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What Is Problem Solving in Business?

Problem-solving in business is defined as implementing processes that reduce or remove obstacles that are preventing you or others from accomplishing operational and strategic business goals.

In business, a problem is a situation that creates a gap between the desired and actual outcomes. In addition, a true problem typically does not have an immediately obvious resolution.

Business problem-solving works best when it is approached through a consistent system in which individuals:

  • Identify and define the problem
  • Prioritize the problem based on size, potential impact, and urgency
  • Complete a root-cause analysis
  • Develop a variety of possible solutions
  • Evaluate possible solutions and decide which is most effective
  • Plan and implement the solution

Why Is Problem-Solving Important in Business?

Understanding the importance of problem-solving skills in the workplace will help you develop as a leader. Problem-solving skills will help you resolve critical issues and conflicts that you come across. Problem-solving is a valued skill in the workplace because it allows you to:

  • Apply a standard problem-solving system to all challenges
  • Find the root causes of problems
  • Quickly deal with short-term business interruptions
  • Form plans to deal with long-term problems and improve the organization
  • See challenges as opportunities
  • Keep your cool during challenges

How Do You Solve Business Problems Effectively?

There are many different problem-solving strategies, but most can be broken into general steps. Here is a six-step method for business problem solving:

1) Identify the Details of the Problem: Gather enough information to accurately define the problem. This can include data on procedures being used, employee actions, relevant workplace rules, and so on. Write down the specific outcome that is needed, but don’t assume what the solution should be.

  • Use the Five Whys: When assessing a problem, a common strategy is to ask “why” five times. First, ask why the problem occurred. Then, take the answer and ask “why” again, and so on. The intention is to help you get down to the root cause of the problem so you can directly target that core issue with your solution.

2) Creatively Brainstorm Solutions:   State every solution you can think of. Write them down. Seek input from those who possess in-depth knowledge of or experience with the problem you’re trying to solve. These insights will provide you with valuable perspectives you can transform into tangible and impactful solutions.

3) Evaluate Solutions and Make a Decision:   Assess the feasibility of each solution. Is the deadline realistic? Are there readily available resources you can leverage to successfully implement the solution? What is the return on investment of each solution? If necessary, come up with alternative solutions or adjust the initial ones you brainstormed in step 2.

4) Make a Decision: Finally, make a firm decision on one solution. This final solution should clearly address the root cause of the problem.

  • Perform a SWOT Analysis: You can use a SWOT analysis to help you decide on the best solution. A SWOT analysis involves identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats linked to a specific decision. With this framework, your team can assess a decision from various angles, thereby gaining a holistic view of it.

5) Take Action:   Write up a detailed plan. This involves developing a comprehensive roadmap that outlines the steps required to implement your solution. The steps should specify milestones, deadlines, roles, and how to obtain the necessary approvals. To ensure accountability, your entire team should have access to this action plan. Each team member should be able to track and share their progress with the group.

6) Gather and Share Feedback: Problem-solving is not a “set it and forget it” process. It’s a dynamic journey that necessitates ongoing attention, deliberation, and refinement to achieve optimal results. Thus, periodic feedback is critical in validating whether the chosen solution creates the desired impact. It allows key stakeholders to check in and make any necessary changes.

What Are Problem-Solving Skills?

Problem-solving skills are specific procedures that can be used to complete one or more of the six general steps of problem-solving (discussed above). Here are five important examples:

Using Emotional Intelligence: You’ll solve problems more calmly when you learn to recognize your own emotional patterns and to empathize with and guide the emotions of others. Avoid knee-jerk responses and making assumptions.

Researching Problems: An effective solution requires an accurate description of the problem. Define simple problems using quick research methods such as asking, “What? Where? When? and How much?.” Difficult problems require more in-depth research, such as data exploration, surveys, and interviews.

Creative Brainstorming: When brainstorming with a group, encourage idea creation by listening attentively to everyone, and recognizing everyone’s unique contributions.

Logical Reasoning: Develop standard logical steps for analyzing possible solutions to problems. Study and apply ideas about logical fallacies, deductive reasoning, and other areas of analytical thought.

Decisiveness: Use an agreed-upon system for choosing a solution, which can include assigning pros and cons to solutions, identifying mandatory results, getting feedback about solutions, choosing the decision-maker(s), and finishing or repeating the process.

How Can You Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills?

Learning how to solve business problems takes time and effort. Though some people appear to have been born with superior problem-solving skills, great problem-solvers usually have taken the time to refine their abilities. You can develop high-level skills for solving problems too, through the following methods:

Ask and Listen: Don’t expect to solve every problem alone. Ask for advice, and listen to it carefully.

Practice Curiosity: Any time you’re involved in solving a problem, practice researching and defining the problem just a little longer than you would naturally.

Break Down Problems: Whenever possible, break large problems into their smallest units. Then, search for solutions to one unit at a time.

Don’t Label Yourself Negatively: Don’t allow a problem to mean something negative about you personally. Separate yourself from it. Look at it objectively and be part of the solution.

Enhance Your Problem-Solving Skills with CMOE

Problem-solving skills in business are not developed overnight. Developing then takes ongoing practice and the right guidance to get right. We encourage you to leverage CMOE’s Problem-Solving and Decision Making in the Workplace workshop to further develop your skills. We’ll help you identify new ways to solve problems methodically so you can create greater impact.

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10 Step Process for Effective Business Problem Solving

Posted august 3, 2021 by harriet genever.

Navigate uncertainty by following this 10-step process to develop your problem-solving skills and approach any issue with confidence. 

When you start a small business or launch a startup, the one thing you can count on is the unexpected. No matter how thoroughly you plan, forecast , and test, problems are bound to arise. This is why as an entrepreneur, you need to know how to solve business problems effectively.

What is problem solving in business?

Problem solving in business relates to establishing processes that mitigate or remove obstacles currently preventing you from reaching strategic goals . These are typically complex issues that create a gap between actual results and your desired outcome. They may be present in a single team, operational process, or throughout your entire organization, typically without an immediate or obvious solution. 

To approach problem solving successfully, you need to establish consistent processes that help you evaluate, explore solutions, prioritize execution, and measure success. In many ways, it should be similar to how you review business performance through a monthly plan review . You work through the same documentation, look for gaps, dig deeper to identify the root cause, and hash out options. Without this process, you simply cannot expect to solve problems efficiently or effectively. 

Why problem solving is important for your business

While some would say problem-solving comes naturally, it’s actually a skill you can grow and refine over time. Problem solving skills will help you and your team tackle critical issues and conflicts as they arise. It starts from the top. You as the business owner or CEO needing to display the type of level-headed problem solving that you expect to see from your employees.

Doing so will help you and your staff quickly deal with issues, establish and refine a problem solving process, turn challenges into opportunities, and generally keep a level head. Now, the best business leaders didn’t just find a magic solution to solve their problems, they built processes and leveraged tools to find success. And you can do the same.

By following this 10-step process, you can develop your problem-solving skills and approach any issue that arises with confidence. 

1. Define the problem

When a problem arises, it can be very easy to jump right into creating a solution. However, if you don’t thoroughly examine what led to the problem in the first place, you may create a strategy that doesn’t actually solve it. You may just be treating the symptoms.

For instance, if you realize that your sales from new customers are dropping, your first inclination might be to rush into putting together a marketing plan to increase exposure. But what if decreasing sales are just a symptom of the real problem? 

When you define the problem, you want to be sure you’re not missing the forest for the trees. If you have a large issue on your hands, you’ll want to look at it from several different angles:


Is a competitor’s promotion or pricing affecting your sales? Are there new entrants in your market? How are they marketing their product or business?

Business model 

Is your business model sustainable? Is it realistic for how fast you want to grow? Should you explore different pricing or cost strategies?

Market factors

How are world events and the nation’s economy affecting your customers and your sales?

Are there any issues affecting your team? Do they have the tools and resources they need to succeed? 

Goal alignment 

Is everyone on your team working toward the same goal ? Have you communicated your short-term and long-term business goals clearly and often?

There are a lot of ways to approach the issue when you’re facing a serious business problem. The key is to make sure you’re getting a full snapshot of what’s going on so you don’t waste money and resources on band-aid solutions. 

Going back to our example, by looking at every facet of your business, you may discover that you’re spending more on advertising than your competitors already. And instead, there’s a communication gap within your team that’s leading to the mishandling of new customers and therefore lost sales. 

If you jumped into fixing the exposure of your brand, you would have been dumping more money into an area you’re already winning. Potentially leading to greater losses as more and more new customers are dropped due to poor internal communication.

This is why it’s so vital that you explore your blind spots and track the problem to its source.

2. Conduct a SWOT analysis

All good businesses solve some sort of problem for customers. What if your particular business problem is actually an opportunity, or even a strength if considered from a different angle? This is when you’d want to conduct a SWOT analysis to determine if that is in fact the case.

SWOT is a great tool for strategic planning and bringing multiple viewpoints to the table when you’re looking at investing resources to solve a problem. This may even be incorporated in your attempts to identify the source of your problem, as it can quickly outline specific strengths and weaknesses of your business. And then by identifying any potential opportunities or threats, you can utilize your findings to kickstart a solution. 

3. Identify multiple solutions with design thinking

As you approach solving your problem, you may want to consider using the design thinking approach . It’s often used by organizations looking to solve big, community-based problems. One of its strengths is that it requires involving a wide range of people in the problem-solving process. Which leads to multiple perspectives and solutions arising.

This approach—applying your company’s skills and expertise to a problem in the market—is the basis for design thinking.

It’s not about finding the most complex problems to solve, but about finding common needs within the organization and in the real world and coming up with solutions that fit those needs. When you’re solving business problems, this applies in the sense that you’re looking for solutions that address underlying issues—you’re looking at the big picture.

4. Conduct market research and customer outreach

Market research and customer outreach aren’t the sorts of things small business owners and startups can do once and then cross off the list. When you’re facing a roadblock, think back to the last time you did some solid market research or took a deep dive into understanding the competitive landscape .

Market research and the insights you get from customer outreach aren’t a silver bullet. Many companies struggle with what they should do with conflicting data points. But it’s worth struggling through and gathering information that can help you better understand your target market . Plus, your customers can be one of the best sources of criticism. It’s actually a gift if you can avoid taking the negatives personally .

The worst thing you can do when you’re facing challenges is isolating yourself from your customers and ignore your competition. So survey your customers. Put together a competitive matrix . 

5. Seek input from your team and your mentors

Don’t do your SWOT analysis or design thinking work by yourself. The freedom to express concerns, opinions, and ideas will allow people in an organization to speak up. Their feedback is going to help you move faster and more efficiently. If you have a team in place, bring them into the discussion. You hired them to be experts in their area; use their expertise to navigate and dig deeper into underlying causes of problems and potential solutions.

If you’re running your business solo, at least bring in a trusted mentor. SCORE offers a free business mentorship program if you don’t already have one. It can also be helpful to connect with a strategic business advisor , especially if business financials aren’t your strongest suit.

Quoting Stephen Covey, who said that “strength lies in differences, not in similarities,” speaking to the importance of diversity when it comes to problem-solving in business. The more diverse a team is , the more often innovative solutions to the problems faced by the organization appear.

In fact, it has been found that groups that show greater diversity were better at solving problems than groups made up specifically of highly skilled problem solvers. So whoever you bring in to help you problem-solve, resist the urge to surround yourself with people who already agree with you about everything.

6. Apply lean planning for nimble execution

So you do your SWOT analysis and your design thinking exercise. You come up with a set of strong, data-driven ideas. But implementing them requires you to adjust your budget, or your strategic plan, or even your understanding of your target market.

Are you willing to change course? Can you quickly make adjustments? Well in order to grow, you can’t be afraid to be nimble . 

By adopting the lean business planning method —the process of revising your business strategy regularly—you’ll be able to shift your strategies more fluidly. You don’t want to change course every week, and you don’t want to fall victim to shiny object thinking. But you can strike a balance that allows you to reduce your business’s risk while keeping your team heading in the right direction.

Along the way, you’ll make strategic decisions that don’t pan out the way you hoped. The best thing you can do is test your ideas and iterate often so you’re not wasting money and resources on things that don’t work. That’s Lean Planning .

7. Model different financial scenarios

When you’re trying to solve a serious business problem, one of the best things you can do is build a few different financial forecasts so you can model different scenarios. You might find that the idea that seemed the strongest will take longer than you thought to reverse a negative financial trend. At the very least you’ll have better insight into the financial impact of moving in a different direction.

The real benefit here is looking at different tactical approaches to the same problem. Maybe instead of increasing sales right now, you’re better off in the long run if you adopt a strategy to reduce churn and retain your best customers. You won’t know unless you model a few different scenarios. You can do this by using spreadsheets, and a tool like LivePlan can make it easier and quicker.

8. Watch your cash flow

While you’re working to solve a challenging business problem, pay particular attention to your cash flow and your cash flow forecast . Understanding when your company is at risk of running out of cash in the bank can help you be proactive. It’s a lot easier to get a line of credit while your financials still look good and healthy, than when you’re one pay period away from ruin.

If you’re dealing with a serious issue, it’s easy to start to get tunnel vision. You’ll benefit from maintaining a little breathing room for your business as you figure out what to do next.

9. Use a decision-making framework

Once you’ve gathered all the information you need, generated a number of ideas, and done some financial modeling, you might still feel uncertain. It’s natural—you’re not a fortune-teller. You’re trying to make the best decision you can with the information you have.

This article offers a really useful approach to making decisions. It starts with putting your options into a matrix like this one:

problem solving in business means

Use this sort of framework to put everything you’ve learned out on the table. If you’re working with a bigger team, this sort of exercise can also bring the rest of your team to the table so they feel some ownership over the outcome.

10. Identify key metrics to track

How will you know your problem is solved? And not just the symptom—how will you know when you’ve addressed the underlying issues? Before you dive into enacting the solution, make sure you know what success looks like.

Decide on a few key performance indicators . Take a baseline measurement, and set a goal and a timeframe. You’re essentially translating your solution into a plan, complete with milestones and goals. Without these, you’ve simply made a blind decision with no way to track success. You need those goals and milestones to make your plan real .

Problem solving skills to improve

As you and your team work through this process, it’s worth keeping in mind specific problem solving skills you should continue to develop. Bolstering your ability, as well as your team, to solve problems effectively will only make this process more useful and efficient. Here are a few key skills to work on.

Emotional intelligence

It can be very easy to make quick, emotional responses in a time of crisis or when discussing something you’re passionate about. To avoid making assumptions and letting your emotions get the best of you, you need to focus on empathizing with others. This involves understanding your own emotional state, reactions and listening carefully to the responses of your team. The more you’re able to listen carefully, the better you’ll be at asking for and taking advice that actually leads to effective problem solving.

Jumping right into a solution can immediately kill the possibility of solving your problem. Just like when you start a business , you need to do the research into what the problem you’re solving actually is. Luckily, you can embed research into your problem solving by holding active reviews of financial performance and team processes. Simply asking “What? Where? When? How?” can lead to more in-depth explorations of potential issues.

The best thing you can do to grow your research abilities is to encourage and practice curiosity. Look at every problem as an opportunity. Something that may be trouble now, but is worth exploring and finding the right solution. You’ll pick up best practices, useful tools and fine-tune your own research process the more you’re willing to explore.


Creatively brainstorming with your team is somewhat of an art form. There needs to be a willingness to throw everything at the wall and act as if nothing is a bad idea at the start. This style of collaboration encourages participation without fear of rejection. It also helps outline potential solutions outside of your current scope, that you can refine and turn into realistic action.

Work on breaking down problems and try to give everyone in the room a voice. The more input you allow, the greater potential you have for finding the best solution.


One thing that can drag out acting upon a potential solution, is being indecisive. If you aren’t willing to state when the final cutoff for deliberation is, you simply won’t take steps quickly enough. This is when having a process for problem solving comes in handy, as it purposefully outlines when you should start taking action.

Work on choosing decision-makers, identify necessary results and be prepared to analyze and adjust if necessary. You don’t have to get it right every time, but taking action at the right time, even if it fails, is almost more vital than never taking a step.  

Stemming off failure, you need to learn to be resilient. Again, no one gets it perfect every single time. There are so many factors in play to consider and sometimes even the most well-thought-out solution doesn’t stick. Instead of being down on yourself or your team, look to separate yourself from the problem and continue to think of it as a puzzle worth solving. Every failure is a learning opportunity and it only helps you further refine and eliminate issues in your strategy.

Problem solving is a process

The key to effective problem-solving in business is the ability to adapt. You can waste a lot of resources on staying the wrong course for too long. So make a plan to reduce your risk now. Think about what you’d do if you were faced with a problem large enough to sink your business. Be as proactive as you can.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016. It was updated in 2021.

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Harriet Genever

Harriet Genever

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Article • 7 min read

What Is Problem Solving?

Find a solution to any problem you face.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

problem solving in business means

We all spend a lot of our time solving problems, both at work and in our personal lives.

Some problems are small, and we can quickly sort them out ourselves. But others are complex challenges that take collaboration, creativity, and a considerable amount of effort to solve.

At work, the types of problems we face depend largely on the organizations we're in and the jobs we do. A manager in a cleaning company, for example, might spend their day untangling staffing issues, resolving client complaints, and sorting out problems with equipment and supplies. An aircraft designer, on the other hand, might be grappling with a problem about aerodynamics, or trying to work out why a new safety feature isn't working. Meanwhile, a politician might be exploring solutions to racial injustice or climate change.

But whatever issues we face, there are some common ways to tackle them effectively. And we can all boost our confidence and ability to succeed by building a strong set of problem-solving skills.

Mind Tools offers a large collection of resources to help you do just that!

How Well Do You Solve Problems?

Start by taking an honest look at your existing skills. What's your current approach to solving problems, and how well is it working? Our quiz, How Good Is Your Problem Solving? lets you analyze your abilities, and signposts ways to address any areas of weakness.

Define Every Problem

The first step in solving a problem is understanding what that problem actually is. You need to be sure that you're dealing with the real problem – not its symptoms. For example, if performance in your department is substandard, you might think that the problem lies with the individuals submitting work. However, if you look a bit deeper, the real issue might be a general lack of training, or an unreasonable workload across the team.

Tools like 5 Whys , Appreciation and Root Cause Analysis get you asking the right questions, and help you to work through the layers of a problem to uncover what's really going on.

However, defining a problem doesn't mean deciding how to solve it straightaway. It's important to look at the issue from a variety of perspectives. If you commit yourself too early, you can end up with a short-sighted solution. The CATWOE checklist provides a powerful reminder to look at many elements that may contribute to the problem, keeping you open to a variety of possible solutions.

Understanding Complexity

As you define your problem, you'll often discover just how complicated it is. There are likely several interrelated issues involved. That's why it's important to have ways to visualize, simplify and make sense of this tangled mess!

Affinity Diagrams are great for organizing many different pieces of information into common themes, and for understanding the relationships between them.

Another popular tool is the Cause-and-Effect Diagram . To generate viable solutions, you need a solid understanding of what's causing the problem.

When your problem occurs within a business process, creating a Flow Chart , Swim Lane Diagram or a Systems Diagram will help you to see how various activities and inputs fit together. This may well highlight a missing element or bottleneck that's causing your problem.

Quite often, what seems to be a single problem turns out to be a whole series of problems. The Drill Down technique prompts you to split your problem into smaller, more manageable parts.

General Problem-Solving Tools

When you understand the problem in front of you, you’re ready to start solving it. With your definition to guide you, you can generate several possible solutions, choose the best one, then put it into action. That's the four-step approach at the heart of good problem solving.

There are various problem-solving styles to use. For example:

  • Constructive Controversy is a way of widening perspectives and energizing discussions.
  • Inductive Reasoning makes the most of people’s experiences and know-how, and can speed up solution finding.
  • Means-End Analysis can bring extra clarity to your thinking, and kick-start the process of implementing solutions.

Specific Problem-Solving Systems

Some particularly complicated or important problems call for a more comprehensive process. Again, Mind Tools has a range of approaches to try, including:

  • Simplex , which involves an eight-stage process: problem finding, fact finding, defining the problem, idea finding, selecting and evaluating, planning, selling the idea, and acting. These steps build upon the basic, four-step process described above, and they create a cycle of problem finding and solving that will continually improve your organization.
  • Appreciative Inquiry , which is a uniquely positive way of solving problems by examining what's working well in the areas surrounding them.
  • Soft Systems Methodology , which takes you through four stages to uncover more details about what's creating your problem, and then define actions that will improve the situation.

Further Problem-Solving Strategies

Good problem solving requires a number of other skills – all of which are covered by Mind Tools.

For example, we have a large section of resources to improve your Creativity , so that you come up with a range of possible solutions.

By strengthening your Decision Making , you'll be better at evaluating the options, selecting the best ones, then choosing how to implement them.

And our Project Management collection has valuable advice for strengthening the whole problem-solving process. The resources there will help you to make effective changes – and then keep them working long term.

Problems are an inescapable part of life, both in and out of work. So we can all benefit from having strong problem-solving skills.

It's important to understand your current approach to problem solving, and to know where and how to improve.

Define every problem you encounter – and understand its complexity, rather than trying to solve it too soon.

There's a range of general problem-solving approaches, helping you to generate possible answers, choose the best ones, and then implement your solution.

Some complicated or serious problems require more specific problem-solving systems, especially when they relate to business processes.

By boosting your creativity, decision-making and project-management skills, you’ll become even better at solving all the problems you face.

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Effective Problem-Solving Techniques in Business

A business team discusses a problem in a conference room

January 20, 2023

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Problem solving is an increasingly important soft skill for those in business. The Future of Jobs Survey by the World Economic Forum drives this point home. According to this report, complex problem solving is identified as one of the top 15 skills that will be sought by employers in 2025, along with other soft skills such as analytical thinking, creativity and leadership.

Dr. Amy David , clinical associate professor of management for supply chain and operations management, spoke about business problem-solving methods and how the Purdue University Online MBA program prepares students to be business decision-makers.

Why Are Problem-Solving Skills Essential in Leadership Roles?

Every business will face challenges at some point. Those that are successful will have people in place who can identify and solve problems before the damage is done.

“The business world is constantly changing, and companies need to be able to adapt well in order to produce good results and meet the needs of their customers,” David says. “They also need to keep in mind the triple bottom line of ‘people, profit and planet.’ And these priorities are constantly evolving.”

To that end, David says people in management or leadership need to be able to handle new situations, something that may be outside the scope of their everyday work.

“The name of the game these days is change—and the speed of change—and that means solving new problems on a daily basis,” she says.

The pace of information and technology has also empowered the customer in a new way that provides challenges—or opportunities—for businesses to respond.

“Our customers have a lot more information and a lot more power,” she says. “If you think about somebody having an unhappy experience and tweeting about it, that’s very different from maybe 15 years ago. Back then, if you had a bad experience with a product, you might grumble about it to one or two people.”

David says that this reality changes how quickly organizations need to react and respond to their customers. And taking prompt and decisive action requires solid problem-solving skills.

What Are Some of the Most Effective Problem-Solving Methods?

David says there are a few things to consider when encountering a challenge in business.

“When faced with a problem, are we talking about something that is broad and affects a lot of people? Or is it something that affects a select few? Depending on the issue and situation, you’ll need to use different types of problem-solving strategies,” she says.

Using Techniques

There are a number of techniques that businesses use to problem solve. These can include:

  • Five Whys : This approach is helpful when the problem at hand is clear but the underlying causes are less so. By asking “Why?” five times, the final answer should get at the potential root of the problem and perhaps yield a solution.
  • Gap Analysis : Companies use gap analyses to compare current performance with expected or desired performance, which will help a company determine how to use its resources differently or adjust expectations.
  • Gemba Walk : The name, which is derived from a Japanese word meaning “the real place,” refers to a commonly used technique that allows managers to see what works (and what doesn’t) from the ground up. This is an opportunity for managers to focus on the fundamental elements of the process, identify where the value stream is and determine areas that could use improvement.
  • Porter’s Five Forces : Developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter, applying the Five Forces is a way for companies to identify competitors for their business or services, and determine how the organization can adjust to stay ahead of the game.
  • Six Thinking Hats : In his book of the same name, Dr. Edward de Bono details this method that encourages parallel thinking and attempting to solve a problem by trying on different “thinking hats.” Each color hat signifies a different approach that can be utilized in the problem-solving process, ranging from logic to feelings to creativity and beyond. This method allows organizations to view problems from different angles and perspectives.
  • SWOT Analysis : This common strategic planning and management tool helps businesses identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT).

“We have a lot of these different tools,” David says. “Which one to use when is going to be dependent on the problem itself, the level of the stakeholders, the number of different stakeholder groups and so on.”

Each of the techniques outlined above uses the same core steps of problem solving:

  • Identify and define the problem
  • Consider possible solutions
  • Evaluate options
  • Choose the best solution
  • Implement the solution
  • Evaluate the outcome

Data drives a lot of daily decisions in business and beyond. Analytics have also been deployed to problem solve.

“We have specific classes around storytelling with data and how you convince your audience to understand what the data is,” David says. “Your audience has to trust the data, and only then can you use it for real decision-making.”

Data can be a powerful tool for identifying larger trends and making informed decisions when it’s clearly understood and communicated. It’s also vital for performance monitoring and optimization.

How Is Problem Solving Prioritized in Purdue’s Online MBA?

The courses in the Purdue Online MBA program teach problem-solving methods to students, keeping them up to date with the latest techniques and allowing them to apply their knowledge to business-related scenarios.

“I can give you a model or a tool, but most of the time, a real-world situation is going to be a lot messier and more valuable than what we’ve seen in a textbook,” David says. “Asking students to take what they know and apply it to a case where there’s not one single correct answer is a big part of the learning experience.”

Make Your Own Decision to Further Your Career

An online MBA from Purdue University can help advance your career by teaching you problem-solving skills, decision-making strategies and more. Reach out today to learn more about earning an online MBA with Purdue University .

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The Power of Defining the Problem

  • Dwayne Spradlin

Before you start solving a problem, you have to ask the right questions.

Well-defined problems lead to breakthrough solutions. When developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.

  • DS Dwayne Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive , an online marketplace that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. He is a coauthor, with Alpheus Bingham, of The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise (FT Press, 2011).

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What is Problem Solving? (Steps, Techniques, Examples)

By Status.net Editorial Team on May 7, 2023 — 5 minutes to read

What Is Problem Solving?

Definition and importance.

Problem solving is the process of finding solutions to obstacles or challenges you encounter in your life or work. It is a crucial skill that allows you to tackle complex situations, adapt to changes, and overcome difficulties with ease. Mastering this ability will contribute to both your personal and professional growth, leading to more successful outcomes and better decision-making.

Problem-Solving Steps

The problem-solving process typically includes the following steps:

  • Identify the issue : Recognize the problem that needs to be solved.
  • Analyze the situation : Examine the issue in depth, gather all relevant information, and consider any limitations or constraints that may be present.
  • Generate potential solutions : Brainstorm a list of possible solutions to the issue, without immediately judging or evaluating them.
  • Evaluate options : Weigh the pros and cons of each potential solution, considering factors such as feasibility, effectiveness, and potential risks.
  • Select the best solution : Choose the option that best addresses the problem and aligns with your objectives.
  • Implement the solution : Put the selected solution into action and monitor the results to ensure it resolves the issue.
  • Review and learn : Reflect on the problem-solving process, identify any improvements or adjustments that can be made, and apply these learnings to future situations.

Defining the Problem

To start tackling a problem, first, identify and understand it. Analyzing the issue thoroughly helps to clarify its scope and nature. Ask questions to gather information and consider the problem from various angles. Some strategies to define the problem include:

  • Brainstorming with others
  • Asking the 5 Ws and 1 H (Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How)
  • Analyzing cause and effect
  • Creating a problem statement

Generating Solutions

Once the problem is clearly understood, brainstorm possible solutions. Think creatively and keep an open mind, as well as considering lessons from past experiences. Consider:

  • Creating a list of potential ideas to solve the problem
  • Grouping and categorizing similar solutions
  • Prioritizing potential solutions based on feasibility, cost, and resources required
  • Involving others to share diverse opinions and inputs

Evaluating and Selecting Solutions

Evaluate each potential solution, weighing its pros and cons. To facilitate decision-making, use techniques such as:

  • SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
  • Decision-making matrices
  • Pros and cons lists
  • Risk assessments

After evaluating, choose the most suitable solution based on effectiveness, cost, and time constraints.

Implementing and Monitoring the Solution

Implement the chosen solution and monitor its progress. Key actions include:

  • Communicating the solution to relevant parties
  • Setting timelines and milestones
  • Assigning tasks and responsibilities
  • Monitoring the solution and making adjustments as necessary
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the solution after implementation

Utilize feedback from stakeholders and consider potential improvements. Remember that problem-solving is an ongoing process that can always be refined and enhanced.

Problem-Solving Techniques

During each step, you may find it helpful to utilize various problem-solving techniques, such as:

  • Brainstorming : A free-flowing, open-minded session where ideas are generated and listed without judgment, to encourage creativity and innovative thinking.
  • Root cause analysis : A method that explores the underlying causes of a problem to find the most effective solution rather than addressing superficial symptoms.
  • SWOT analysis : A tool used to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to a problem or decision, providing a comprehensive view of the situation.
  • Mind mapping : A visual technique that uses diagrams to organize and connect ideas, helping to identify patterns, relationships, and possible solutions.


When facing a problem, start by conducting a brainstorming session. Gather your team and encourage an open discussion where everyone contributes ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem. This helps you:

  • Generate a diverse range of solutions
  • Encourage all team members to participate
  • Foster creative thinking

When brainstorming, remember to:

  • Reserve judgment until the session is over
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Combine and improve upon ideas

Root Cause Analysis

For effective problem-solving, identifying the root cause of the issue at hand is crucial. Try these methods:

  • 5 Whys : Ask “why” five times to get to the underlying cause.
  • Fishbone Diagram : Create a diagram representing the problem and break it down into categories of potential causes.
  • Pareto Analysis : Determine the few most significant causes underlying the majority of problems.

SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis helps you examine the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats related to your problem. To perform a SWOT analysis:

  • List your problem’s strengths, such as relevant resources or strong partnerships.
  • Identify its weaknesses, such as knowledge gaps or limited resources.
  • Explore opportunities, like trends or new technologies, that could help solve the problem.
  • Recognize potential threats, like competition or regulatory barriers.

SWOT analysis aids in understanding the internal and external factors affecting the problem, which can help guide your solution.

Mind Mapping

A mind map is a visual representation of your problem and potential solutions. It enables you to organize information in a structured and intuitive manner. To create a mind map:

  • Write the problem in the center of a blank page.
  • Draw branches from the central problem to related sub-problems or contributing factors.
  • Add more branches to represent potential solutions or further ideas.

Mind mapping allows you to visually see connections between ideas and promotes creativity in problem-solving.

Examples of Problem Solving in Various Contexts

In the business world, you might encounter problems related to finances, operations, or communication. Applying problem-solving skills in these situations could look like:

  • Identifying areas of improvement in your company’s financial performance and implementing cost-saving measures
  • Resolving internal conflicts among team members by listening and understanding different perspectives, then proposing and negotiating solutions
  • Streamlining a process for better productivity by removing redundancies, automating tasks, or re-allocating resources

In educational contexts, problem-solving can be seen in various aspects, such as:

  • Addressing a gap in students’ understanding by employing diverse teaching methods to cater to different learning styles
  • Developing a strategy for successful time management to balance academic responsibilities and extracurricular activities
  • Seeking resources and support to provide equal opportunities for learners with special needs or disabilities

Everyday life is full of challenges that require problem-solving skills. Some examples include:

  • Overcoming a personal obstacle, such as improving your fitness level, by establishing achievable goals, measuring progress, and adjusting your approach accordingly
  • Navigating a new environment or city by researching your surroundings, asking for directions, or using technology like GPS to guide you
  • Dealing with a sudden change, like a change in your work schedule, by assessing the situation, identifying potential impacts, and adapting your plans to accommodate the change.
  • How to Resolve Employee Conflict at Work [Steps, Tips, Examples]
  • How to Write Inspiring Core Values? 5 Steps with Examples
  • 30 Employee Feedback Examples (Positive & Negative)



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35 problem-solving techniques and methods for solving complex problems

Problem solving workshop

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All teams and organizations encounter challenges as they grow. There are problems that might occur for teams when it comes to miscommunication or resolving business-critical issues . You may face challenges around growth , design , user engagement, and even team culture and happiness. In short, problem-solving techniques should be part of every team’s skillset.

Problem-solving methods are primarily designed to help a group or team through a process of first identifying problems and challenges , ideating possible solutions , and then evaluating the most suitable .

Finding effective solutions to complex problems isn’t easy, but by using the right process and techniques, you can help your team be more efficient in the process.

So how do you develop strategies that are engaging, and empower your team to solve problems effectively?

In this blog post, we share a series of problem-solving tools you can use in your next workshop or team meeting. You’ll also find some tips for facilitating the process and how to enable others to solve complex problems.

Let’s get started! 

How do you identify problems?

How do you identify the right solution.

  • Tips for more effective problem-solving

Complete problem-solving methods

  • Problem-solving techniques to identify and analyze problems
  • Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions

Problem-solving warm-up activities

Closing activities for a problem-solving process.

Before you can move towards finding the right solution for a given problem, you first need to identify and define the problem you wish to solve. 

Here, you want to clearly articulate what the problem is and allow your group to do the same. Remember that everyone in a group is likely to have differing perspectives and alignment is necessary in order to help the group move forward. 

Identifying a problem accurately also requires that all members of a group are able to contribute their views in an open and safe manner. It can be scary for people to stand up and contribute, especially if the problems or challenges are emotive or personal in nature. Be sure to try and create a psychologically safe space for these kinds of discussions.

Remember that problem analysis and further discussion are also important. Not taking the time to fully analyze and discuss a challenge can result in the development of solutions that are not fit for purpose or do not address the underlying issue.

Successfully identifying and then analyzing a problem means facilitating a group through activities designed to help them clearly and honestly articulate their thoughts and produce usable insight.

With this data, you might then produce a problem statement that clearly describes the problem you wish to be addressed and also state the goal of any process you undertake to tackle this issue.  

Finding solutions is the end goal of any process. Complex organizational challenges can only be solved with an appropriate solution but discovering them requires using the right problem-solving tool.

After you’ve explored a problem and discussed ideas, you need to help a team discuss and choose the right solution. Consensus tools and methods such as those below help a group explore possible solutions before then voting for the best. They’re a great way to tap into the collective intelligence of the group for great results!

Remember that the process is often iterative. Great problem solvers often roadtest a viable solution in a measured way to see what works too. While you might not get the right solution on your first try, the methods below help teams land on the most likely to succeed solution while also holding space for improvement.

Every effective problem solving process begins with an agenda . A well-structured workshop is one of the best methods for successfully guiding a group from exploring a problem to implementing a solution.

In SessionLab, it’s easy to go from an idea to a complete agenda . Start by dragging and dropping your core problem solving activities into place . Add timings, breaks and necessary materials before sharing your agenda with your colleagues.

The resulting agenda will be your guide to an effective and productive problem solving session that will also help you stay organized on the day!

problem solving in business means

Tips for more effective problem solving

Problem-solving activities are only one part of the puzzle. While a great method can help unlock your team’s ability to solve problems, without a thoughtful approach and strong facilitation the solutions may not be fit for purpose.

Let’s take a look at some problem-solving tips you can apply to any process to help it be a success!

Clearly define the problem

Jumping straight to solutions can be tempting, though without first clearly articulating a problem, the solution might not be the right one. Many of the problem-solving activities below include sections where the problem is explored and clearly defined before moving on.

This is a vital part of the problem-solving process and taking the time to fully define an issue can save time and effort later. A clear definition helps identify irrelevant information and it also ensures that your team sets off on the right track.

Don’t jump to conclusions

It’s easy for groups to exhibit cognitive bias or have preconceived ideas about both problems and potential solutions. Be sure to back up any problem statements or potential solutions with facts, research, and adequate forethought.

The best techniques ask participants to be methodical and challenge preconceived notions. Make sure you give the group enough time and space to collect relevant information and consider the problem in a new way. By approaching the process with a clear, rational mindset, you’ll often find that better solutions are more forthcoming.  

Try different approaches  

Problems come in all shapes and sizes and so too should the methods you use to solve them. If you find that one approach isn’t yielding results and your team isn’t finding different solutions, try mixing it up. You’ll be surprised at how using a new creative activity can unblock your team and generate great solutions.

Don’t take it personally 

Depending on the nature of your team or organizational problems, it’s easy for conversations to get heated. While it’s good for participants to be engaged in the discussions, ensure that emotions don’t run too high and that blame isn’t thrown around while finding solutions.

You’re all in it together, and even if your team or area is seeing problems, that isn’t necessarily a disparagement of you personally. Using facilitation skills to manage group dynamics is one effective method of helping conversations be more constructive.

Get the right people in the room

Your problem-solving method is often only as effective as the group using it. Getting the right people on the job and managing the number of people present is important too!

If the group is too small, you may not get enough different perspectives to effectively solve a problem. If the group is too large, you can go round and round during the ideation stages.

Creating the right group makeup is also important in ensuring you have the necessary expertise and skillset to both identify and follow up on potential solutions. Carefully consider who to include at each stage to help ensure your problem-solving method is followed and positioned for success.

Document everything

The best solutions can take refinement, iteration, and reflection to come out. Get into a habit of documenting your process in order to keep all the learnings from the session and to allow ideas to mature and develop. Many of the methods below involve the creation of documents or shared resources. Be sure to keep and share these so everyone can benefit from the work done!

Bring a facilitator 

Facilitation is all about making group processes easier. With a subject as potentially emotive and important as problem-solving, having an impartial third party in the form of a facilitator can make all the difference in finding great solutions and keeping the process moving. Consider bringing a facilitator to your problem-solving session to get better results and generate meaningful solutions!

Develop your problem-solving skills

It takes time and practice to be an effective problem solver. While some roles or participants might more naturally gravitate towards problem-solving, it can take development and planning to help everyone create better solutions.

You might develop a training program, run a problem-solving workshop or simply ask your team to practice using the techniques below. Check out our post on problem-solving skills to see how you and your group can develop the right mental process and be more resilient to issues too!

Design a great agenda

Workshops are a great format for solving problems. With the right approach, you can focus a group and help them find the solutions to their own problems. But designing a process can be time-consuming and finding the right activities can be difficult.

Check out our workshop planning guide to level-up your agenda design and start running more effective workshops. Need inspiration? Check out templates designed by expert facilitators to help you kickstart your process!

In this section, we’ll look at in-depth problem-solving methods that provide a complete end-to-end process for developing effective solutions. These will help guide your team from the discovery and definition of a problem through to delivering the right solution.

If you’re looking for an all-encompassing method or problem-solving model, these processes are a great place to start. They’ll ask your team to challenge preconceived ideas and adopt a mindset for solving problems more effectively.

  • Six Thinking Hats
  • Lightning Decision Jam
  • Problem Definition Process
  • Discovery & Action Dialogue
Design Sprint 2.0
  • Open Space Technology

1. Six Thinking Hats

Individual approaches to solving a problem can be very different based on what team or role an individual holds. It can be easy for existing biases or perspectives to find their way into the mix, or for internal politics to direct a conversation.

Six Thinking Hats is a classic method for identifying the problems that need to be solved and enables your team to consider them from different angles, whether that is by focusing on facts and data, creative solutions, or by considering why a particular solution might not work.

Like all problem-solving frameworks, Six Thinking Hats is effective at helping teams remove roadblocks from a conversation or discussion and come to terms with all the aspects necessary to solve complex problems.

2. Lightning Decision Jam

Featured courtesy of Jonathan Courtney of AJ&Smart Berlin, Lightning Decision Jam is one of those strategies that should be in every facilitation toolbox. Exploring problems and finding solutions is often creative in nature, though as with any creative process, there is the potential to lose focus and get lost.

Unstructured discussions might get you there in the end, but it’s much more effective to use a method that creates a clear process and team focus.

In Lightning Decision Jam, participants are invited to begin by writing challenges, concerns, or mistakes on post-its without discussing them before then being invited by the moderator to present them to the group.

From there, the team vote on which problems to solve and are guided through steps that will allow them to reframe those problems, create solutions and then decide what to execute on. 

By deciding the problems that need to be solved as a team before moving on, this group process is great for ensuring the whole team is aligned and can take ownership over the next stages. 

Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ)   #action   #decision making   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #innovation   #design   #remote-friendly   The problem with anything that requires creative thinking is that it’s easy to get lost—lose focus and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. Here’s the most effective solution I’ve found: Replace all open, unstructured discussion with a clear process. What to use this exercise for: Anything which requires a group of people to make decisions, solve problems or discuss challenges. It’s always good to frame an LDJ session with a broad topic, here are some examples: The conversion flow of our checkout Our internal design process How we organise events Keeping up with our competition Improving sales flow

3. Problem Definition Process

While problems can be complex, the problem-solving methods you use to identify and solve those problems can often be simple in design. 

By taking the time to truly identify and define a problem before asking the group to reframe the challenge as an opportunity, this method is a great way to enable change.

Begin by identifying a focus question and exploring the ways in which it manifests before splitting into five teams who will each consider the problem using a different method: escape, reversal, exaggeration, distortion or wishful. Teams develop a problem objective and create ideas in line with their method before then feeding them back to the group.

This method is great for enabling in-depth discussions while also creating space for finding creative solutions too!

Problem Definition   #problem solving   #idea generation   #creativity   #online   #remote-friendly   A problem solving technique to define a problem, challenge or opportunity and to generate ideas.

4. The 5 Whys 

Sometimes, a group needs to go further with their strategies and analyze the root cause at the heart of organizational issues. An RCA or root cause analysis is the process of identifying what is at the heart of business problems or recurring challenges. 

The 5 Whys is a simple and effective method of helping a group go find the root cause of any problem or challenge and conduct analysis that will deliver results. 

By beginning with the creation of a problem statement and going through five stages to refine it, The 5 Whys provides everything you need to truly discover the cause of an issue.

The 5 Whys   #hyperisland   #innovation   This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. As the title suggests, the group defines a problems, then asks the question “why” five times, often using the resulting explanation as a starting point for creative problem solving.

5. World Cafe

World Cafe is a simple but powerful facilitation technique to help bigger groups to focus their energy and attention on solving complex problems.

World Cafe enables this approach by creating a relaxed atmosphere where participants are able to self-organize and explore topics relevant and important to them which are themed around a central problem-solving purpose. Create the right atmosphere by modeling your space after a cafe and after guiding the group through the method, let them take the lead!

Making problem-solving a part of your organization’s culture in the long term can be a difficult undertaking. More approachable formats like World Cafe can be especially effective in bringing people unfamiliar with workshops into the fold. 

World Cafe   #hyperisland   #innovation   #issue analysis   World Café is a simple yet powerful method, originated by Juanita Brown, for enabling meaningful conversations driven completely by participants and the topics that are relevant and important to them. Facilitators create a cafe-style space and provide simple guidelines. Participants then self-organize and explore a set of relevant topics or questions for conversation.

6. Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)

One of the best approaches is to create a safe space for a group to share and discover practices and behaviors that can help them find their own solutions.

With DAD, you can help a group choose which problems they wish to solve and which approaches they will take to do so. It’s great at helping remove resistance to change and can help get buy-in at every level too!

This process of enabling frontline ownership is great in ensuring follow-through and is one of the methods you will want in your toolbox as a facilitator.

Discovery & Action Dialogue (DAD)   #idea generation   #liberating structures   #action   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   DADs make it easy for a group or community to discover practices and behaviors that enable some individuals (without access to special resources and facing the same constraints) to find better solutions than their peers to common problems. These are called positive deviant (PD) behaviors and practices. DADs make it possible for people in the group, unit, or community to discover by themselves these PD practices. DADs also create favorable conditions for stimulating participants’ creativity in spaces where they can feel safe to invent new and more effective practices. Resistance to change evaporates as participants are unleashed to choose freely which practices they will adopt or try and which problems they will tackle. DADs make it possible to achieve frontline ownership of solutions.

7. Design Sprint 2.0

Want to see how a team can solve big problems and move forward with prototyping and testing solutions in a few days? The Design Sprint 2.0 template from Jake Knapp, author of Sprint, is a complete agenda for a with proven results.

Developing the right agenda can involve difficult but necessary planning. Ensuring all the correct steps are followed can also be stressful or time-consuming depending on your level of experience.

Use this complete 4-day workshop template if you are finding there is no obvious solution to your challenge and want to focus your team around a specific problem that might require a shortcut to launching a minimum viable product or waiting for the organization-wide implementation of a solution.

8. Open space technology

Open space technology- developed by Harrison Owen – creates a space where large groups are invited to take ownership of their problem solving and lead individual sessions. Open space technology is a great format when you have a great deal of expertise and insight in the room and want to allow for different takes and approaches on a particular theme or problem you need to be solved.

Start by bringing your participants together to align around a central theme and focus their efforts. Explain the ground rules to help guide the problem-solving process and then invite members to identify any issue connecting to the central theme that they are interested in and are prepared to take responsibility for.

Once participants have decided on their approach to the core theme, they write their issue on a piece of paper, announce it to the group, pick a session time and place, and post the paper on the wall. As the wall fills up with sessions, the group is then invited to join the sessions that interest them the most and which they can contribute to, then you’re ready to begin!

Everyone joins the problem-solving group they’ve signed up to, record the discussion and if appropriate, findings can then be shared with the rest of the group afterward.

Open Space Technology   #action plan   #idea generation   #problem solving   #issue analysis   #large group   #online   #remote-friendly   Open Space is a methodology for large groups to create their agenda discerning important topics for discussion, suitable for conferences, community gatherings and whole system facilitation

Techniques to identify and analyze problems

Using a problem-solving method to help a team identify and analyze a problem can be a quick and effective addition to any workshop or meeting.

While further actions are always necessary, you can generate momentum and alignment easily, and these activities are a great place to get started.

We’ve put together this list of techniques to help you and your team with problem identification, analysis, and discussion that sets the foundation for developing effective solutions.

Let’s take a look!

  • The Creativity Dice
  • Fishbone Analysis
  • Problem Tree
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Agreement-Certainty Matrix
  • The Journalistic Six
  • LEGO Challenge
  • What, So What, Now What?
  • Journalists

Individual and group perspectives are incredibly important, but what happens if people are set in their minds and need a change of perspective in order to approach a problem more effectively?

Flip It is a method we love because it is both simple to understand and run, and allows groups to understand how their perspectives and biases are formed. 

Participants in Flip It are first invited to consider concerns, issues, or problems from a perspective of fear and write them on a flip chart. Then, the group is asked to consider those same issues from a perspective of hope and flip their understanding.  

No problem and solution is free from existing bias and by changing perspectives with Flip It, you can then develop a problem solving model quickly and effectively.

Flip It!   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Often, a change in a problem or situation comes simply from a change in our perspectives. Flip It! is a quick game designed to show players that perspectives are made, not born.

10. The Creativity Dice

One of the most useful problem solving skills you can teach your team is of approaching challenges with creativity, flexibility, and openness. Games like The Creativity Dice allow teams to overcome the potential hurdle of too much linear thinking and approach the process with a sense of fun and speed. 

In The Creativity Dice, participants are organized around a topic and roll a dice to determine what they will work on for a period of 3 minutes at a time. They might roll a 3 and work on investigating factual information on the chosen topic. They might roll a 1 and work on identifying the specific goals, standards, or criteria for the session.

Encouraging rapid work and iteration while asking participants to be flexible are great skills to cultivate. Having a stage for idea incubation in this game is also important. Moments of pause can help ensure the ideas that are put forward are the most suitable. 

The Creativity Dice   #creativity   #problem solving   #thiagi   #issue analysis   Too much linear thinking is hazardous to creative problem solving. To be creative, you should approach the problem (or the opportunity) from different points of view. You should leave a thought hanging in mid-air and move to another. This skipping around prevents premature closure and lets your brain incubate one line of thought while you consciously pursue another.

11. Fishbone Analysis

Organizational or team challenges are rarely simple, and it’s important to remember that one problem can be an indication of something that goes deeper and may require further consideration to be solved.

Fishbone Analysis helps groups to dig deeper and understand the origins of a problem. It’s a great example of a root cause analysis method that is simple for everyone on a team to get their head around. 

Participants in this activity are asked to annotate a diagram of a fish, first adding the problem or issue to be worked on at the head of a fish before then brainstorming the root causes of the problem and adding them as bones on the fish. 

Using abstractions such as a diagram of a fish can really help a team break out of their regular thinking and develop a creative approach.

Fishbone Analysis   #problem solving   ##root cause analysis   #decision making   #online facilitation   A process to help identify and understand the origins of problems, issues or observations.

12. Problem Tree 

Encouraging visual thinking can be an essential part of many strategies. By simply reframing and clarifying problems, a group can move towards developing a problem solving model that works for them. 

In Problem Tree, groups are asked to first brainstorm a list of problems – these can be design problems, team problems or larger business problems – and then organize them into a hierarchy. The hierarchy could be from most important to least important or abstract to practical, though the key thing with problem solving games that involve this aspect is that your group has some way of managing and sorting all the issues that are raised.

Once you have a list of problems that need to be solved and have organized them accordingly, you’re then well-positioned for the next problem solving steps.

Problem tree   #define intentions   #create   #design   #issue analysis   A problem tree is a tool to clarify the hierarchy of problems addressed by the team within a design project; it represents high level problems or related sublevel problems.

13. SWOT Analysis

Chances are you’ve heard of the SWOT Analysis before. This problem-solving method focuses on identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats is a tried and tested method for both individuals and teams.

Start by creating a desired end state or outcome and bare this in mind – any process solving model is made more effective by knowing what you are moving towards. Create a quadrant made up of the four categories of a SWOT analysis and ask participants to generate ideas based on each of those quadrants.

Once you have those ideas assembled in their quadrants, cluster them together based on their affinity with other ideas. These clusters are then used to facilitate group conversations and move things forward. 

SWOT analysis   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   #meeting facilitation   The SWOT Analysis is a long-standing technique of looking at what we have, with respect to the desired end state, as well as what we could improve on. It gives us an opportunity to gauge approaching opportunities and dangers, and assess the seriousness of the conditions that affect our future. When we understand those conditions, we can influence what comes next.

14. Agreement-Certainty Matrix

Not every problem-solving approach is right for every challenge, and deciding on the right method for the challenge at hand is a key part of being an effective team.

The Agreement Certainty matrix helps teams align on the nature of the challenges facing them. By sorting problems from simple to chaotic, your team can understand what methods are suitable for each problem and what they can do to ensure effective results. 

If you are already using Liberating Structures techniques as part of your problem-solving strategy, the Agreement-Certainty Matrix can be an invaluable addition to your process. We’ve found it particularly if you are having issues with recurring problems in your organization and want to go deeper in understanding the root cause. 

Agreement-Certainty Matrix   #issue analysis   #liberating structures   #problem solving   You can help individuals or groups avoid the frequent mistake of trying to solve a problem with methods that are not adapted to the nature of their challenge. The combination of two questions makes it possible to easily sort challenges into four categories: simple, complicated, complex , and chaotic .  A problem is simple when it can be solved reliably with practices that are easy to duplicate.  It is complicated when experts are required to devise a sophisticated solution that will yield the desired results predictably.  A problem is complex when there are several valid ways to proceed but outcomes are not predictable in detail.  Chaotic is when the context is too turbulent to identify a path forward.  A loose analogy may be used to describe these differences: simple is like following a recipe, complicated like sending a rocket to the moon, complex like raising a child, and chaotic is like the game “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  The Liberating Structures Matching Matrix in Chapter 5 can be used as the first step to clarify the nature of a challenge and avoid the mismatches between problems and solutions that are frequently at the root of chronic, recurring problems.

Organizing and charting a team’s progress can be important in ensuring its success. SQUID (Sequential Question and Insight Diagram) is a great model that allows a team to effectively switch between giving questions and answers and develop the skills they need to stay on track throughout the process. 

Begin with two different colored sticky notes – one for questions and one for answers – and with your central topic (the head of the squid) on the board. Ask the group to first come up with a series of questions connected to their best guess of how to approach the topic. Ask the group to come up with answers to those questions, fix them to the board and connect them with a line. After some discussion, go back to question mode by responding to the generated answers or other points on the board.

It’s rewarding to see a diagram grow throughout the exercise, and a completed SQUID can provide a visual resource for future effort and as an example for other teams.

SQUID   #gamestorming   #project planning   #issue analysis   #problem solving   When exploring an information space, it’s important for a group to know where they are at any given time. By using SQUID, a group charts out the territory as they go and can navigate accordingly. SQUID stands for Sequential Question and Insight Diagram.

16. Speed Boat

To continue with our nautical theme, Speed Boat is a short and sweet activity that can help a team quickly identify what employees, clients or service users might have a problem with and analyze what might be standing in the way of achieving a solution.

Methods that allow for a group to make observations, have insights and obtain those eureka moments quickly are invaluable when trying to solve complex problems.

In Speed Boat, the approach is to first consider what anchors and challenges might be holding an organization (or boat) back. Bonus points if you are able to identify any sharks in the water and develop ideas that can also deal with competitors!   

Speed Boat   #gamestorming   #problem solving   #action   Speedboat is a short and sweet way to identify what your employees or clients don’t like about your product/service or what’s standing in the way of a desired goal.

17. The Journalistic Six

Some of the most effective ways of solving problems is by encouraging teams to be more inclusive and diverse in their thinking.

Based on the six key questions journalism students are taught to answer in articles and news stories, The Journalistic Six helps create teams to see the whole picture. By using who, what, when, where, why, and how to facilitate the conversation and encourage creative thinking, your team can make sure that the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the are covered exhaustively and thoughtfully. Reporter’s notebook and dictaphone optional.

The Journalistic Six – Who What When Where Why How   #idea generation   #issue analysis   #problem solving   #online   #creative thinking   #remote-friendly   A questioning method for generating, explaining, investigating ideas.

18. LEGO Challenge

Now for an activity that is a little out of the (toy) box. LEGO Serious Play is a facilitation methodology that can be used to improve creative thinking and problem-solving skills. 

The LEGO Challenge includes giving each member of the team an assignment that is hidden from the rest of the group while they create a structure without speaking.

What the LEGO challenge brings to the table is a fun working example of working with stakeholders who might not be on the same page to solve problems. Also, it’s LEGO! Who doesn’t love LEGO! 

LEGO Challenge   #hyperisland   #team   A team-building activity in which groups must work together to build a structure out of LEGO, but each individual has a secret “assignment” which makes the collaborative process more challenging. It emphasizes group communication, leadership dynamics, conflict, cooperation, patience and problem solving strategy.

19. What, So What, Now What?

If not carefully managed, the problem identification and problem analysis stages of the problem-solving process can actually create more problems and misunderstandings.

The What, So What, Now What? problem-solving activity is designed to help collect insights and move forward while also eliminating the possibility of disagreement when it comes to identifying, clarifying, and analyzing organizational or work problems. 

Facilitation is all about bringing groups together so that might work on a shared goal and the best problem-solving strategies ensure that teams are aligned in purpose, if not initially in opinion or insight.

Throughout the three steps of this game, you give everyone on a team to reflect on a problem by asking what happened, why it is important, and what actions should then be taken. 

This can be a great activity for bringing our individual perceptions about a problem or challenge and contextualizing it in a larger group setting. This is one of the most important problem-solving skills you can bring to your organization.

W³ – What, So What, Now What?   #issue analysis   #innovation   #liberating structures   You can help groups reflect on a shared experience in a way that builds understanding and spurs coordinated action while avoiding unproductive conflict. It is possible for every voice to be heard while simultaneously sifting for insights and shaping new direction. Progressing in stages makes this practical—from collecting facts about What Happened to making sense of these facts with So What and finally to what actions logically follow with Now What . The shared progression eliminates most of the misunderstandings that otherwise fuel disagreements about what to do. Voila!

20. Journalists  

Problem analysis can be one of the most important and decisive stages of all problem-solving tools. Sometimes, a team can become bogged down in the details and are unable to move forward.

Journalists is an activity that can avoid a group from getting stuck in the problem identification or problem analysis stages of the process.

In Journalists, the group is invited to draft the front page of a fictional newspaper and figure out what stories deserve to be on the cover and what headlines those stories will have. By reframing how your problems and challenges are approached, you can help a team move productively through the process and be better prepared for the steps to follow.

Journalists   #vision   #big picture   #issue analysis   #remote-friendly   This is an exercise to use when the group gets stuck in details and struggles to see the big picture. Also good for defining a vision.

Problem-solving techniques for developing solutions 

The success of any problem-solving process can be measured by the solutions it produces. After you’ve defined the issue, explored existing ideas, and ideated, it’s time to narrow down to the correct solution.

Use these problem-solving techniques when you want to help your team find consensus, compare possible solutions, and move towards taking action on a particular problem.

  • Improved Solutions
  • Four-Step Sketch
  • 15% Solutions
  • How-Now-Wow matrix
  • Impact Effort Matrix

21. Mindspin  

Brainstorming is part of the bread and butter of the problem-solving process and all problem-solving strategies benefit from getting ideas out and challenging a team to generate solutions quickly. 

With Mindspin, participants are encouraged not only to generate ideas but to do so under time constraints and by slamming down cards and passing them on. By doing multiple rounds, your team can begin with a free generation of possible solutions before moving on to developing those solutions and encouraging further ideation. 

This is one of our favorite problem-solving activities and can be great for keeping the energy up throughout the workshop. Remember the importance of helping people become engaged in the process – energizing problem-solving techniques like Mindspin can help ensure your team stays engaged and happy, even when the problems they’re coming together to solve are complex. 

MindSpin   #teampedia   #idea generation   #problem solving   #action   A fast and loud method to enhance brainstorming within a team. Since this activity has more than round ideas that are repetitive can be ruled out leaving more creative and innovative answers to the challenge.

22. Improved Solutions

After a team has successfully identified a problem and come up with a few solutions, it can be tempting to call the work of the problem-solving process complete. That said, the first solution is not necessarily the best, and by including a further review and reflection activity into your problem-solving model, you can ensure your group reaches the best possible result. 

One of a number of problem-solving games from Thiagi Group, Improved Solutions helps you go the extra mile and develop suggested solutions with close consideration and peer review. By supporting the discussion of several problems at once and by shifting team roles throughout, this problem-solving technique is a dynamic way of finding the best solution. 

Improved Solutions   #creativity   #thiagi   #problem solving   #action   #team   You can improve any solution by objectively reviewing its strengths and weaknesses and making suitable adjustments. In this creativity framegame, you improve the solutions to several problems. To maintain objective detachment, you deal with a different problem during each of six rounds and assume different roles (problem owner, consultant, basher, booster, enhancer, and evaluator) during each round. At the conclusion of the activity, each player ends up with two solutions to her problem.

23. Four Step Sketch

Creative thinking and visual ideation does not need to be confined to the opening stages of your problem-solving strategies. Exercises that include sketching and prototyping on paper can be effective at the solution finding and development stage of the process, and can be great for keeping a team engaged. 

By going from simple notes to a crazy 8s round that involves rapidly sketching 8 variations on their ideas before then producing a final solution sketch, the group is able to iterate quickly and visually. Problem-solving techniques like Four-Step Sketch are great if you have a group of different thinkers and want to change things up from a more textual or discussion-based approach.

Four-Step Sketch   #design sprint   #innovation   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   The four-step sketch is an exercise that helps people to create well-formed concepts through a structured process that includes: Review key information Start design work on paper,  Consider multiple variations , Create a detailed solution . This exercise is preceded by a set of other activities allowing the group to clarify the challenge they want to solve. See how the Four Step Sketch exercise fits into a Design Sprint

24. 15% Solutions

Some problems are simpler than others and with the right problem-solving activities, you can empower people to take immediate actions that can help create organizational change. 

Part of the liberating structures toolkit, 15% solutions is a problem-solving technique that focuses on finding and implementing solutions quickly. A process of iterating and making small changes quickly can help generate momentum and an appetite for solving complex problems.

Problem-solving strategies can live and die on whether people are onboard. Getting some quick wins is a great way of getting people behind the process.   

It can be extremely empowering for a team to realize that problem-solving techniques can be deployed quickly and easily and delineate between things they can positively impact and those things they cannot change. 

15% Solutions   #action   #liberating structures   #remote-friendly   You can reveal the actions, however small, that everyone can do immediately. At a minimum, these will create momentum, and that may make a BIG difference.  15% Solutions show that there is no reason to wait around, feel powerless, or fearful. They help people pick it up a level. They get individuals and the group to focus on what is within their discretion instead of what they cannot change.  With a very simple question, you can flip the conversation to what can be done and find solutions to big problems that are often distributed widely in places not known in advance. Shifting a few grains of sand may trigger a landslide and change the whole landscape.

25. How-Now-Wow Matrix

The problem-solving process is often creative, as complex problems usually require a change of thinking and creative response in order to find the best solutions. While it’s common for the first stages to encourage creative thinking, groups can often gravitate to familiar solutions when it comes to the end of the process. 

When selecting solutions, you don’t want to lose your creative energy! The How-Now-Wow Matrix from Gamestorming is a great problem-solving activity that enables a group to stay creative and think out of the box when it comes to selecting the right solution for a given problem.

Problem-solving techniques that encourage creative thinking and the ideation and selection of new solutions can be the most effective in organisational change. Give the How-Now-Wow Matrix a go, and not just for how pleasant it is to say out loud. 

How-Now-Wow Matrix   #gamestorming   #idea generation   #remote-friendly   When people want to develop new ideas, they most often think out of the box in the brainstorming or divergent phase. However, when it comes to convergence, people often end up picking ideas that are most familiar to them. This is called a ‘creative paradox’ or a ‘creadox’. The How-Now-Wow matrix is an idea selection tool that breaks the creadox by forcing people to weigh each idea on 2 parameters.

26. Impact and Effort Matrix

All problem-solving techniques hope to not only find solutions to a given problem or challenge but to find the best solution. When it comes to finding a solution, groups are invited to put on their decision-making hats and really think about how a proposed idea would work in practice. 

The Impact and Effort Matrix is one of the problem-solving techniques that fall into this camp, empowering participants to first generate ideas and then categorize them into a 2×2 matrix based on impact and effort.

Activities that invite critical thinking while remaining simple are invaluable. Use the Impact and Effort Matrix to move from ideation and towards evaluating potential solutions before then committing to them. 

Impact and Effort Matrix   #gamestorming   #decision making   #action   #remote-friendly   In this decision-making exercise, possible actions are mapped based on two factors: effort required to implement and potential impact. Categorizing ideas along these lines is a useful technique in decision making, as it obliges contributors to balance and evaluate suggested actions before committing to them.

27. Dotmocracy

If you’ve followed each of the problem-solving steps with your group successfully, you should move towards the end of your process with heaps of possible solutions developed with a specific problem in mind. But how do you help a group go from ideation to putting a solution into action? 

Dotmocracy – or Dot Voting -is a tried and tested method of helping a team in the problem-solving process make decisions and put actions in place with a degree of oversight and consensus. 

One of the problem-solving techniques that should be in every facilitator’s toolbox, Dot Voting is fast and effective and can help identify the most popular and best solutions and help bring a group to a decision effectively. 

Dotmocracy   #action   #decision making   #group prioritization   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Dotmocracy is a simple method for group prioritization or decision-making. It is not an activity on its own, but a method to use in processes where prioritization or decision-making is the aim. The method supports a group to quickly see which options are most popular or relevant. The options or ideas are written on post-its and stuck up on a wall for the whole group to see. Each person votes for the options they think are the strongest, and that information is used to inform a decision.

All facilitators know that warm-ups and icebreakers are useful for any workshop or group process. Problem-solving workshops are no different.

Use these problem-solving techniques to warm up a group and prepare them for the rest of the process. Activating your group by tapping into some of the top problem-solving skills can be one of the best ways to see great outcomes from your session.

  • Check-in/Check-out
  • Doodling Together
  • Show and Tell
  • Constellations
  • Draw a Tree

28. Check-in / Check-out

Solid processes are planned from beginning to end, and the best facilitators know that setting the tone and establishing a safe, open environment can be integral to a successful problem-solving process.

Check-in / Check-out is a great way to begin and/or bookend a problem-solving workshop. Checking in to a session emphasizes that everyone will be seen, heard, and expected to contribute. 

If you are running a series of meetings, setting a consistent pattern of checking in and checking out can really help your team get into a groove. We recommend this opening-closing activity for small to medium-sized groups though it can work with large groups if they’re disciplined!

Check-in / Check-out   #team   #opening   #closing   #hyperisland   #remote-friendly   Either checking-in or checking-out is a simple way for a team to open or close a process, symbolically and in a collaborative way. Checking-in/out invites each member in a group to be present, seen and heard, and to express a reflection or a feeling. Checking-in emphasizes presence, focus and group commitment; checking-out emphasizes reflection and symbolic closure.

29. Doodling Together  

Thinking creatively and not being afraid to make suggestions are important problem-solving skills for any group or team, and warming up by encouraging these behaviors is a great way to start. 

Doodling Together is one of our favorite creative ice breaker games – it’s quick, effective, and fun and can make all following problem-solving steps easier by encouraging a group to collaborate visually. By passing cards and adding additional items as they go, the workshop group gets into a groove of co-creation and idea development that is crucial to finding solutions to problems. 

Doodling Together   #collaboration   #creativity   #teamwork   #fun   #team   #visual methods   #energiser   #icebreaker   #remote-friendly   Create wild, weird and often funny postcards together & establish a group’s creative confidence.

30. Show and Tell

You might remember some version of Show and Tell from being a kid in school and it’s a great problem-solving activity to kick off a session.

Asking participants to prepare a little something before a workshop by bringing an object for show and tell can help them warm up before the session has even begun! Games that include a physical object can also help encourage early engagement before moving onto more big-picture thinking.

By asking your participants to tell stories about why they chose to bring a particular item to the group, you can help teams see things from new perspectives and see both differences and similarities in the way they approach a topic. Great groundwork for approaching a problem-solving process as a team! 

Show and Tell   #gamestorming   #action   #opening   #meeting facilitation   Show and Tell taps into the power of metaphors to reveal players’ underlying assumptions and associations around a topic The aim of the game is to get a deeper understanding of stakeholders’ perspectives on anything—a new project, an organizational restructuring, a shift in the company’s vision or team dynamic.

31. Constellations

Who doesn’t love stars? Constellations is a great warm-up activity for any workshop as it gets people up off their feet, energized, and ready to engage in new ways with established topics. It’s also great for showing existing beliefs, biases, and patterns that can come into play as part of your session.

Using warm-up games that help build trust and connection while also allowing for non-verbal responses can be great for easing people into the problem-solving process and encouraging engagement from everyone in the group. Constellations is great in large spaces that allow for movement and is definitely a practical exercise to allow the group to see patterns that are otherwise invisible. 

Constellations   #trust   #connection   #opening   #coaching   #patterns   #system   Individuals express their response to a statement or idea by standing closer or further from a central object. Used with teams to reveal system, hidden patterns, perspectives.

32. Draw a Tree

Problem-solving games that help raise group awareness through a central, unifying metaphor can be effective ways to warm-up a group in any problem-solving model.

Draw a Tree is a simple warm-up activity you can use in any group and which can provide a quick jolt of energy. Start by asking your participants to draw a tree in just 45 seconds – they can choose whether it will be abstract or realistic. 

Once the timer is up, ask the group how many people included the roots of the tree and use this as a means to discuss how we can ignore important parts of any system simply because they are not visible.

All problem-solving strategies are made more effective by thinking of problems critically and by exposing things that may not normally come to light. Warm-up games like Draw a Tree are great in that they quickly demonstrate some key problem-solving skills in an accessible and effective way.

Draw a Tree   #thiagi   #opening   #perspectives   #remote-friendly   With this game you can raise awarness about being more mindful, and aware of the environment we live in.

Each step of the problem-solving workshop benefits from an intelligent deployment of activities, games, and techniques. Bringing your session to an effective close helps ensure that solutions are followed through on and that you also celebrate what has been achieved.

Here are some problem-solving activities you can use to effectively close a workshop or meeting and ensure the great work you’ve done can continue afterward.

  • One Breath Feedback
  • Who What When Matrix
  • Response Cards

How do I conclude a problem-solving process?

All good things must come to an end. With the bulk of the work done, it can be tempting to conclude your workshop swiftly and without a moment to debrief and align. This can be problematic in that it doesn’t allow your team to fully process the results or reflect on the process.

At the end of an effective session, your team will have gone through a process that, while productive, can be exhausting. It’s important to give your group a moment to take a breath, ensure that they are clear on future actions, and provide short feedback before leaving the space. 

The primary purpose of any problem-solving method is to generate solutions and then implement them. Be sure to take the opportunity to ensure everyone is aligned and ready to effectively implement the solutions you produced in the workshop.

Remember that every process can be improved and by giving a short moment to collect feedback in the session, you can further refine your problem-solving methods and see further success in the future too.

33. One Breath Feedback

Maintaining attention and focus during the closing stages of a problem-solving workshop can be tricky and so being concise when giving feedback can be important. It’s easy to incur “death by feedback” should some team members go on for too long sharing their perspectives in a quick feedback round. 

One Breath Feedback is a great closing activity for workshops. You give everyone an opportunity to provide feedback on what they’ve done but only in the space of a single breath. This keeps feedback short and to the point and means that everyone is encouraged to provide the most important piece of feedback to them. 

One breath feedback   #closing   #feedback   #action   This is a feedback round in just one breath that excels in maintaining attention: each participants is able to speak during just one breath … for most people that’s around 20 to 25 seconds … unless of course you’ve been a deep sea diver in which case you’ll be able to do it for longer.

34. Who What When Matrix 

Matrices feature as part of many effective problem-solving strategies and with good reason. They are easily recognizable, simple to use, and generate results.

The Who What When Matrix is a great tool to use when closing your problem-solving session by attributing a who, what and when to the actions and solutions you have decided upon. The resulting matrix is a simple, easy-to-follow way of ensuring your team can move forward. 

Great solutions can’t be enacted without action and ownership. Your problem-solving process should include a stage for allocating tasks to individuals or teams and creating a realistic timeframe for those solutions to be implemented or checked out. Use this method to keep the solution implementation process clear and simple for all involved. 

Who/What/When Matrix   #gamestorming   #action   #project planning   With Who/What/When matrix, you can connect people with clear actions they have defined and have committed to.

35. Response cards

Group discussion can comprise the bulk of most problem-solving activities and by the end of the process, you might find that your team is talked out! 

Providing a means for your team to give feedback with short written notes can ensure everyone is head and can contribute without the need to stand up and talk. Depending on the needs of the group, giving an alternative can help ensure everyone can contribute to your problem-solving model in the way that makes the most sense for them.

Response Cards is a great way to close a workshop if you are looking for a gentle warm-down and want to get some swift discussion around some of the feedback that is raised. 

Response Cards   #debriefing   #closing   #structured sharing   #questions and answers   #thiagi   #action   It can be hard to involve everyone during a closing of a session. Some might stay in the background or get unheard because of louder participants. However, with the use of Response Cards, everyone will be involved in providing feedback or clarify questions at the end of a session.

Save time and effort discovering the right solutions

A structured problem solving process is a surefire way of solving tough problems, discovering creative solutions and driving organizational change. But how can you design for successful outcomes?

With SessionLab, it’s easy to design engaging workshops that deliver results. Drag, drop and reorder blocks  to build your agenda. When you make changes or update your agenda, your session  timing   adjusts automatically , saving you time on manual adjustments.

Collaborating with stakeholders or clients? Share your agenda with a single click and collaborate in real-time. No more sending documents back and forth over email.

Explore  how to use SessionLab  to design effective problem solving workshops or  watch this five minute video  to see the planner in action!

problem solving in business means

Over to you

The problem-solving process can often be as complicated and multifaceted as the problems they are set-up to solve. With the right problem-solving techniques and a mix of creative exercises designed to guide discussion and generate purposeful ideas, we hope we’ve given you the tools to find the best solutions as simply and easily as possible.

Is there a problem-solving technique that you are missing here? Do you have a favorite activity or method you use when facilitating? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you! 

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thank you very much for these excellent techniques

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Certainly wonderful article, very detailed. Shared!

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Your list of techniques for problem solving can be helpfully extended by adding TRIZ to the list of techniques. TRIZ has 40 problem solving techniques derived from methods inventros and patent holders used to get new patents. About 10-12 are general approaches. many organization sponsor classes in TRIZ that are used to solve business problems or general organiztational problems. You can take a look at TRIZ and dwonload a free internet booklet to see if you feel it shound be included per your selection process.

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Innovation in Business: What It Is & Why It’s Important

Business professionals pursuing innovation in the workplace

  • 08 Mar 2022

Today’s competitive landscape heavily relies on innovation. Business leaders must constantly look for new ways to innovate because you can't solve many problems with old solutions.

Innovation is critical across all industries; however, it's important to avoid using it as a buzzword and instead take time to thoroughly understand the innovation process.

Here's an overview of innovation in business, why it's important, and how you can encourage it in the workplace.

What Is Innovation?

Innovation and creativity are often used synonymously. While similar, they're not the same. Using creativity in business is important because it fosters unique ideas . This novelty is a key component of innovation.

For an idea to be innovative, it must also be useful. Creative ideas don't always lead to innovations because they don't necessarily produce viable solutions to problems.

Simply put: Innovation is a product, service, business model, or strategy that's both novel and useful. Innovations don't have to be major breakthroughs in technology or new business models; they can be as simple as upgrades to a company's customer service or features added to an existing product.

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Types of Innovation

Innovation in business can be grouped into two categories : sustaining and disruptive.

  • Sustaining innovation: Sustaining innovation enhances an organization's processes and technologies to improve its product line for an existing customer base. It's typically pursued by incumbent businesses that want to stay atop their market.
  • Disruptive innovation: Disruptive innovation occurs when smaller companies challenge larger businesses. It can be classified into groups depending on the markets those businesses compete in. Low-end disruption refers to companies entering and claiming a segment at the bottom of an existing market, while new-market disruption denotes companies creating an additional market segment to serve a customer base the existing market doesn't reach.

The most successful companies incorporate both types of innovation into their business strategies. While maintaining an existing position in the market is important, pursuing growth is essential to being competitive. It also helps protect a business against other companies affecting its standing.

Learn about the differences between sustaining and disruptive innovation in the video below, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more explainer content!

The Importance of Innovation

Unforeseen challenges are inevitable in business. Innovation can help you stay ahead of the curve and grow your company in the process. Here are three reasons innovation is crucial for your business:

  • It allows adaptability: The recent COVID-19 pandemic disrupted business on a monumental scale. Routine operations were rendered obsolete over the course of a few months. Many businesses still sustain negative results from this world shift because they’ve stuck to the status quo. Innovation is often necessary for companies to adapt and overcome the challenges of change.
  • It fosters growth: Stagnation can be extremely detrimental to your business. Achieving organizational and economic growth through innovation is key to staying afloat in today’s highly competitive world.
  • It separates businesses from their competition: Most industries are populated with multiple competitors offering similar products or services. Innovation can distinguish your business from others.

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Innovation & Design Thinking

Several tools encourage innovation in the workplace. For example, when a problem’s cause is difficult to pinpoint, you can turn to approaches like creative problem-solving . One of the best approaches to innovation is adopting a design thinking mentality.

Design thinking is a solutions-based, human-centric mindset. It's a practical way to strategize and design using insights from observations and research.

Four Phases of Innovation

Innovation's requirements for novelty and usefulness call for navigating between concrete and abstract thinking. Introducing structure to innovation can guide this process.

In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar teaches design thinking principles using a four-phase innovation framework : clarify, ideate, develop, and implement.

Four phases of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

  • Clarify: The first stage of the process is clarifying a problem. This involves conducting research to empathize with your target audience. The goal is to identify their key pain points and frame the problem in a way that allows you to solve it.
  • Ideate: The ideation stage involves generating ideas to solve the problem identified during research. Ideation challenges assumptions and overcomes biases to produce innovative ideas.
  • Develop: The development stage involves exploring solutions generated during ideation. It emphasizes rapid prototyping to answer questions about a solution's practicality and effectiveness.
  • Implement: The final stage of the process is implementation. This stage involves communicating your developed idea to stakeholders to encourage its adoption.

Human-Centered Design

Innovation requires considering user needs. Design thinking promotes empathy by fostering human-centered design , which addresses explicit pain points and latent needs identified during innovation’s clarification stage.

There are three characteristics of human-centered design:

  • Desirability: For a product or service to succeed, people must want it. Prosperous innovations are attractive to consumers and meet their needs.
  • Feasibility: Innovative ideas won't go anywhere unless you have the resources to pursue them. You must consider whether ideas are possible given technological, economic, or regulatory barriers.
  • Viability: Even if a design is desirable and feasible, it also needs to be sustainable. You must consistently produce or deliver designs over extended periods for them to be viable.

Consider these characteristics when problem-solving, as each is necessary for successful innovation.

The Operational and Innovative Worlds

Creativity and idea generation are vital to innovation, but you may encounter situations in which pursuing an idea isn't feasible. Such scenarios represent a conflict between the innovative and operational worlds.

The Operational World

The operational world reflects an organization's routine processes and procedures. Metrics and results are prioritized, and creativity isn't encouraged to the extent required for innovation. Endeavors that disrupt routine—such as risk-taking—are typically discouraged.

The Innovative World

The innovative world encourages creativity and experimentation. This side of business allows for open-endedly exploring ideas but tends to neglect the functional side.

Both worlds are necessary for innovation, as creativity must be grounded in reality. You should strive to balance them to produce human-centered solutions. Design thinking strikes this balance by guiding you between the concrete and abstract.

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Learning the Ropes of Innovation

Innovation is easier said than done. It often requires you to collaborate with others, overcome resistance from stakeholders, and invest valuable time and resources into generating solutions. It can also be highly discouraging because many ideas generated during ideation may not go anywhere. But the end result can make the difference between your organization's success or failure.

The good news is that innovation can be learned. If you're interested in more effectively innovating, consider taking an online innovation course. Receiving practical guidance can increase your skills and teach you how to approach problem-solving with a human-centered mentality.

Eager to learn more about innovation? Explore Design Thinking and Innovation ,one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you're not sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

problem solving in business means

About the Author

16 Types of Customer Needs (and How to Solve for Them)

Allie Breschi

Published: March 24, 2023

Companies want to stay relevant and innovative and often look at other successful companies, hot industry trends, or new shiny products for inspiration.

customer needs being met by service rep

However, a vital component to growth is at every business's fingertips — it's customers. Honing in on customer needs can improve the longevity and progress of your business. Happy customers result in higher retention rates, lifetime value, and brand reach as they spread the word in their social circles.

Download Now: 8 Free Customer Profile Templates

The first step toward creating the types of customer experiences that result in happy customers is by understanding and meeting customer needs.

In this article, you'll learn:

  • The Definition of Customer Needs
  • The Types of Customer Needs

How to Identify Customer Needs

  • What a Customer Needs Analysis Is
  • How to Solve for Your Customers' Needs

Types of Customer Service

What are customer needs.

A customer need is a motive that prompts a customer to buy a product or service. Ultimately, the need is the driver of the customer's purchase decision. Companies often look at the customer need as an opportunity to resolve or contribute surplus value back to the original motive.

An example of customer need takes place every day around 12:00 p.m. This is when people begin to experience hunger (need) and decide to purchase lunch. The type of food, the location of the restaurant, and the amount of time the service will take are all factors to how individuals decide to satisfy the need.

Customer-centric companies know that solving for customer needs and exceeding expectations along the way is how to drive healthy business growth and foster good relationships with the people your company serves.

Although customer centricity is not a new concept, the right steps to achieve a customer service focus are still hazy.

HubSpot Culture Code Presentation

Why are customer needs important?

Anticipating customer needs will help you cater to customers before they feel the need to put in a request for a new feature, product, or solution for you. If companies can begin to make changes before their customers' needs aren't fulfilled, this can ultimately lead to growth, innovation, and retention.

Creating a customer-centric company that truly listens to customer needs can be daunting, and there's a steep learning curve if you haven't paid close attention to customers before.

Below are the most common types of customer needs — most of which work in tandem with one another to drive a purchasing decision.

problem solving in business means

8 Free Customer Profile Templates

Use these free templates to build out your customer profiles for your marketing, sales, and customer service teams.

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Customer Profile Templates

Fill out the form to better understand your customer needs., 16 most common types of customer needs.

The types of product needs can be split into two categories: product and service.

Product Needs

1. functionality.

Customers need your product or service to function the way they need in order to solve their problem or desire.

Customers have unique budgets with which they can purchase a product or service.

3. Convenience

Your product or service needs to be a convenient solution to the function your customers are trying to meet.

4. Experience

The experience using your product or service needs to be easy — or at least clear — so as not to create more work for your customers.

Along the lines of experience, the product or service needs a slick design to make it relatively easy and intuitive to use.

6. Reliability

The product or service needs to reliably function as advertised every time the customer wants to use it.

7. Performance

The product or service needs to perform correctly so the customer can achieve their goals.

8. Efficiency

The product or service needs to be efficient for the customer by streamlining an otherwise time-consuming process.

9. Compatibility

The product or service needs to be compatible with other products your customer is already using.

Service Needs

10. empathy.

When your customers get in touch with customer service, they want empathy and understanding from the people assisting them.

11. Fairness

From pricing to terms of service to contract length, customers expect fairness from a company.

12. Transparency

Customers expect transparency from a company they're doing business with. Service outages, pricing changes, and things breaking happen, and customers deserve openness from the businesses they give money to.

13. Control

Customers need to feel like they're in control of the business interaction from start to finish and beyond, and customer empowerment shouldn't end with the sale. Make it easy for them to return products, change subscriptions, adjust terms, etc.

14. Options

Customers need options when they're getting ready to make a purchase from a company. Offer a variety of product, subscription, and payment options to provide that freedom of choice.

15. Information

Customers need information, from the moment they start interacting with your brand to days and months after making a purchase. Businesses should invest in educational blog content, instructional knowledge base content, and regular communication so customers have the information they need to successfully use a product or service.

16. Accessibility

Customers need to be able to access your service and support teams. This means providing multiple channels for customer service. We'll talk a little more about these options later.

With so many types of customer needs, how do you understand which ones apply to your customers specifically? Next, we'll dig into how to identify them.

  • Use Existing Data
  • Solicit Customer Feedback
  • Customer Journey Mapping
  • Input from Service Team
  • Study Competitors
  • Social Media Listening
  • Keyword Research

"You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology," Steve Jobs notably stated . "You cannot start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it."

Whether you sell technology or some other product or service, the underlying message he's saying here rings true.

This means understanding where they're coming from when they've chosen to make a purchase, what expectations they're bringing to the table, and what bumps they'll encounter along the way.

Identifying Customer Needs

You can gain more knowledge about what your customers want using a few different strategies.

1. Use Existing Data

Most likely you have some customer data already, especially if you’re using a CRM. This is the best place to start your search. Are there pain points or issues you can glean from just looking at this customer data? Are there any patterns you can identify? Taking note of who your current customers are and their past interactions with your brand to get a better idea of where customers are coming from and if you’re meeting their needs.

2. Solicit Customer Feedback

When trying to identify consumer needs, go straight to the source. This can be done using surveys that live on your site, or sent via email. Additionally you could conduct focus groups to gain more in depth insight to customer needs and their overall experience with your product or service.

3. Customer Journey Mapping

To better understand and assist customers, you’ll need to first know what phase of the customer journey they are in and what they’re looking for. This is where customer journey mapping can help, giving a visual representation of how customers interact with your brand. This exercise will help you create a more proactive customer service approach and improve retention.

Featured Resource: Customer Journey Map Templates


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4. Input from Service Team

In addition to getting customer feedback, it’s important to consult those who work with them most — your service team. They’ll often have insights you may not be privy to and can help you anticipate the needs of your customers as well as solve existing issues. They’ll also be able to explain how customers are currently using your product or service and can identify any hiccups in the process.

5. Study Competitors

It’s common to study competitors when conducting market research, but you should also consider them when identifying customer needs. There might be overlap in your target audience, meaning your brand could benefit from reviewing any issues competitors are experiencing and gain insight on how they went about fixing it. You might find that some of their strategies would be worth implementing at your company, or discover gaps in service that your company can fill.

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10 Free Competitive Analysis Templates

Track and analyze your competitors with these ten free planning templates.

  • SWOT Analysis
  • Battle Cards
  • Feature Comparison
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6. Use Social Media

Chances are, your customers use a variety of social media platforms in their day to day. Take advantage of that by using it as a way to listen in on what customers are saying about your products and your competitors. Are people asking questions under your posts? What sorts of comments are they making? Are they giving praise, asking for assistance, or do they want new features? Using a social media monitoring tool like Hootsuite will help you identify trends, mentions, and hashtags relevant to your brand to better inform your strategy.

7. Keyword Research

People turn to the internet for most things, so Google is an excellent resource for figuring out customer needs. How are customers finding your brand online and what are they typing into the search box to find it? Doing keyword research can give you a broad overview of what your customers need based on search data. Keyword research will also help you optimize your site for search engines by aligning the content of your site with what customers are searching for.

If you design your process with these things in mind, you'll be able to uncover consumer needs at any stage of their lifecycle. You can take a deeper dive into their needs by conducting a customer needs analysis.

What is a customer needs analysis?

A customer needs analysis is used in product development and branding to provide an in-depth analysis of the customer to ensure that the product or message offers the benefits, attributes, and features needed to provide the customer with value.

To conduct a customer needs analysis successfully, you need to do the following:

1. Customer Needs Analysis Survey

The customer needs analysis is typically conducted by running surveys that help companies figure out their position in their respective competitive markets and how they stack up in terms of meeting their target customers' needs.

The survey should primarily ask questions about your brand and competitors, as well as customers' product awareness and brand attitudes in general.

Questions can include:

  • Questions about positive and negative word associations with your brand
  • Questions asking customers to group your brand in with similar and/or competing brands
  • Questions comparing and sorting brands according to their preferences for usage

You can learn more about which questions to ask in this survey in our guide and this guide from dummies.

2. Means-End Analysis

Once you've conducted the customer needs analysis survey, you can use the answers to get a fuller picture of the reasons why your customers purchase from you, and what makes your product or service stand apart from your competitors.

A means-end analysis analyzes those answers to determine the primary reasons why a customer would buy your product. Those buyer reasons can be divided into three main groups:

1. Features: A customer buys a product or service because of the features included in the purchase. If the customer were buying a computer, for example, they might buy it because it's smaller and more lightweight than other options.

2. Benefits: A customer buys a product or service because of a benefit, real or perceived, they believe it will offer them. The customer might also buy the computer because it syncs easily with their other devices wirelessly.

3. Values: A customer buys a product or service for unique, individual values, real or perceived, they believe it will help them fulfill. The customer might think the computer will help them to be more creative or artistic and unlock other personal or professional artistic opportunities.

As you might imagine, these reasons for purchasing something can vary from customer to customer, so it's important to conduct these customer surveys, collect the answers, and group them into these three categories. From there, you can identify which of those motivating factors you're solving for, and which you can improve on to make your product or service even more competitive in the market.

3. Customer Feedback

If you want to know what your customers think about the experience of working with your company, ask them. Interviewing your customers and members of your service team can contribute to a customer needs analysis and improvements to your customer lifecycle .

As you gather data from your customer needs analysis, it's important to identify the points of friction that your customers experience and the moments in their journey that provide unexpected delight.

  • What can your company change?
  • What are the elements that you can build from?
  • What parts of the experience needs to be worked on?

Asking these questions can lead you to valuable insights as you work to solve for your customers.

How to Solve for Customer Needs

The first step to solving for your customers is to put yourself in their shoes: If you were the customer when we purchase your goods, use your technology, or sign up for your services, what would prevent you from achieving ultimate value?

Your customer needs analysis is a good starting point for getting in the mind of your customer, especially when it comes to identifying common pain points. From there, you can build a proactive plan to implement your customer-first values throughout the customer lifecycle. Here are some tips for doing so:

1. Offer consistent company-wide messaging.

Too often customers get caught up in the "he said, she said" game of being told a product can do one thing from sales and another from support and product. Ultimately, customers become confused and are left with the perception that the company is disorganized.

Consistent internal communications across all departments is one of the best steps toward a customer-focused mindset. If the entire company understands its goals, values, product, and service capabilities, then the messages will easily translate to meet the customers’ needs.

To get everyone on the same page, organize sales and customer service meetings, send out new product emails, provide robust new employee onboarding, and require quarterly training and seminars or staff-hosted webinars to share important projects.

2. Provide instructions for easy adoption.

Customers purchase a product because they believe it will meet their needs and solve their problem. However, adoption setup stages are not always clear. If best practices aren't specified at the start and they don't see value right away, it's an uphill battle to gain back their trust and undo bad habits.

A well-thought-out post-purchase strategy will enable your products or services to be usable and useful.

One way companies gain their customers' attention is providing in-product and email walkthroughs and instructions as soon as the customer receives a payment confirmation. This limits the confusion, technical questions, and distractions from the immediate post-purchase euphoria.

A customer education guide or knowledge base is essential to deliver proper customer adoption and avoid the ‘floundering effect' when customers are stuck. Other companies provide new customer onboarding services, host live demos and webinars and include events and promotions in their email signatures .

3. Build feedback loops into every stage of the process.

Lean into customer complaints and suggestions, and it will change the way you operate your business. Criticism often has negative connotations. However, if you flip problems to opportunities you can easily improve your business to fit the customer's needs.

Just as you solicited customer feedback in your needs analysis, you can keep a pulse on how your customers feel at scale with customer satisfaction scores , customer surveys , exploration customer interviews, social media polls, or personal customer feedback emails.

If you're able to incorporate this into a repeatable process, you'll never be in the dark about the state of the customer experience in your organization, and you'll be enabled to continue improving it.

Take customer suggestions seriously and act on those recommendations to improve design, product, and system glitches. Most customer support success metrics are paramount to the customer experience and this mentality should trickle down to every aspect of the organization.

4. Nurture customer relationships.

When a customer buys a product or service, they want to use it right away and fulfill their immediate need. Whether they are delighted within the first hour, week, or a month, it's important to constantly think about their future needs.

Proactive relationship-building is essential to prevent customers from losing their post-purchase excitement and ultimately churning. If customers stop hearing from you and you don't hear from them this can be a bad sign that they are about to churn .

Companies solve for customer relationships with a combination of customer service structure and communication strategies. Solve for the long-term customer need and create a customer service team dedicated to check-ins and customer retention , show appreciation with rewards and gifts to loyal customers, host local events, highlight employees that go above and beyond and communicate product updates and new features.

5. Solve for the right customer needs.

Excluding customers from your cohort of business can seem counterintuitive to solve for your customers' needs. However, understanding whose needs you can fulfill and whose you cannot is a major step toward solving the right problems. All customers' needs can't be treated equally and a company must recognize which problems they can solve and ones that aren't aligned with their vision.

To find the right customer priorities, create buyer personas and uncover consumer trends, look at customer's long-term retention patterns, establish a clear company vision, provide premier customer service to valuable customers and communicate with your ideal customer in their preferred social media space to capture questions, comments, and suggestions.

Successful startups, brick-and-mortar shops, and Fortune 500 companies solve and prioritize customer needs to stay ahead and establish industry trends.

6. Provide great customer service.

If a problem arises, your customers want to get it resolved and feel heard in the process. This starts with being able to meet their needs with empathy, but along the way, the process for obtaining support should be easy and on a channel that's convenient for them.

Some customer needs are time-sensitive and require immediate interaction via phone or chat. Others are less critical and can be resolved at a more casual pace. Let's break down the types of customer service and how each optimizes your team's ability to fulfill customer needs.

  • Social Media
  • Call Back Service
  • Customer Self-Service
  • Interactive Virtual Assistant
  • Integrated Customer Service

Email is one of the most fundamental forms of customer service. It allows customers to fully describe their problems, and it automatically records the conversation into a resourceful thread. Customers only have to explain their issue once, while reps can reference important case details without having to request additional information.

Email is best used with customer needs that don't need to be resolved right away. Customers can ask their question, go back to work, and return to the case once the service rep has found a solution. Unlike phones or chat, they don't have to wait idly while a rep finds them an answer.

One limitation of email is the potential lack of clarity. Some customers have trouble describing their problem, and some service reps struggle to explain solutions. This creates time-consuming roadblocks when the issue is overly complex. To be safe, use email for simple problems that require a brief explanation or solution.

When customers have problems that need to be answered immediately, phones are the best medium to use. Phones connect customers directly to reps and create a human interaction between the customer and the business. Both parties hear each other's tone and can gauge the severity of the situation. This human element is a major factor in creating delightful customer experiences.

Phones come in handy most when there's a frustrated or angry customer. These customers are most likely to churn and require your team to provide a personalized solution. Your team can use soft communication skills to appease the customer and prevent costly escalations. These responses appear more genuine on the phone because reps have less time to formulate an answer.

The most common flaw with phone support is the wait time. Strive for shorter wait times as 33% of customers are frustrated by being waiting on hold. Customers hate being put on hold, and it's a determining factor for customer churn .

Chat is one of the most flexible customer service channels. It can solve a high volume of simple problems or provide detailed support for complex ones. Businesses continue to adopt chat because of its versatility as well as the improvement in efficiency it provides for customer service reps.

When it comes to solving customer needs, chat can be used to solve almost any problem. Simple and common questions can be answered with chatbots that automate the customer service process. For more advanced roadblocks, reps can integrate customer service tools into their chat software to help them diagnose and resolve issues.

The limitations of chat are similar to those of email. However, since the interaction is live, any lack of clarity between the two parties can drastically impact troubleshooting. As a former chat rep, there were plenty of times where I struggled to get on the same page as my customer. Even though we resolved the issue, that miscommunication negatively impacted the customer's experience.

4. Social Media

Social media is a relatively new customer service channel. While it's been around for over a decade, businesses are now beginning to adopt it as a viable service option. That's because social media lets customers immediately report an issue. And since that report is public, customer service teams are more motivated to resolve the customer's problem.

Social media is an excellent channel for mass communication, which is particularly useful during a business crisis. When a crisis occurs, your customers' product and service needs become the primary concern of your organization. Social media is an effective tool for communicating with your customers in bulk. With a social media crisis management plan , your team can continue to fulfill customer needs during critical situations.

Social media is different from other types of customer service because it empowers the customer the most. Customers tend to have more urgent needs and expect instant responses from your accounts. While this type of service presents an enormous opportunity, it also places tremendous pressure on your reps to fulfill customer demand. Be sure your team is equipped with proper social media management tools before you offer routine support.

5. In Person

As the oldest form of customer service, you're probably familiar with working in person with customers. Brands who have brick-and-mortar stores must offer this service for customers living near their locations. This fulfills a convenience need as customers can purchase and return a product without having to ship it back to the company through an online service.

In-person customer service is great for businesses with strong service personnel. Without dedicated employees, your customer service team won't be able to fulfill your customers' product or service needs. Successful teams have reps who are determined to provide above-and-beyond customer service .

5. Call Back Service

Sometimes it's not about how quickly your business can provide a solution, but rather how efficient you can make the service experience. For example, say a customer has a simple question about pricing that should only take a few minutes to answer, but their expected wait time for phone service is over 15 minutes. Rather than making this customer spend more time on hold than actually speaking with a representative, you can offer a call back service where your team reaches out to the customer as soon as the next rep is available.

Another situation where this type of service comes in handy is with text-based mediums like email and live chat. In some cases, these channels aren't ideal for troubleshooting and can lead to friction if the case isn't transferred to another platform. Having a call back service available allows customers to schedule time to speak directly with reps, particularly when they feel like they aren't gaining progress on their case. Instead of having to create a completely new support ticket , call backs seamlessly transition the conversation to a more effective channel.

6. Customer Self-Service

Self-service teaches your customers how to solve problems independently from your support team. Rather than calling or emailing your business whenever they need assistance, customers can navigate to your knowledge base and access resources that help them troubleshoot issues on their own. Not only does this get customers faster solutions, but it also saves them from having to open a ticket with your team. This makes the experience feel much less like a formal support case and more like a quick roadblock that your customers can handle on their own.

Self-service is advantageous for your team's productivity as well. If more customers use your knowledge base, less will call or email your team for help. This will free your reps up more to focus on complex service cases that require a longer time commitment.

7. Interactive Virtual Assistant

Chatbots are no longer novelties that customer service teams use to show off their technological prowess. Now, they're integral pieces of support strategies as they act more like interactive virtual assistants than simple, question-and-answer bots. Today's chatbots are powered by innovative AI technology that interprets customer needs and can walk people through step-by-step solutions.

customer needs: interactive virtual assistant for car

Image Source

The image above shows a perfect example of how useful today's virtual assistants can be. In this situation, the customer is learning how to use their new car — a product that typically offers a lot of unique features and an extensive operator's manual. To help new users navigate the car's basic features, this brand offers an augmented reality tour hosted by a virtual assistant. The user simply has to scroll their camera over different parts of the car and the chatbot will tell them everything they need to know.

Interactive features like this show that you're investing in more than just product development. You're thinking about how you'll support customers and what services you can adopt that will make their lives easier. Customers pay attention to this type of customer service and it can often be a reason why many will return to your business.

8. Integrated Customer Service

Integrated service can be described as all of the little things your brand does to remove pain points from the customer experience. Some of this is proactive, like sending customers an automated newsletter that informs them about major updates or announcements, and some of it is reactive, like pinging a customer success manager whenever someone submits negative feedback to your team.

Even though these pain points may seem small, they add up over time if left unchecked. The best way to remove most of these points of friction is to adopt automation as you grow your customer base. Automated customer service tools like ticketing systems, help desks, and workflows help your team keep pace with increasing customer demand. This technology lets you maintain that same level of personalized customer service even as more people reach out to your business for support.

There's no "best" type of customer service. Each medium complements the other and optimizes your overall performance when used together. This creates an omni-channel experience for your customers which will keep them coming back for more.

What do customers want from a typical customer service situation?

It’s important to note that customer service is reactive. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you’re providing excellent customer service.

  • Listen : While it’s normal to want to quickly get customers in and out of your service queue, it’s important to actually listen to what their issue is before giving them a solution. They may have a more nuanced issue that a boilerplate response can’t provide. There’s nothing more frustrating than providing customers with a canned response that doesn’t actually solve their issue. Automation is great, but just ensure that it is helping customers.
  • Don’t Make Customers Repeat Information: No one wants to answer or submit the same questions repeatedly . Not only is it inconvenient, it shows the customer that no one is listening or paying attention. If you have a ticketing system, review the customer’s history or profile to get familiar with their situation before responding.
  • Be Pleasant: Tone is much harder to convey over written communication and can unintentionally come across as cold. To convey some warmth you could introduce phrases like “I’d be happy to help with that,” or “Hope your day/week is going well.”
  • Be Responsive : Not only do customers want their problem solved, but they prefer it’s resolved quickly. If you can’t solve their issue easily when they first contact you, set expectations around when it will be resolved (24hrs, 2 business days?) and keep them in the loop. Don’t ghost them.

What Customers Want

  • Simple Solutions
  • Personalization
  • Transparency
  • Accessibility

Each customer has their own unique needs, but there are a few that are universal.

1. Simple Solutions

While your product or service may run using a complex set of algorithms and procedures, customers don’t need to know that. They simply want a solution that resolves their issue with as little fuss as possible. Keep your messaging simple and focus on how your brand will solve the customer’s problem.

2. Personalization

Treat your customers like people and not numbers on a spreadsheet. Zendesk found that 54% of customers expect all experiences to be personalized. Use their name in communications and tailor your messaging to the buyer persona they most closely align with. Adding a personal touch when it comes to marketing lets customers know that their needs are at the forefront of your brand’s mission.

Does your product or service outperform the competition or provide a more cost effective solution for consumers? If so, drive that point home in your messaging. Explain how and why they should choose your product or service over others on the market. How will customers benefit when they choose your brand?

4. Transparency

One of the easiest ways to build trust with consumers is to be transparent. No one wants to feel duped by disingenuous, bait-and-switch advertising. Be honest about your product or service’s capabilities and pricing whenever possible.

5. Accessibility

While it is always encouraged to empower customers to help themselves with features like a knowledge base, getting extra assistance when they need it shouldn’t be difficult. Whether it’s phone, email, or chat support, it’s important to be responsive to consumer needs. At the beginning of this article we identified accessibility as one of the most common types of customer needs. If your team is unresponsive to their needs, customers will trade your brand in for a competitor that fills the gap.

Understanding Customer Needs and Expectations

One of the best things you can do is continue learning based on the types of issues that come up so that you can proactively address consumer needs and continue improving on the experience.

While the process requires quite a bit of legwork, the results will be instrumental in the success of your brand. Once you understand customer needs and expectations, you can work towards delighting them with your product.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in September 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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How immersion in problem solving turned Donia Chaouch into a safety-analysis entrepreneur

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The next time your car’s digital system alerts you to a potential collision, think of  Donia Chaouch , MASc 15. The software engineer spent so many years analyzing and testing safety systems in cars, as well as for robotics companies, she decided to launch her own business.

As co-founder and chief technology officer of  Robosafety , the Ottawa-based Chaouch serves as chief architect of the newborn company, designing and implementing scalable and efficient system infrastructures that help develop a range safety-analysis tools. Currently in beta mode, Robosafety seeks to work with a range of sectors in need of comprehensive safety audits.

“From automotive to aviation to oil and gas to medical devices, all of these industries have to have safety as a key priority,” says Chaouch.

In the case of a car’s collision-detector system, common on most modern vehicles, the Robosafety team can first identify any potential hazards, including the system malfunctions or performance limitations leading to false alarms.

“We then conduct a thorough failure analysis and consider factors such as the hardware, software, environmental conditions, and so on,” says Chaouch. “The risk assessment follows, and we look over all of the risks associated with each of the failure-leading hazards that we identified.”

A lightbulb moment

The idea for Robosafety was born in 2021, when Chaouch was in Silicon Valley, California, working as a safety consultant for several robotics companies. She learned from parts suppliers that they were all facing the same pain points on how the whole safety process unfolded. “That kind of stayed on my mind,” she recalls, “and I asked myself ‘How can we change that?’”

Returning to Ottawa, where she had lived since graduating from Concordia, Chaouch discussed her percolating vision with close friend Mary Yazdani, founder and CEO of consulting firm  GenesisLink .

“When I shared the idea with her, she was very interested in collaborating,” Chaouch recalls. Last year, they started Robosafety — with Yazdani joining as co-founder and CEO — and began hiring engineers and working on the software.

“If you think of safety recalls for things like cars, often the issue is something that was overlooked or missed during design and analysis. Our tools can help with that challenge.”

Bringing Robosafety to life isn’t a far reach for Chaouch, whose experience in the field prepared her for this new adventure.

‘Ready for the professional world’

Raised in Sousse, Tunisia, Chaouch had always been an avid reader, whether the books were in French, Arabic or English. And, after an enlightening conversation with her father about her future, she soon discovered how attractive computer science was as a subject.

She earned a computer science/software engineering degree in Tunisia before deciding to head to Concordia for her master’s.

“So many of my friends moved to Montreal,” she recalls. “I also wanted to live in a welcoming and diverse country. Unfortunately, some of the other countries I was considering weren’t like that all.”

At Concordia, where she specialized in  electrical and computer engineering , Chaouch looks back fondly at how it prepared her for future roles in engineering. “Concordia helped me be ready for the professional world, and when I landed my first job out of school, I really didn’t feel worried at all,” she says. She now says she couldn’t have asked for better mentor than  Professor Sofiène Tahar  and being involved in his  world-renowned research group .

One of her most memorable jobs was as a software engineer for BlackBerry QNX, the operating system common in many cars. She would study test cases and experiments to ensure the operating system didn’t have any glitches.

“I was married with a five-month-old daughter at the time so working at BlackBerry was really great for me and my family,” Chaouch says.

As busy as her life has become as an entrepreneur, she admits she’s found her calling. “To have the courage to be a young woman on a non-traditional path, that’s fulfilling to me,” Chaouch says.

“It can be hard to be assertive in a male-dominated career, but the fact that I didn’t give up — even if something went wrong — that’s something I think about a lot.”

Related topics

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© Concordia University

  • Solving Law Firm’s Biggest Problem: Outsourcing Legal Billing to Improve Collection and Profitability


Streamlining and improving the billing process in law firms is often perceived as a daunting task, fraught with complexities that can challenge even the most seasoned legal professionals. Billing is a time consuming, labor-intensive necessary evil that is often fraught with inaccuracies due to inefficiencies in process and extensive operational silos which can cost a law firm potentially millions of dollars each year.

According to a recent Thomson Reuters survey , the average law firm experiences an 18% realization loss due to billing challenges. This means that nearly one-fifth of billable work is not converted into revenue, negatively impacting the firm’s profitability. 81% of law firms report issues with a significant portion of invoices remaining unpaid or delayed, creating cash flow challenges. This is a huge revenue loss that is creating major problems for law firms, but there are solutions.

Why is legal billing so complex?

Most unique to attorneys is that their work is often time-consuming difficult to tangibly track. Tracking billable hours accurately requires meticulous attention to detail and can be particularly challenging when dealing with tasks that don't neatly fit into predefined categories. This creates problems because clients often have unique billing preferences and expectations ranging from traditional hourly billing to flat fees, contingency fees and/or blended rates. Accommodating these distinctive preferences for each client and integrating them into a billing system adds a layer of complexity to billing that makes it extremely labor intensive. Additionally, silos that exist within law firms in the form of practice groups or other operational units can make regularity in billing guidelines either difficult to understand or completely nonexistent.

Another complexity in legal billing is the regulatory compliance and ethical guidelines that must be adhered to. Some of these issues include fee agreements, billing transparency, client confidentiality, and conflicts of interest. Staying compliant with these regulations while meeting client expectations and maintaining profitability requires a thorough understanding of legal and professional standards.

While most law firms rely on billing software to streamline the process, integrating these systems with other practice management tools and ensuring data accuracy and security can present technical challenges that require ongoing maintenance and support.

Reasons to outsource billing

By streamlining the billing processes , law firms can reduce the risk of errors, and focus on core competencies. Technical expertise and best practices ensure process optimization and service quality. Outsourcing can be a valuable solution for law firms aiming to stabilize their cash flow, reduce costs, and improve overall efficiency.

  • Access to Advanced Technology: Outsourcing billing often provides access to advanced billing technologies and software platforms that may be cost-prohibitive for smaller law firms to implement independently. These technologies can automate billing processes, provide real-time reporting and analytics, and offer insights into billing trends and patterns that allow firms to optimize their billing practices for greater efficiency and profitability Additionally, predictive AI can provide billing staff with powerful tools to wade through complex billing guidelines in a timely manner, increasing productivity within billing departments.
  • Expertise and Accuracy: Billing processes can be complex, especially in law firms where billing requirements may vary from client to client and case to case. Outsourcing billing to specialized professionals ensures that billing is handled by experts who are well-versed in legal billing practices. This expertise leads to greater accuracy in invoicing, reducing the likelihood of errors or discrepancies that could lead to disputes or delays in payment. This also leads to more standardized output.
  • Centralization: Often, billing departments in law firms are segregated either geographically or by practice area, leading to inefficiencies and lack of scalability. Centralizing billing can assist by allowing billing to be looked at holistically as a firm rather than piecemeal, leading to a more effective business model for financial processes.
  • Efficiency and Timeliness: Outsourcing billing allows law firms to streamline their billing processes and improve efficiency. Billing professionals have the necessary tools and systems in place to generate invoices promptly and ensure timely submission to clients. This helps expedite the payment cycle, leading to improved cash flow for the firm.
  • Cost Savings: While some may initially view outsourcing as an additional expense, it often proves to be a cost-effective solution in the long run. By outsourcing billing, law firms eliminate the need to hire and train in-house billing staff, invest in billing software, and bear the overhead costs associated with maintaining billing infrastructure, lowering both soft and hard operational costs and simplifying a billing budget. Additionally, outsourcing billing allows firms to scale their billing operations up or down as needed without incurring significant fixed costs.
  • Compliance and Regulation: Legal billing is subject to various regulations and compliance requirements, including those related to client confidentiality, billing transparency, and fee agreements. Outsourcing billing to professionals who are experts in these regulations helps ensure compliance and mitigates the risk of potential legal or ethical issues arising from billing practices.
  • Focus on Core Competencies: Attorneys and legal staff excel in providing legal counsel and representation, but are not usually trained in managing billing and administrative tasks, and even if they are, legal staff turning their attention to these tasks from an administrative perspective harms the firm’s bottom line by taking time away from client-facing, billable projects. By outsourcing billing, law firms can free up valuable time and resources to concentrate on what they do best, which is serving clients legal needs.
  • Enhanced Client Satisfaction: Timely and accurate billing contributes to a positive client experience. By outsourcing billing , law firms can ensure that clients receive clear, transparent invoices in a timely manner, enhancing client satisfaction and fostering long-term client relationships.

Legal billing is a challenge that costs firms millions of dollars every year. It has become such an issue that many of law firms have said this is their main priority to fix by 2025. Centralized teams face challenges due to the varied requirements of different attorneys and clients. The benefits to outsourcing billing not only will help realization rates but will foster a better relationship with clients and will help alleviate headaches of both lawyers and legal administrators as well.

[ View source .]

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Into all problem-solving, a little dissent must fall

Events of the past several years have reiterated for executives the importance of collaboration and of welcoming diverse perspectives when trying to solve complicated workplace problems. Companies weren’t fully prepared for the onset of a global pandemic, for instance, and all that it engendered—including supply chain snarls and the resulting Great Attrition  and shift to remote (and now hybrid) work, which required employers to fundamentally rethink their talent strategies . But in most cases leaders have been able to collaborate their way through the uncertainty, engage in rigorous debate and analyses about the best steps to take, and work with employees, suppliers, partners, and other critical stakeholders to react and, ultimately, recover.

And It’s not just COVID-19: many organisations have had to rethink their business strategies and practices in the wake of environmental concerns, the war in Ukraine, and social movements sparked by racial injustice, sexual misconduct, and widespread economic inequity . Ours are fast-moving, complex times, rich not just in worrisome challenges but also in exciting potential—organisations that enable innovation will find ample opportunities to thrive. So now more than ever, decision makers can’t act alone; they must bring diverse perspectives to the table and ensure that those voices are fully heard . 1 Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, and Sara Prince, “ Diversity wins: How inclusion matters ,” McKinsey, May 19, 2020.

But while many leaders say they welcome dissent, their reactions often change when they actually get some. They may feel defensive. They may question their own judgment. They may resent having to take time to revisit the decision-making process. These are natural responses, of course; employees’ loyalty and affirmation are more reassuring to leaders than robust challenges from the group. There is discomfort, too, for potential dissenters; it is much safer to keep your thoughts to yourself and conform  than to risk expulsion from the group. 2 Derived from this work on the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior: Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior , Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

What’s missing in many companies, in our experience, is the use of “contributory dissent” or the capabilities required to engage in healthy if divergent discussions about critical business problems. Contributory dissent allows individuals and groups to air their differences in a way that moves the discussion toward a positive outcome and doesn’t undermine leadership or group cohesion . 3 McKinsey itself has established obligation to dissent as one of its core values alongside those focused on client service and talent development. For more, see Bill Taylor, “True leaders believe dissent is an obligation,” Harvard Business Review , January 12, 2017.

McKinsey’s research and experience in the field point to several steps leaders can take to engage in healthy dissent and build a culture where constructive feedback is expected and where communication is forthright. These include modeling “open” behaviors, embedding psychological safety  and robust debate into decision-making processes, and equipping employees with the communication skills that will allow them to contribute dissenting opinions effectively.

In this article we outline the steps leaders can take to encourage healthy dissent, and the actions teams and individuals can take to share their voices and perspectives most effectively. It takes both sides, after all, to engage in robust debate, find the right solutions, and enable lasting, positive change.

How leaders can encourage contributory dissent

Senior leaders in an organisation play a central role in ensuring that individuals and teams see contributory dissent as a normal part of any discussion. They can signal the importance of dissent by taking a series of steps to institutionalise the practice within an organisation and empower employees to share their ideas freely and productively. Specifically, senior leaders should strive to inspire rather than direct employees to collaborate, explicitly demand dissent and, taking that one step further, actively engage with naysayers (see sidebar “How to encourage healthy dissent”). 4 Leaders can also draw on McKinsey’s “influence model” for changing mindsets and behaviors: role modeling, fostering understanding and conviction, reinforcing with formal mechanisms, and developing talent and skills. For more, see Tessa Basford and Bill Schaninger, “ The four building blocks of change ,” McKinsey Quarterly , April 11, 2016.

Inspire, don’t direct

How to encourage healthy dissent.

To encourage dissent through personal leadership:

Lead to inspire, not to direct:

  • Empower the group to come up with ideas: “None of us knows the answer yet, but we can work it out together if we harness the best of everyone’s thinking.”

Foster dissent by actively seeking it:

  • Explicitly seek dissent; give people permission and encouragement.
  • Consider including dissent as a stated organisational value.
  • Make provision for open discussion in the buildup to decisions.

Welcome open discussion when it comes:

  • Listen to dissenters and naysayers, and thank them for their insights.
  • Recognise this as a usefully unfiltered channel for understanding the organisation’s perceptions on issues.
  • Seek to bring dissenters along the decision journey, so they become positive influencers later during implementation.
  • Employ deliberate techniques such as red teaming and pre-mortems to widen the debate and mitigate groupthink.

As the inspirational speaker Simon Sinek put it, “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” 5 Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action , New York, NY: Portfolio, 2009. That is especially important for fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and contributory dissent. Rather than immediately jump into a discussion about solutions, one senior leader in an international organisation addressed his team’s anxiety in the wake of a crisis. “Let me guess,” he said, “you’re all feeling confused and uncertain about the way ahead. Terrific. I’m so glad we are of one mind and that we all understand our situation correctly! I’m sure that we can work it out together, but it’s going to require the best of everyone’s thinking. Let’s get started.” His authenticity and understated humor allowed him to connect with the group and inspired them to keep calm, carry on, and generate solutions that the leader alone couldn’t have come up with. Harvard professor Ron Heifetz describes this as creating a holding environment, a key element of adaptive leadership. 6 Ronald A. Heifetz and Mary Linksy, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading , Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002; Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linksy, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World , Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009.

Explicitly demand dissent

It’s not enough for leaders to give people permission to dissent; they must demand it of people. In many companies, individuals and teams may (understandably) default to collegiality, not realizing that there are ways to challenge ideas while still respecting colleagues’ roles and intellect. It’s on senior leaders, then, to help employees understand where the boundaries are. In World War 1, Australia’s General Sir John Monash was determined to develop better tactics to overcome the catastrophic impasse of trench warfare. He knew there were answers to be found from the experience of soldiers in the trenches, but he needed to loosen the military discipline of blind obedience: “I don’t care a damn for your loyal service when you think I am right; when I really want it most is when you think I am wrong.” Monash scheduled open battle planning sessions and pulled in advice from whoever offered it. In doing so, he built ownership of and confidence in his plans among all ranks. The resulting orchestration of tanks, artillery, aircraft, and troops led to rapid advances along the Somme Valley, and Monash garnered respect and appreciation from his troops, whose chances of survival and ultimate victory had increased markedly.

Actively engage with naysayers

Taking the demand imperative one step further, it’s beneficial for leaders to actively seek out the views of vocal naysayers , who can turn into influential champions just by being part of the conversation. They can immediately improve the nature of business debate and may boost the quality of the final decision, although engaging with naysayers can be tough. Some dissenting opinions can be ill-informed or uncomfortable to hear. The objective for senior leaders, then, is to put their discomfort aside and listen for signs of cognitive dissonance within an organisation. As an example, front-line employees may say things like “We’re not considered strategic thinkers,” or “The company doesn’t put people first,” while senior management may actually feel as though they have made strides in both of those areas. Still, leaders need to absorb such comments, treat them as useful data points, assess their validity, and engage in what may be a challenging discussion. They may want to use red teams  and premortems , in which teams at the outset anticipate all the ways a project could fail, to frame up dissenting opinions, mitigate groupthink, and find a positive resolution. These behaviours also serve to enhance organizational agility and resilience .

How leaders can establish psychological safety

Senior leaders need to establish a work environment in which it is safe to offer dissenting views. The McKinsey Health Institute’s work on employee well-being points to a strong correlation between leadership behaviors, collaborative culture, and resistance to mental health problems and burnout : only 15 percent of employees in environments with low inclusivity and low support for personal growth are highly engaged, compared with 38 percent in high-scoring environments. 7 “ Addressing employee burnout: Are you solving the right problem? ,” McKinsey, May 27, 2022. Leaders can build psychological safety (where team members feel they can take interpersonal risks and remain respected and accepted) and set the conditions for contributory dissent by rethinking how they engage in debate—both the dynamics and the choreography of it.

The dynamics of debate

The poet and playwright Oscar Wilde described a healthy debating culture as one in which people are “playing gracefully with ideas”— listening to, and even nourishing, opposing points of view in a measured and respectful way. 8 The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume 2: De Profundis, “Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis,” Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, 2005. Indeed, the best ideas can emerge at the intersection of cultures and opinions. In 15th century Florence, for instance, the Medici family attracted and funded creators from across the arts and sciences to establish an epicenter of innovative thinking that sparked the Renaissance. 9 Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Culture , Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. Closer to this century, we have seen cross-discipline innovations like the application of biologists’ research on ant colonies to solve problems in telecommunications routing. And in the business world, extraordinary innovations have been achieved by open-minded leaders bringing together smart people and creating the conditions for playful exploration.

To achieve a state of “graceful play,” senior leaders must carefully manage group dynamics during debates. Rather than lead with their own opinions, for instance, which might immediately carry outsize weight in the group and stifle discussion, senior leaders can hold back and let others lead the discussion . They can lean in to show genuine curiosity or to explicitly recognise when a dissenting view has changed their thinking. But by letting other, more junior voices carry the agenda and work through ideas, however imperfect, senior leaders can establish a climate of psychological safety—and garner more respect from colleagues long term. 10 Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth , Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2019.

Leaders will also need to be aware of cultural differences that may crop up during debates. For example, many Australians speak candidly and are happy to address issues squarely. By contrast, the concept of “face” is so important in many Asian cultures that a more circumspect approach is taken. And the Pacific and Maori cultures emphasize displays of both strength and respect. 11 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business , Philadelphia, PA: PublicAffairs, 2014. These differences in debate dynamics really matter. They can be a great source of hybrid vigour, 12 “Heterosis, also called hybrid vigour: the increase in such characteristics as size, growth rate, fertility, and yield of a hybrid organism over those of its parents. The first-generation offspring generally show, in greater measure, the desired characteristics of both parents.” Encyclopedia Britannica , accessed September 19, 2022. if sensitively managed, or a source of conflict and disenfranchisement if not. To approach these differences in a positive way, senior leaders could undertake a mapping exercise that identifies the different styles of the cultures present, thereby providing validation and enabling pragmatic measures to integrate them.

Choreographing debate

Beyond just managing debate dynamics, business leaders must take a hand in choreographing the debate and, specifically, in helping to design collective-thinking processes  so people know how best to play their part. Business leaders may adopt a structured approach  to brainstorming, for instance, or plan strategic off-site schedules that combine deliberate thinking with “distracted” thinking—taking time to engage in a social activity, for instance—to take advantage of employees’ deep-thinking processes.

How deliberate choices by the leader can optimise a decision-making process

A leader must consciously assess each new situation and design the collective-thinking process accordingly, then articulate this so that people know how best to play their part.

In doing so, the leader should consider an array of questions, the answers to which will determine the context, for example:

  • What does success look like?
  • Will the organisation underwrite initial failures in the interests of agility and innovation?
  • How broad and freethinking an analysis is required?
  • What are the explicit expectations for contributory dissent?
  • Are any topics and behaviours out of bounds?
  • Who will lead the discussion, and how will comments be captured?
  • Does urgency mean that it’s better to be directive?
  • Who will be consulted?
  • Which decisions can be delegated, and to whom?
  • Whose support needs to be built?
  • What parameters and boundaries exist?
  • Are there interim decisions and communications required?
  • What form should the deliverable outcomes take?
  • When are the deliverables required?
  • Direction setting on these parameters by the leader focuses the team, while also creating space for creativity and iterative learning.

To create a sustainable structure for debate, business leaders will need to consider questions relating to team structure and rules of engagement: What does success look like when it comes to contributory dissent? What topics and behaviors are out of bounds? Who will lead the discussion, and how will comments be captured? Who has the final say on decisions, or which decisions can be delegated, and to whom? (For a more comprehensive explanation, see sidebar “How deliberate choices by the leader can optimise a decision-making process.”)

Having these parameters in place can free up the team to think more creatively about the issue at hand. Establishing such protocols can also make it easier to raise dissenting opinions. At one company, people are asked to call out their underlying values or potential biases when expressing a dissenting view. During meetings of the promotion committee, for instance, a statement like “I think we are making the wrong decision” would be rephrased as “I am someone who values experience over collaboration, and this decision would risk losing too much institutional knowledge.”

How individuals and teams can engage and dissent

As we’ve shared, senior leaders can take steps to set conditions for robust discussion and problem-solving, but individuals and teams themselves must also have the right mindsets and skills for contributory dissent to work well (see sidebar “How teams and individuals can dissent effectively”). In particular, they must embrace the obligation to dissent, actively make space to analyse ideas that are different from their own, and then find ways to either iterate on others’ ideas or respectfully agree to disagree.

Embrace the obligation to dissent

How teams and individuals can dissent effectively.

For dissent to be effective, its delivery requires courage and tactical skills underpinned by sincere respect and grace. Speaking up with respect is the right thing to do, and the responsibility to do so exists, even if there is uncertainty. The following guidelines are useful in enabling effective dissent:

Prepare a welcome for dissenting views:

  • Understand the context and motivations of others, appreciate their views, and syndicate your own.
  • Stop and strategise before wading into the conversations, establish a solid platform for agreement, and explicitly seek permission to dissent.

Play the long game:

  • Be open minded and iterative. Don’t expect to succeed on the first try.
  • Listen to others for what their views might add rather than to defend your own.

Withhold assent if you need to, but do it carefully:

  • Withholding assent is a legitimate option if done judiciously.
  • Minimise offense to and loss of face for the decision maker.
  • If principles or legality is at stake, document your dissent.

Individuals and teams need to exhibit a certain amount of humility and confidence in order to speak truth to power with respect; they must be sure for themselves that doing so is the right thing to do. To build this confidence, individuals and teams should remember that the very act of dissent can be valuable, even if the contribution itself isn’t 100 percent baked. Others can react or build on the dissenting view—which, in itself, can be a satisfying process for a dissenter. If the ultimate decision isn’t what they proposed, they still helped shape it by offering and testing a worthy possibility.

Make space to analyse different views

Individuals and teams may need time to determine their positions on an issue. During this period, it’s important to be (and seen to be) open-minded and respectful of others’ views. That means asking lots of questions, gathering information, assessing others’ motivations, and acknowledging their views before syndicating alternatives of your own. Much of this fact gathering can be done one-on-one, in a nonconfrontational way, in offline conversations rather than in a tension-filled meeting room. In these conversations, individuals could start by reaffirming a shared commitment to finding a solution to the issue at hand, their respect for the decision-making process and the group, and areas of broad agreement. They could also signal their possible intention to dissent and seek permission to do so rather than confronting people head-on. People will find it harder to refuse that permission, and will be less likely to get defensive, when approached with statements like “This is a great discussion, and I love the vision of where we are headed, but would it be OK for us to explore some alternatives for how to get there?”

Agree to iterate …

Individuals and teams that decide to offer dissenting views should agree to iterate on other solutions, rather than digging in. Their dissenting opinions should be cogent, persuasive, and open-minded—but dissenters shouldn’t expect to change hearts and minds on the first try. They should plant seeds gently and bide their time; they might even see their idea come back as someone else’s. The critical skill required here is active, open listening: dissenters should listen carefully for others’ additive insights and find ways to build on them. In their contributory dissent, individuals and teams can take a moment to summarize what others have said and then use statements like “Can I offer another take?” and then allow the momentum of the conversation to take over.

… or agree to disagree

But what happens if, after all the considered and tactful input, the dissenter still believes a decision is heading in the wrong direction? In our experience, withholding assent then becomes a legitimate option: people shouldn’t agree if they don’t agree. This is where all the careful, respectful groundwork the dissenter has done can pay dividends. In fact, a dissenting view gains even more power when an individual can say something like, “I still believe in my alternate solution, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this process, and I respect that you have the final say.” In this case, the dissenter is supporting the leader while flagging that the open debate hasn’t convinced them to change their initial view.

Of course, withholding assent should be a relatively rare action, taken only after an individual or team has shown that they can accommodate other views and have aligned with the consensus when they believe it’s right to do so. Think of US Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the consensus view on many decisions but who is especially celebrated for the positive changes that arose from her highly influential dissenting opinions on issues such as gender equity, human rights, and religious freedom.

Contributory dissent can help strengthen employee engagement, unlock hidden insights, and help organisations solve tough challenges. But putting it into practice takes courage and humility, and it won’t just happen by accident. Leaders need to be intentional about welcoming challenges to their plans and opinions, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. They need to establish cultures and structures where respectful debate can occur and where individuals and teams feel free to bring innovative—and often better—alternative solutions to the table.

Ben Fletcher is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Sydney office, Chris Hartley is a partner in the Melbourne office, Rupe Hoskin is a senior expert in the Canberra office, and Dana Maor is a senior partner in the Tel Aviv office.

The authors wish to thank Jacqueline Brassey, Nikki Dines, Richard Fitzgerald, Sam Hemphill, Ayush Jain, Jemma King, and Martin Nimmo for their contributions to this article.

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A rising challenge in retail: addressing the lack of return visibility.

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Sylvia Ng is CEO of ReturnBear , a platform for e-Commerce reverse logistics making returns better for brands, customers, and the planet.

Picture this: You’re setting up for a virtual meeting with a successful ecommerce merchant who’s been doubling their business at a healthy clip. You come prepared to discuss their success, but instead of trumpet blasts and confetti, there's a cloud of worry hanging in the air when you join the call.

The worry? eCommerce returns.

The merchant is facing as much as a third or more of returns, largely thanks to two popular trends: Bracket Buying and Try Before You Buy. These trends can create a situation where the more the merchant sells, the more they lose. Growth and revenue may come at a cost of profit, which puts pressure on internal teams to improve operating margins.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the rising tide of ecommerce returns bringing new challenges for merchants to navigate. Despite how widespread return problems are now, many merchants still can’t quantify the issue. The truth is, "only 6% of companies report full visibility on their supply chain, while 69% of companies don’t have total visibility." Merchants largely don’t know how bad the return problem really is. Return rates are rough estimates, and many are unaware of which products are returned, which regions have higher returns, the cost of processing returns, and the frequency of fraud, among other issues.

In my own experience, the first step in addressing the problem is understanding it.

Why is there a lack of visibility in the supply chain, particularly in reverse logistics?

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Reverse logistics is often an afterthought. “Sell first, worry about everything else later” is how many merchants operate. And for good reason; what ecommerce brand doesn’t have sales as a primary goal? Merchants may not worry about returns until they start piling up, but by then, the pile is already there, without systems to handle it.

The fragmented landscape of systems used by merchants often doesn’t make data connections easy. In a system ocean littered with acronyms such as WMS (Warehouse Management Software), OMS (Order Management Software), IMS (Inventory Management Software) and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software, merchants need to plan for data lakes and single sources of truth or risk drowning in spreadsheets. Third-party website tooling is also important but easily forgotten, leading to visibility problems. Not to mention how the proliferation of marketplace selling can create data standardization and control issues , because the data is often controlled by third parties like Amazon and Walmart and not merchants directly.

The reverse logistics industry is ripe for disruption. Investors have been keen to back new technologies, but many favor software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions over physical logistics. It’s not hard to understand why; SaaS software boasts profit margins as high as 90% , while logistics margins hover around a mere 10% to 20% . Consequently, many bigger-name players in the reverse space offer solutions that are “pixels, not parcels.” They deal with post-purchase experiences or exchanges or return authorizations purely from a software perspective and never actually touch logistics.

How ironic is it that reverse logistics is being addressed by providers who don’t do logistics? You can’t solve what is fundamentally a real-world problem with digital solutions. “Parcel” problems like weather, machinery breakdowns and personnel getting sick come with taking returns back from consumers. I have found that most investors have been shy to invest in solving parcel problems because it’s risky, but that leaves merchants with incomplete solutions. Merchants must integrate software with warehouse and carrier operations, often resulting in visibility gaps.

The lack of visibility ultimately means an impact on customers.

When you think about it, reverse logistics exists to serve the end consumer with a refund, exchange or store credit, and if a merchant doesn’t have visibility into that process, neither do the customers. Uncertainty about refund statuses, confusion about rejected items and lengthy assessment processes can lead to customer dissatisfaction. If you don’t believe me, look up any large brand’s online reviews and see how many of the low ratings stem from return problems. To keep customers loyal, merchants should support them when issues arise. A low return rate might not mean happy customers but rather that customers find returning items to be too difficult, so they don't bother. In my experience, this makes them less likely to buy again.

If you don't understand why customers return items, it's hard to prevent it. Without knowing the full cost of returns, including customer support, reducing expenses can be tricky. But I have found that analyzing return costs and speed can provide insights for cutting costs and boosting sales.

What can be done about this visibility problem?

1. Create a comprehensive map and consolidate the data in a central system. Track your full journey, from when the customer requests the return to when they drop off the item or get the item picked up, when the item is in transit and when it arrives back at your retail stores or warehouses.

2. Act on your data insights. Want to understand return costs? I recommend focusing on hidden costs like customer service time spent on addressing returns. Examine customer service complaints and reviews, or survey your customers for their thoughts.

3. Simplify the process. Carve out time to regularly review the tools and vendors you’re using and see if any can be removed. Better yet, don’t add new things without also removing something from your system. This can help you simplify your stack for customers and make the overall return process more user-friendly.

4. Consider using an end-to-end solution. (Full disclosure: My company offers these services, as do others.) Working with an end-to-end partner can help you streamline the process to avoid patching together various solutions and invest as much effort on the data front to collect all the necessary information.

Many merchants try to solve their reverse logistics problems when they become obvious, but a lack of visibility often prevents them from being successful at it. Even some of those who bought reverse logistics companies during the pandemic have had to offload their acquisitions . But by recognizing returns as an opportunity for growth and taking steps to create visibility, you can transform your returns process into a strategic advantage.

Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?

Sylvia Ng

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