in their educational practices, and they face the challenge to reconcile previous pandemic models and post confinement learning scenarios. “A pedagogical reason for using technology is to empower learners with extended or amplified abilities to acquire knowledge…technology can empower their cognitive abilities to reason in novice ways (Leung, 2011 , p. 327). Drijvers and Sinclair ( 2023 ) proposed a five-dimensional framework to delve into the rationale and purposes for the mathematics education community to integrate the use of digital technologies in mathematical teaching environments and students learning. The five interrelated categories address issues regarding how teachers and students’ use of digital technology contributes to reconceptualize and improve mathematics learning; to understand and explain how students’ mathematics learning develops; to design environments for mathematics learning; to foster and provide equitable access to mathematics learning; and to change mathematics curricula and teaching and assessment practices (Drijvers & Sinclair, 2023 ). Schoenfeld ( 2022 ) stated that “The challenge is to create robust learning environments that support every student in developing not only the knowledge and practices that underlie effective mathematical thinking, but that help them develop the sense of agency to engage in sense making” (p. 764). Højsted et al. ( 2022 ) argue about the importance of adjusting theoretical frameworks to explicitly integrate the use of digital technologies such as DGS and Computer Algebra Systems (CAS) in teaching practices. They referred to the Danish “Competencies and Mathematical Learning framework” (KOM) that gets articulated through tenets associated with the Theory of Instrumental Orchestration (TIO) and the notion of Justification Mediation (JM). In general terms, the idea is that learners get explicitly involved in a tool’ appropriation process that transforms the artifact into an instrument to understand concepts and to solve mathematical problems. That is, learners’ tool appropriation involves the development of cognitive schemata to rely on technology affordances to work on mathematical tasks. Koichu et al. ( 2022 ) pointed out that the incorporation of problem-solving approaches in instruction should be seen as a specific case of implementing innovation. To this end, they proposed a framework of problem-solving implementation chain that involves “a sequence of actions and interactions beginning with the development of a PS resource by researchers, which teachers then engage with in professional development (PD), and finally, teachers and students make use of in classrooms” (p. 4). In this case, problem-solving resources include the design of problematic situations (tasks) to engage students in mathematical discussions to make sense of problem statements or to ask them to pose a task.

7 Reflections and concluding remarks

Throughout different periods, the research and practice mathematical problem-solving agenda has contributed significantly to understand not only essentials in mathematical practices; but also, the development of conceptual frameworks to explain and document subjects’ cognitive, social, and affective behaviours to understand mathematical concepts and to develop problem-solving competencies. Leikin and Guberman ( 2023 ) pointed out that “…problem-solving is an effective didactical tool that allows pupils to mobilize their existing knowledge, construct new mathematical connections between known concepts and properties, and construct new knowledge in the process of overcoming challenges embedded in the problems” (p. 325). The study of people cognitive functioning to develop multidisciplinary knowledge and to solve problems involves documenting ways in which individuals make decisions regarding ways to organize their subject or disciplinary learning (how to interact with teachers or experts and peers; what material to consult, what tools to use, how to monitor their own learning, etc.) and to engage in disciplinary practices to achieve their learning goals. Both strategic and tactic decisions shape teachers and students’ ways to work on mathematical tasks. Kahneman ( 2011 ) shed light on how human beings make decisions to deal with questions and problematic situations. He argues that individuals rely on two systems to make decisions and engage in thinking processes; system one (fast thinking) that involves automatic, emotional, instinctive reasoning and system two (slow thinking) that includes logical, deliberative, effortful, or conscious reasoning. In educational tasks, the idea is that teachers and students develop experiences based on the construction and activation of system two. Thus, how teachers/students decide what tools or digital developments to use to work on mathematical problems becomes a relevant issue to address in the mathematics education agenda. Recent and consistent developments and the availability of digital technologies open novel paths for teachers and students to represent, explore, and approach mathematical tasks and, provide different tools to extend students and teachers’ mathematical discussions beyond classroom settings. In this perspective, it becomes important to discuss what changes the systematic use of digital technologies bring to the mathematics contents and to the ways to frame mathematical instruction. For example, the use of a Dynamic Geometry System to model and explore calculus, geometry or algebra classic problems dynamically not only offer students an opportunity to connect foundational concepts such as rate of change or the perpendicular bisector concept to geometrically study variational phenomena or conic sections; but also, to engage them in problem-posing activities (Santos-Trigo et al., 2021 ). Thus, teachers need to experience themselves different ways to use digital technologies to work on mathematical tasks and to identify instructional paths for students to internalize the use of digital apps as an instrument to understand concepts and to pose and formulate mathematical problems. Specifically, curriculum proposal should be structured around the development of foundational concepts and problem-solving strategies to formulate and pursue complex problems such as those involving climate changes, wealth distribution, immigration, pollution, mobility, connectivity, etc. To formulate and approach these problems, students need to develop a multidisciplinary thinking and rely on different tools to represent, explore, and share and continuously report partial solutions. To this end, they are encouraged to work with peers and groups as a part of learning community that fosters and values collective problem solutions. Finding multiple paths to solve problems becomes important for students to develop creative and innovative problem solutions (Leikin & Guberman, 2023 ). In this perspective, learning environments should provide conditions for students to transform digital applications in problem-solving tools to work on problematic situations. Online students’ assignments become an important component to structure and organize students and teachers’ face-to-face interactions. Likewise, the use of technology can also provide a tool for students to register and monitor their work and learning experiences. A digital wall or a problem-solving digital notebook (Santos-Trigo et al., 2022 ) could be introduced for students to register and monitor their learning experiences. Here, Students are asked to record on a weekly basis their work, questions, comments, and ideas that include: Questions they pose to understand concepts and problem statements; online resources and platforms they consult to contextualize problems and review and extend their understanding of involved concepts; concepts and strategies used to solve problems through different approaches; the Identification of other problems that can be solved with the methods that were used to solve the problem; digital technologies and online resources used to work on and solve the problem; dynamic models used to solve the problem and strategies used to identify and explore mathematical relations (dragging objects, measuring object attributes, tracing loci, using sliders, etc.; the formulation of new related problems including possible extensions for the initial problem; discussion of solutions of some new problems; and short recorded video presentation of their work and problem solutions. That is, the digital wall becomes an space for learners to share their work and to contrast and reflect on their peers work including extending their problem-solving approaches based on their teachers feedback and peers’ ideas or solutions.

The term Dynamic Geometry System is used, instead of Dynamic Geometry Environment or Dynamic Geometry Software, to emphasize that the app or tool interface encompasses a system of affordances that combines the construction of dynamic models, the use of Computer Algebra Systems and the use spreadsheet programs.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

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Problem-Solving Therapy Techniques

How effective is problem-solving therapy, things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

At a Glance

Problem-solving therapy is a short-term treatment used to help people who are experiencing depression, stress, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems develop the tools they need to deal with challenges. This approach teaches people to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement those solutions. Let's take a closer look at how problem-solving therapy can help people be more resilient and adaptive in the face of stress.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

Key Components

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

Planful Problem-Solving

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other Techniques

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses life stress issues and focuses on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with various psychological and physiological symptoms.

Mental Health Issues

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Specific Life Challenges

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the issues you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

Problem-solving therapy can help people feel more empowered to deal with the problems they face in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed when stressors begin to take a toll, this therapy introduces new coping skills that can boost self-efficacy and resilience .

Other Types of Therapy

Other similar types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) . While these therapies work to change thinking and behaviors, they work a bit differently. Both CBT and SFBT are less structured than problem-solving therapy and may focus on broader issues. CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts, and SFBT works to help people look for solutions and build self-efficacy based on strengths.

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to address clinical depression specifically. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy .

Keep In Mind

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Get Help Now

We've tried, tested, and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, BetterHelp, and ReGain. Find out which option is the best for you.

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Margolis SA, Osborne P, Gonzalez JS. Problem solving . In: Gellman MD, ed. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine . Springer International Publishing; 2020:1745-1747. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39903-0_208

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Noyes K, Zapf AL, Depner RM, et al. Problem-solving skills training in adult cancer survivors: Bright IDEAS-AC pilot study .  Cancer Treat Res Commun . 2022;31:100552. doi:10.1016/j.ctarc.2022.100552

Albert SM, King J, Anderson S, et al. Depression agency-based collaborative: effect of problem-solving therapy on risk of common mental disorders in older adults with home care needs . The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry . 2019;27(6):619-624. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2019.01.002

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.


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HBR On Strategy podcast series

A Better Framework for Solving Tough Problems

Start with trust and end with speed.

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When it comes to solving complicated problems, the default for many organizational leaders is to take their time to work through the issues at hand. Unfortunately, that often leads to patchwork solutions or problems not truly getting resolved.

But Anne Morriss offers a different framework. In this episode, she outlines a five-step process for solving any problem and explains why starting with trust and ending with speed is so important for effective change leadership. As she says, “Let’s get into dialogue with the people who are also impacted by the problem before we start running down the path of solving it.”

Morriss is an entrepreneur and leadership coach. She’s also the coauthor of the book, Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leader’s Guide to Solving Hard Problems .

Key episode topics include: strategy, decision making and problem solving, strategy execution, managing people, collaboration and teams, trustworthiness, organizational culture, change leadership, problem solving, leadership.

HBR On Strategy curates the best case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, to help you unlock new ways of doing business. New episodes every week.

  • Listen to the full HBR IdeaCast episode: How to Solve Tough Problems Better and Faster (2023)
  • Find more episodes of HBR IdeaCast
  • Discover 100 years of Harvard Business Review articles, case studies, podcasts, and more at HBR.org .

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Strategy , case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock new ways of doing business.

When it comes to solving complicated problems, many leaders only focus on the most apparent issues. Unfortunately that often leads to patchwork or partial solutions. But Anne Morriss offers a different framework that aims to truly tackle big problems by first leaning into trust and then focusing on speed.

Morriss is an entrepreneur and leadership coach. She’s also the co-author of the book, Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leader’s Guide to Solving Hard Problems . In this episode, she outlines a five-step process for solving any problem. Some, she says, can be solved in a week, while others take much longer. She also explains why starting with trust and ending with speed is so important for effective change leadership.

This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in October 2023. Here it is.

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

Problems can be intimidating. Sure, some problems are fun to dig into. You roll up your sleeves, you just take care of them; but others, well, they’re complicated. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your brain around a problem, much less fix it.

And that’s especially true for leaders in organizations where problems are often layered and complex. They sometimes demand technical, financial, or interpersonal knowledge to fix. And whether it’s avoidance on the leaders’ part or just the perception that a problem is systemic or even intractable, problems find a way to endure, to keep going, to keep being a problem that everyone tries to work around or just puts up with.

But today’s guest says that just compounds it and makes the problem harder to fix. Instead, she says, speed and momentum are key to overcoming a problem.

Anne Morriss is an entrepreneur, leadership coach and founder of the Leadership Consortium and with Harvard Business School Professor Francis Frei, she wrote the new book, Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leaders Guide to Solving Hard Problems . Anne, welcome back to the show.

ANNE MORRISS: Curt, thank you so much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: So, to generate momentum at an organization, you say that you really need speed and trust. We’ll get into those essential ingredients some more, but why are those two essential?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. Well, the essential pattern that we observed was that the most effective change leaders out there were building trust and speed, and it didn’t seem to be a well-known observation. We all know the phrase, “Move fast and break things,” but the people who were really getting it right were moving fast and fixing things, and that was really our jumping off point. So when we dug into the pattern, what we observed was they were building trust first and then speed. This foundation of trust was what allowed them to fix more things and break fewer.

CURT NICKISCH: Trust sounds like a slow thing, right? If you talk about building trust, that is something that takes interactions, it takes communication, it takes experiences. Does that run counter to the speed idea?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. Well, this issue of trust is something we’ve been looking at for over a decade. One of the headlines in our research is it’s actually something we’re building and rebuilding and breaking all the time. And so instead of being this precious, almost farbege egg, it’s this thing that is constantly in motion and this thing that we can really impact when we’re deliberate about our choices and have some self-awareness around where it’s breaking down and how it’s breaking down.

CURT NICKISCH: You said break trust in there, which is intriguing, right? That you may have to break trust to build trust. Can you explain that a little?

ANNE MORRISS:  Yeah, well, I’ll clarify. It’s not that you have to break it in order to build it. It’s just that we all do it some of the time. Most of us are trusted most of the time. Most of your listeners I imagine are trusted most of the time, but all of us have a pattern where we break trust or where we don’t build as much as could be possible.

CURT NICKISCH: I want to talk about speed, this other essential ingredient that’s so intriguing, right? Because you think about solving hard problems as something that just takes a lot of time and thinking and coordination and planning and designing. Explain what you mean by it? And also, just  how we maybe approach problems wrong by taking them on too slowly?

ANNE MORRISS: Well, Curt, no one has ever said to us, “I wish I had taken longer and done less.” We hear the opposite all the time, by the way. So what we really set out to do was to create a playbook that anyone can use to take less time to do more of the things that are going to make your teams and organizations stronger.

And the way we set up the book is okay, it’s really a five step process. Speed is the last step. It’s the payoff for the hard work you’re going to do to figure out your problem, build or rebuild trust, expand the team in thoughtful and strategic ways, and then tell a real and compelling story about the change you’re leading.

Only then do you get to go fast, but that’s an essential part of the process, and we find that either people under emphasize it or speed has gotten a bad name in this world of moving fast and breaking things. And part of our mission for sure was to rehabilitate speed’s reputation because it is an essential part of the change leader’s equation. It can be the difference between good intentions and getting anything done at all.

CURT NICKISCH: You know, the fact that nobody ever tells you, “I wish we had done less and taken more time.” I think we all feel that, right? Sometimes we do something and then realize, “Oh, that wasn’t that hard and why did it take me so long to do it? And I wish I’d done this a long time ago.” Is it ever possible to solve a problem too quickly?

ANNE MORRISS: Absolutely. And we see that all the time too. What we push people to do in those scenarios is really take a look at the underlying issue because in most cases, the solution is not to take your foot off the accelerator per se and slow down. The solution is to get into the underlying problem. So if it’s burnout or a strategic disconnect between what you’re building and the marketplace you’re serving, what we find is the anxiety that people attach to speed or the frustration people attach to speed is often misplaced.

CURT NICKISCH: What is a good timeline to think about solving a problem then? Because if we by default take too long or else jump ahead and we don’t fix it right, what’s a good target time to have in your mind for how long solving a problem should take?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. Well, we’re playful in the book and talking about the idea that many problems can be solved in a week. We set the book up five chapters. They’re titled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and we’re definitely having fun with that. And yet, if you count the hours in a week, there are a lot of them. Many of our problems, if you were to spend a focused 40 hours of effort on a problem, you’re going to get pretty far.

But our main message is, listen, of course it’s going to depend on the nature of the problem, and you’re going to take weeks and maybe even some cases months to get to the other side. What we don’t want you to do is take years, which tends to be our default timeline for solving hard problems.

CURT NICKISCH: So you say to start with identifying the problem that’s holding you back, seems kind of obvious. But where do companies go right and wrong with this first step of just identifying the problem that’s holding you back?

ANNE MORRISS: And our goal is that all of these are going to feel obvious in retrospect. The problem is we skip over a lot of these steps and this is why we wanted to underline them. So this one is really rooted in our observation and I think the pattern of our species that we tend to be overconfident in the quality of our thoughts, particularly when it comes to diagnosing problems.

And so we want to invite you to start in a very humble and curious place, which tends not to be our default mode when we’re showing up for work. We convince ourselves that we’re being paid for our judgment. That’s exactly what gets reinforced everywhere. And so we tend to counterintuitively, given what we just talked about, we tend to move too quickly through the diagnostic phase.

CURT NICKISCH: “I know what to do, that’s why you hired me.”

ANNE MORRISS: Exactly. “I know what to do. That’s why you hired me. I’ve seen this before. I have a plan. Follow me.” We get rewarded for the expression of confidence and clarity. And so what we’re inviting people to do here is actually pause and really lean into what are the root causes of the problem you’re seeing? What are some alternative explanations? Let’s get into dialogue with the people who are also impacted by the problem before we start running down the path of solving it.

CURT NICKISCH: So what do you recommend for this step, for getting to the root of the problem? What are questions you should ask? What’s the right thought process? What do you do on Monday of the week?

ANNE MORRISS: In our experience of doing this work, people tend to undervalue the power of conversation, particularly with other people in the organization. So we will often advocate putting together a team of problem solvers, make it a temporary team, really pull in people who have a particular perspective on the problem and create the space, make it as psychologically safe as you can for people to really, as Chris Argyris so beautifully articulated, discuss the undiscussable.

And so the conditions for that are going to look different in every organization depending on the problem, but if you can get a space where smart people who have direct experience of a problem are in a room and talking honestly with each other, you can make an extraordinary amount of progress, certainly in a day.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, that gets back to the trust piece.

ANNE MORRISS: Definitely.

CURT NICKISCH: How do you like to start that meeting, or how do you like to talk about it? I’m just curious what somebody on that team might hear in that meeting, just to get the sense that it’s psychologically safe, you can discuss the undiscussable and you’re also focusing on the identification part. What’s key to communicate there?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. Well, we sometimes encourage people to do a little bit of data gathering before those conversations. So the power of a quick anonymous survey around whatever problem you’re solving, but also be really thoughtful about the questions you’re going to ask in the moment. So a little bit of preparation can go a long way and a little bit of thoughtfulness about the power dynamic. So who’s going to walk in there with license to speak and who’s going to hold back? So being thoughtful about the agenda, about the questions you’re asking about the room, about the facilitation, and then courage is a very infectious emotion.

So if you can early on create the conditions for people to show up bravely in that conversation, then the chance that you’re going to get good information and that you’re going to walk out of that room with new insight in the problem that you didn’t have when you walked in is extraordinarily high.

CURT NICKISCH: Now, in those discussions, you may have people who have different perspectives on what the problem really is. They also bear different costs of addressing the problem or solving it. You talked about the power dynamic, but there’s also an unfairness dynamic of who’s going to actually have to do the work to take care of it, and I wonder how you create a culture in that meeting where it’s the most productive?

ANNE MORRISS: For sure, the burden of work is not going to be equitably distributed around the room. But I would say, Curt, the dynamic that we see most often is that people are deeply relieved that hard problems are being addressed. So it really can create, and more often than not in our experience, it does create this beautiful flywheel of action, creativity, optimism. Often when problems haven’t been addressed, there is a fair amount of anxiety in the organization, frustration, stagnation. And so credible movement towards action and progress is often the best antidote. So even if the plan isn’t super clear yet, if it’s credible, given who’s in the room and their decision rights and mandate, if there’s real momentum coming out of that to make progress, then that tends to be deeply energizing to people.

CURT NICKISCH: I wonder if there’s an organization that you’ve worked with that you could talk about how this rolled out and how this took shape?

ANNE MORRISS: When we started working with Uber, that was wrestling with some very public issues of culture and trust with a range of stakeholders internally, the organization, also external, that work really started with a campaign of listening and really trying to understand where trust was breaking down from the perspective of these stakeholders?

So whether it was female employees or regulators or riders who had safety concerns getting into the car with a stranger. This work, it starts with an honest internal dialogue, but often the problem has threads that go external. And so bringing that same commitment to curiosity and humility and dialogue to anyone who’s impacted by the problem is the fastest way to surface what’s really going on.

CURT NICKISCH: There’s a step in this process that you lay out and that’s communicating powerfully as a leader. So we’ve heard about listening and trust building, but now you’re talking about powerful communication. How do you do this and why is it maybe this step in the process rather than the first thing you do or the last thing you do?

ANNE MORRISS: So in our process, again, it’s the days of the week. On Monday you figured out the problem. Tuesday you really got into the sandbox in figuring out what a good enough plan is for building trust. Wednesday, step three, you made it better. You created an even better plan, bringing in new perspectives. Thursday, this fourth step is the day we’re saying you got to go get buy-in. You got to bring other people along. And again, this is a step where we see people often underinvest in the power and payoff of really executing it well.

CURT NICKISCH: How does that go wrong?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah, people don’t know the why. Human behavior and the change in human behavior really depends on a strong why. It’s not just a selfish, “What’s in it for me?” Although that’s helpful, but where are we going? I may be invested in a status quo and I need to understand, okay, if you’re going to ask me to change, if you’re going to invite me into this uncomfortable place of doing things differently, why am I here? Help me understand it and articulate the way forward and language that not only I can understand, but also that’s going to be motivating to me.

CURT NICKISCH: And who on my team was part of this process and all that kind of stuff?

ANNE MORRISS: Oh, yeah. I may have some really important questions that may be in the way of my buy-in and commitment to this plan. So certainly creating a space where those questions can be addressed is essential. But what we found is that there is an architecture of a great change story, and it starts with honoring the past, honoring the starting place. Sometimes we’re so excited about the change and animated about the change that what has happened before or what is even happening in the present tense is low on our list of priorities.

Or we want to label it bad, because that’s the way we’ve thought about the change, but really pausing and honoring what came before you and all the reasonable decisions that led up to it, I think can be really helpful to getting people emotionally where you want them to be willing to be guided by you. Going back to Uber, when Dara Khosrowshahi came in.

CURT NICKISCH: This is the new CEO.


CURT NICKISCH: Replaced Travis Kalanick, the founder and first CEO, yeah.

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah, and had his first all-hands meeting. One of his key messages, and this is a quote, was that he was going to retain the edge that had made Uber, “A force of nature.” And in that meeting, the crowd went wild because this is also a company that had been beaten up publicly for months and months and months, and it was a really powerful choice. And his predecessor, Travis was in the room, and he also honored Travis’ incredible work and investment in bringing the company to the place where it was.

And I would use words like grace to also describe those choices, but there’s also an incredible strategic value to naming the starting place for everybody in the room because in most cases, most people in that room played a role in getting to that starting place, and you’re acknowledging that.

CURT NICKISCH: You can call it grace. Somebody else might call it diplomatic or strategic. But yeah, I guess like it or not, it’s helpful to call out and honor the complexity of the way things have been done and also the change that’s happening.

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah, and the value. Sometimes honoring the past is also owning what didn’t work or what wasn’t working for stakeholders or segments of the employee team, and we see that around culture change. Sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge that it was not an equitable environment, but whatever the worker, everyone in that room is bringing that pass with them. So again, making it discussable and using it as the jumping off place is where we advise people to start.

Then you’ve earned the right to talk about the change mandate, which we suggest using clear and compelling language about the why. “This is what happened, this is where we are, this is the good and the bad of it, and here’s the case for change.”

And then the last part, which is to describe a rigorous and optimistic way forward. It’s a simple past, present, future arc, which will be familiar to human beings. We love stories as human beings. It’s among the most powerful currency we have to make sense of the world.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Chronological is a pretty powerful order.

ANNE MORRISS: Right. But again, the change leaders we see really get it right, are investing an incredible amount of time into the storytelling part of their job. Ursula Burns, the Head of Xerox is famous for the months and years she spent on the road just telling the story of Xerox’s change, its pivot into services to everyone who would listen, and that was a huge part of her success.

CURT NICKISCH: So Friday or your fifth step, you end with empowering teams and removing roadblocks. That seems obvious, but it’s critical. Can you dig into that a little bit?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. Friday is the fun day. Friday’s the release of energy into the system. Again, you’ve now earned the right to go fast. You have a plan, you’re pretty confident it’s going to work. You’ve told the story of change the organization, and now you get to sprint. So this is about really executing with urgency, and it’s about a lot of the tactics of speed is where we focus in the book. So the tactics of empowerment, making tough strategic trade-offs so that your priorities are clear and clearly communicated, creating mechanisms to fast-track progress. At Etsy, CEO Josh Silverman, he labeled these projects ambulances. It’s an unfortunate metaphor, but it’s super memorable. These are the products that get to speed out in front of the other ones because the stakes are high and the clock is sticking.

CURT NICKISCH: You pull over and let it go by.

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah, exactly. And so we have to agree as an organization on how to do something like that. And so we see lots of great examples both in young organizations and big complex biotech companies with lots of regulatory guardrails have still found ways to do this gracefully.

And I think we end with this idea of conflict debt, which is a term we really love. Leanne Davey, who’s a team scholar and researcher, and anyone in a tech company will recognize the idea of tech debt, which is this weight the organization drags around until they resolve it. Conflict debt is a beautiful metaphor because it is this weight that we drag around and slows us down until we decide to clean it up and fix it. The organizations that are really getting speed right have figured out either formally or informally, how to create an environment where conflict and disagreements can be gracefully resolved.

CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s talk about this speed more, right? Because I think this is one of those places that maybe people go wrong or take too long, and then you lose the awareness of the problem, you lose that urgency. And then that also just makes it less effective, right? It’s not just about getting the problem solved as quickly as possible. It’s also just speed in some ways helps solve the problem.

ANNE MORRISS: Oh, yeah. It really is the difference between imagining the change you want to lead and really being able to bring it to life. Speed is the thing that unlocks your ability to lead change. It needs a foundation, and that’s what Monday through Thursday is all about, steps one through four, but the finish line is executing with urgency, and it’s that urgency that releases the system’s energy, that communicates your priorities, that creates the conditions for your team to make progress.

CURT NICKISCH: Moving fast is something that entrepreneurs and tech companies certainly understand, but there’s also this awareness that with big companies, the bigger the organization, the harder it is to turn the aircraft carrier around, right? Is speed relative when you get at those levels, or do you think this is something that any company should be able to apply equally?

ANNE MORRISS: We think this applies to any company. The culture really lives at the level of team. So we believe you can make a tremendous amount of progress even within your circle of control as a team leader. I want to bring some humility to this and careful of words like universal, but we do think there’s some universal truths here around the value of speed, and then some of the byproducts like keeping fantastic people. Your best people want to solve problems, they want to execute, they want to make progress and speed, and the ability to do that is going to be a variable in their own equation of whether they stay or they go somewhere else where they can have an impact.

CURT NICKISCH: Right. They want to accomplish something before they go or before they retire or finish something out. And if you’re able to just bring more things on the horizon and have it not feel like it’s going to be another two years to do something meaningful.

ANNE MORRISS: People – I mean, they want to make stuff happen and they want to be around the energy and the vitality of making things happen, which again, is also a super infectious phenomenon. One of the most important jobs of a leader, we believe, is to set the metabolic pace of their teams and organizations. And so what we really dig into on Friday is, well, what does that look like to speed something up? What are the tactics of that?

CURT NICKISCH: I wonder if that universal truth, that a body in motion stays in motion applies to organizations, right? If an organization in motion stays in motion, there is something to that.

ANNE MORRISS: Absolutely.

CURT NICKISCH: Do you have a favorite client story to share, just where you saw speed just become a bit of a flywheel or just a positive reinforcement loop for more positive change at the organization?

ANNE MORRISS: Yeah. We work with a fair number of organizations that are on fire. We do a fair amount of firefighting, but we also less dramatically do a lot of fire prevention. So we’re brought into organizations that are working well and want to get better, looking out on the horizon. That work is super gratifying, and there is always a component of, well, how do we speed this up?

What I love about that work is there’s often already a high foundation of trust, and so it’s, well, how do we maintain that foundation but move this flywheel, as you said, even faster? And it’s really energizing because often there’s a lot of pent-up energy that… There’s a lot of loyalty to the organization, but often it’s also frustration and pent-up energy. And so when that gets released, when good people get the opportunity to sprint for the first time in a little while, it’s incredibly energizing, not just for us, but for the whole organization.

CURT NICKISCH: Anne, this is great. I think finding a way to solve problems better but also faster is going to be really helpful. So thanks for coming on the show to talk about it.

ANNE MORRISS:  Oh, Curt, it was such a pleasure. This is my favorite conversation. I’m delighted to have it anytime.

HANNAH BATES: That was entrepreneur, leadership coach, and author Anne Morriss – in conversation with Curt Nickisch on HBR IdeaCast.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about business strategy from Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

When you’re ready for more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos with the world’s top business and management experts, you’ll find it all at HBR.org.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Special thanks to Rob Eckhardt, Maureen Hoch, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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    Step 1 - Define the Problem. The definition of the problem is the first step in effective problem solving. This may appear to be a simple task, but it is actually quite difficult. This is because problems are frequently complex and multi-layered, making it easy to confuse symptoms with the underlying cause.


    THE FOCUS MODEL Follow the steps below to apply the FOCUS Model in your organization. Step 1: Identify a process that needs to be improved. ... The model is helpful because it uses a team-based approach to problem solving and to business-process improvement, and this makes it particularly useful for solving cross-departmental process issues ...

  11. Focus Model definition, explanation & examples

    The 'Choose your focus model' helps to focus thought processes. It helps to identify your type of thinking at any given moment and offers the possibility to subsequently choose what you wish to focus your attention on. This tool can be useful for any type of conversation, for instance for team meetings or when approaching a difficult ...

  12. Problem-Solving Models: What They Are and How To Use Them

    Here is a six-step process to follow when using a problem-solving model: 1. Define the problem. First, determine the problem that your team needs to solve. During this step, teams may encourage open and honest communication so everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns.

  13. What is Solution-Focused Therapy: 3 Essential Techniques

    The solution-focused model holds that focusing only on problems is not an effective way of solving them. Instead, SFBT targets clients' default solution patterns, evaluates them for efficacy, and modifies or replaces them with problem-solving approaches that work (Focus on Solutions, 2013).

  14. PDF www.free-management-ebooks.com/news/six-step-problem-solving-model/ The

    The Six Step Problem Solving Model Problem solving models are used to address the many challenges that arise in the workplace. While many people regularly solve problems, there are a range of different ... These techniques help collate the information in a structured way, and focus in on the underlying causes of the problem. This is called the ...

  15. Problem-Based Learning: Benefits and Risks

    Here's some of the information contained in the table. Benefits of Problem-Based Learning. For Students. It's a student-centered approach. Typically students find it more enjoyable and satisfying. It encourages greater understanding. Students with PBL experience rate their abilities higher. PBL develops lifelong learning skills.

  16. Adopting the right problem-solving approach

    In our 2013 classic from the Quarterly, senior partner Olivier Leclerc highlights the value of taking a number of different approaches simultaneously to solve difficult problems. Read on to discover the five flexons, or problem-solving languages, that can be applied to the same problem to generate richer insights and more innovative solutions.

  17. Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

    Problem-solving is a vital skill for coping with various challenges in life. This webpage explains the different strategies and obstacles that can affect how you solve problems, and offers tips on how to improve your problem-solving skills. Learn how to identify, analyze, and overcome problems with Verywell Mind.

  18. 5 Advantages and Disadvantages of Problem-Based Learning [+ Activity

    Used since the 1960s, many teachers express concerns about the effectiveness of problem-based learning (PBL) in certain classroom settings. Whether you introduce the student-centred pedagogy as a one-time activity or mainstay exercise, grouping students together to solve open-ended problems can present pros and cons.. Below are five advantages and disadvantages of problem-based learning to ...

  19. Solution‐Focused versus Problem‐Focused ...

    The differential impact of solution-focused brief therapy questions was tested. A total of 246 subjects described a personal problem they wanted to solve and were randomly assigned to one of four interventions that involved answering problem-focused versus solution-focused questions: a problem-focused condition, a miracle condition, a scaling condition or an exception condition.

  20. Facts, Optimism, Cope, Understanding, Solve (FOCUS)

    Strategy. By using the components of the FOCUS acronym, the model is designed to assist caregivers in prioritizing the many problems that typically occur in the wake of acquired disability. FOCUS Approach to Problem Solving. The objective is to clearly state the problem and break it into manageable parts.

  21. Problem solving in mathematics education: tracing its ...

    Research focus, themes, and inquiry methods in the mathematical problem-solving agenda have varied and been influenced and shaped by theoretical and methodological developments of mathematics education as a discipline (English & Kirshner, 2016; Liljedahl & Cai, 2021).Further, research designs and methods used in cognitive, social, and computational fields have influenced the ways in which ...

  22. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness. Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression ...

  23. A Better Framework for Solving Tough Problems

    Start with trust and end with speed. May 22, 2024. When it comes to solving complicated problems, the default for many organizational leaders is to take their time to work through the issues at hand.

  24. Advantages and disadvantages

    Some of the benefits are: · It provides a tool to effectively understand the problem and dealing with it in a systematic way. · It can be very cost efficient. · It promotes a greater understanding of the whole. · It takes advantage of thinking, flexibility and creativity. · It often encourages cooperation. · It is a useful tool for ...