Module 9

Essential Tools: Organization Prioritization, Time Management, Decision Making and Problem Solving

Learning Objectives:

  1. Build trust through productive organization, prioritization, and time management
  2. Identify strategies to increase organization and prioritization
  3. Manage commitments to build trust and respect with peers and supervisors
  4. Choose appropriate strategies and make sound and well-grounded decisions

Watch these videos on time management: time management techniques   Eisenhower matrix   Eisenhower matrix

Watch the Jar of Life Video—setting priorities:   Rocks, pebbles, sand story

Watch these videos on decision making:   Big Bang Theory decision making; funny decision making – take action; funny

Making and Keeping Commitments

Our relationships with other people are vital to our effective participation in the world. We live in a world of engagement and the language we choose to use creates a power that ripples outwards. Somewhat similar to the reaction that occurs when we drop a pebble in a pond. We use language to not only describe our world but to create it. And effective communication, including keeping our commitments is central to that. Keeping commitments is a crucial factor for every family, friendship or partnership, and for every team, association, or organization. Every one of these groups is comprised of us, and others, engaging in a continuing cycle of conversations and commitments

Of all the types of conversations we have, the most potent and productive is when we make an offer to another, or when we request a commitment from another. And when that offer or request is accepted this can be characterized as ‘The Promise Cycle’.  This simple act of making and managing promises then creates a mutual commitment from one person to another to take a specific future action.

And the responsibility that accompanies a promise is to do ‘what’ we said we would do, do it to the ‘standard’ to which we committed, and to do it at the ‘time’ we committed to. In other words, we must deliver what we promise, to the standard we promise and when we promise. The effectiveness of this process relies on the clarity of the conditions. In other words, how well formed and well expressed the commitment is, and how well it’s understood by both people.

The promise cycle can be described this way. It occurs when you offer to do something for another as an: Offer + Acceptance = Promise, or when another makes a request of you as a: Request + Acceptance = Promise. In life we bind ourselves to each other through promises and we begin to drift when we don’t deliver on those promises. Therefore the making and keeping of commitments is an important element of our communication. It determines predictability, certainty and continuity in all our various relationships.

Now imagine the profound impact that would occur in every aspect of life if all members of your family, your team, your associations, or your organization kept their commitments? Mutual trust would increase, and as a result efficiency, effectiveness and productivity would grow exponentially. Trust is central to our identity; such a simple process; such a profound impact. And In an organizational setting; understanding and using this process allows team and business leaders to develop a committed, collaborative, high-performance culture.


Now think of one instance in both your personal life and professional life where you have made a promise and delivered on that promise.

Then think of one instance in both your personal and professional life when you have made a promise and not delivered on that promise.

What were the implications and results?

Adapted from: Robert Dunham, Institute for Generative Leadership, Boulder, CO   (C) 2015, Institute for Generative Leadership –

Excerpt from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
by Stephen Covey, 1989

Personal management has evolved in a pattern similar to many other areas of human endeavor. Major developmental thrusts, or ‘waves’ as Alvin Toffler calls them, follow each other in succession, each adding a vital new dimension.

Likewise, in the area of time management, each generation builds on the one before it – each one moves us toward greater control of our lives. The first wave or generation could be characterized by notes and checklists, an effort to give some semblance of recognition and inclusiveness to the many demands placed on our time and energy.

The second generation could be characterized by calendars and appointment books. This wave reflects an attempt to look ahead, to schedule events and activities in the future.

The third generation reflects the current time management field. It adds to those preceding generations the important idea of prioritization, of clarifying values, and of comparing the relative worth of activities based on their relationship to those values. In addition, it focuses on setting goals – specific long-, intermediate- and short-term targets toward which time and energy would be directed in harmony with values. It also includes the concept of daily planning, of making a specific plan to accomplish those goals and activities determined to be of greatest worth.

While the third generation has made a significant contribution, people have begun to realize that “efficient” scheduling and control of time are often counterproductive. The efficiency focus creates expectations that clash with the opportunities to develop rich relations, to meet human needs, and to enjoy spontaneous moments on a daily basis.

As a result, many people have become turned off by the time management programs and planner that make them feel too scheduled, too restricted, and they “throw the baby out with the bath water,” reverting to first or second generation techniques to preserve relationships, spontaneity, and quality of life.

But there is an emerging fourth generation that is different in kind. It recognizes that “time management” is really a misnomer – the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves. Satisfaction is a function of the expectation as well as realization. And expectation (and satisfaction) lies in our Circle of Influence.

Rather than focusing on things and time, fourth generation expectations focus on preserving and enhancing relationships and on accomplishing results – in short, on maintaining P/PC Balance [P stands for production of desired results and PC stands for the capacity to produce the desired results].

General Organizing Skills

Along with communication and computer skills, organizational skills are some of the most important transferable job skills a worker can possess. People need organizational skills at work to be more productive. Workers who know where to find notes or certain resources can save time. Therefore, they tend to get more done. There are a number of organizational skills for work, including those noted below.

Physical Organization

Clutter is often the culprit when it comes to disorganization in a work space. Make a point to clear out unneeded papers, file documents in the appropriate places and put unused supplies back in the supply closet. You don’t have to be a neat freak to be successful with physical organization. You might find that it fits your working style to designate a weekly session for busting through the accumulated clutter. Get into the habit of putting papers, gadgets, business cards, files, magazines, newspapers and supplies in their proper places. Throw away or shred items that are past their usable life.

Mental Organization

Keeping your mind organized can be a challenge when you are juggling the varied demands of performing a job. Prioritize projects and make to-do lists to keep yourself on track. Understand your personal working style and play to your strengths. Not everyone is cut out to be an accomplished multi-tasker. You might work best by focusing on finishing off one project at a time rather than balancing multiple tasks.


Planning is a needed workplace skill, and it is particularly important as person advances into more supervisory or managerial roles. Most work is centered on certain projects that must be completed within a specific time period. Projects are usually divided into many different tasks, and workers must plan their tasks ahead of time to bring the project to fruition. A person can also plan ahead in case certain problems come up that could potentially delay the project.

Set goals and outline the steps you need to take to reach them. Focus forward on goals that you may have set with your supervisor. Schedule time to work through the tasks involved so that you are making constant progress.

A goal is something you want to do, have or be or something your employer expects to happen over time.

The way you set your goals affects their effectiveness. Goal setting is deciding what you want to do, why you want to do it, when you are going to do it and how you are going to do it. Setting goals helps you to accomplish things which are important in both your work and home life. Plan the Plan and not the results. As you begin to think about your goals, keep the following things in mind.

  1. Be Positive: have a good attitude
  2. Be Realistic: know yourself and your comfort level
  3. Set Deadlines: be realistic so you don’t become frustrated
  4. Prioritize: make lists, break things into smaller pieces
  5. Write down your goals & keep them visible: this will help you stay on task
  6. Make your goals small and achievable: for better success
  7. List your values: What’s important to you?
  8. Plan for the future and place yourself there: visualize, fantasize

 Time Management

Having good organizational skills is about making the best use of your time. Being organize reduces the amount of time you have to dig to uncover important work related information. Understand where your time goes. For example, if you check email every five minutes, you might want to create a twice-a-day email schedule to more effectively handle your inbox. Maintain a calendar so you don’t miss important deadlines.

Thinking about time management can generate many questions for exploration and reflection.

Do we manage time or manage capacity? Do we manage time or manage our values and what we care about? Do we manage time or manage our choices? Do we manage tasks or manage outcomes? Do we manage our time or our energy?

Use of time is clearly a choice. When those choices lack grounding in a larger purpose and clear discernment of what we care about and what’s really important, the choices of how we spend our time can sometimes fail to deliver purposeful outcomes.

Taking time to consider at a more than superficial level what we care about and centering our focus on those cares generates different outcomes. Those who are grounded in a clear purpose and who allow that purpose to drive conversations for action and commitments make different choices that enable personal as well as customer satisfaction. These commitments are grounded in outcomes that matter rather than task completion. Spending time on tasks without connection to a greater purpose can cause frustration, a sense of overwhelm energy depletion, disappointment, exhaustion, and loss of clear direction.

Meeting Deadlines

One of the most important organizational skills is the ability to meet deadlines and use time wisely. It usually takes a little experience before an individual can properly assign tasks, allocate resources and complete a project on time. Meeting deadlines requires time management skills, which is an important organizational skill itself

Employees need time management organizational skills to keep track of meetings, appointments, tasks and deadlines. Time management skills will help you stay on schedule with everything you do. Time management skills will also help you avoid the last minute rush to complete tasks, eliminating potential stress in the process

Tracking Tasks

Organizational skills are needed to keep track of projects. Finding a way to track tasks will help keep you ahead of the game. Projects require a lot of individual tasks. These tasks need to be completed on time to reach the project deadline. If you work with project deadlines, use a project log to keep track of your progress. You can keep the project log on file in your computer or on paper. There is no right way. The important point is to do it to simplify your life as well as that of others.


Good organizational skills can help lead to success through many paths. Time is money. Organization saves time by keeping valuable data easily accessible, goals in focus and everyone on the same page. Employees who have good organizational skills are efficient at covering the demands of their jobs. This directly relates to a company’s bottom line. Poor organization leads to frustration on the part of a business owner, employees and customers. Keep an orderly office, work space, computer and mind to cultivate an environment that is focused on meeting business goals in a timely manner.

Organizational Skills: Prioritization

Prioritization is a valuable organizational skill. Some tasks may require immediate attention, others can wait. This skill set is closely linked to time management. We only have a limited amount of time to utilize during our workday, so place those tasks that have to be completed first at the head of a list. In the military, on the battlefield, doctors apply the organizational skill of “triage”; injured soldiers are placed into one of three categories, since it is physically impossible for the doctor to get to everyone at once. Wounded soldiers who are going to die, no matter what is done to them, are placed in one category. Soldiers who have serious, but non-life-threatening injuries, go into another category. Finally, those soldiers who require immediate attention and can be saved go into the third category. This is prioritization.

Organizational skills such as prioritization, organizing the workspace, time management, form the core basis of good organizational habits. Practical organizational skills include wise planning, time optimization, detail orientation, and prioritization. Last, but not least, would be to relieve stress! A stressed out worker makes more mistakes, and may say something to a co-worker or subordinate in the “heat of the moment”, that they will later regret! Do whatever it takes for you personally to be relaxed, yet professional, in making your business decisions and conducting efficient operations. Implementing these organizational skills will contribute to a healthy work environment.

There are five steps to prioritizing your work

  1. Think about what needs to be done– First, think about what needs to be done. How do you juggle (prioritize) your daily activities? Make a list of daily activities, and think about how you work to accomplish them.
  2. Decide and prioritize what to do– Now it is time to decide which goals are important to you, and how you can achieve them. Before you do, remember that relaxation is a key. How do you relax? Have you given yourself time to relax? What do you do to relax? Before you continue, think about relaxing and make a list of the things you do to relax. As you plan your day, allow time for yourself to relax and refresh.

By now, you have an idea of your goals. You should also have a list of how you organize your daily life and what your work style is. As a reminder, this list should tell you the following:

  • What your distractions are
  • When do you work best
  • What are your daily activities (commitments) are
  • When you work best

Keep your list in mind as you begin to set goals, break the goal into manageable pieces, order (prioritize) those pieces and achieve your goal. Learn to say no to distractions and extra demands on your time. Saying no can be difficult at first, but as you prioritize and work to achieve your goals you will see how important this can be.

  1. Monitor and Evaluate: How am I doing? It is important to think about what you do while you do it.

It takes commitment to design a plan and stick to it. Remind yourself often of your objectives. Write short lists or put up photographs or articles to help remind you of our goal and your progress.

If you keep veering from the goal, maybe the objective is not something you want badly enough. If so, change it. Be flexible. Setting and achieving goals is a lifelong process. Set new objectives that are consistent with who you are and what you want. Objectives may change over time.

Here are some suggestions for monitoring and evaluating the way you work. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I doing well?
  • What could I improve?
  • What are the opportunities facing you?
  • What is getting in your way?
  1. Practice Prioritizing—Write a list of things you need to accomplish. Decide what is most important and most urgent.       Prioritize list in order of importance Then, breakdown each item into a list of tasks that need to happen to complete it. Check off the tasks as you complete them.
  1. Reward Yourself— Celebrate when you have completed your task.

Set up a reward system for yourself. It may be calling a friend, reading a couple of chapters of your favorite book, taking a bubble bath, shooting a few hoops, or taking a walk. Whatever it is should be meaningful to you.

Time Management: The Eisenhower Method


Not Urgent



  • Emergencies
  • Deadlines
  • Some calls



  • Exercise
  • Vacation
  • Planning


Not Important


  • Interruptions
  • Distractions
  • Other calls



  • Trivia
  • Busy work
  • Time Wasters


The Eisenhower Method helps you decide which action you should or shouldn’t do. It aids you to divide actions into one of four categories. The quadrants are divided by importance and urgency.

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

How to Use the Eisenhower Method

Using the Eisenhower quadrant is very easy. You pick an item from your to-do list and ask yourself these two questions.

  • “Is it urgent?”
  • “Is it important?”

You can now put the action into the correct quadrant.

Below is an explanation of each quadrant.

  1. Not Urgent and Not Important Examples:
  • Time wasters (Ex: Facebook, checking e-mails all the time…)
  • Busy work (Ex: Work that doesn’t need to be done)
  • Procrastinating

You should not spend any time on activities in this quadrant. When is something not important? If it doesn’t progress you toward your goals, then why should you spend time doing it?

When is something not urgent? If it doesn’t matter when it is done, then it’s not urgent. It can be done today, or it can be done next week or even next year, it doesn’t matter.

The combination of not urgent and not important is the worst quadrant to spend your time in. Decrease your time in this quadrant and put it somewhere else. I prefer you put it in ‘not urgent and important’.

  1. Urgent and Not Important


  • Answering e-mails
  • Incoming phone calls
  • Interrupting colleagues

Since the tasks are still not important and you’re still not progressing towards your goals’ it’s better to not spend time here either. However, these tasks are urgent, therefore you can’t schedule them. They’re also hard to ignore, since urgent action often demands attention. Ex: A phone call or an interrupting colleague. Find a way to deal with these as quickly as possible.

  1. Urgent and Important


  • Emergencies
  • Troubleshooting
  • Deadlines

You have to do these actions. They’re important. They progress you toward your goals, however, since they’re urgent, they’re often unplanned and unwanted.

You will always spend some time here, since emergencies will always happen. When they do, you have to deal with them. No excuses. After you deal with the situation, spend time to make sure it never happens again, minimize its occurrence or make preparations for when it happens again.

  1. Not Urgent and Important


  • Building quality relationships with other people
  • Doing actual work to progress toward a major goal
  • Physical exercise

This is the quadrant in which you should spent most of your time. Most people however, don’t do this and spend most of their time in any of the other quadrants. Because these important tasks don’t scream to you like a ringing phone, they’re often neglected in favor of more urgent matters.

If you spend almost no time here, then your first important task is to save some time each day to work on the important things.

Urgent activities are often the ones we concentrate on and often forget about really important ones. If you spend all of your time concentrating on the urgent and important tasks you will just be firefighting. Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that you want to achieve, means spending your time on things that are important and not just urgent.

We can categorize tasks on two scales according to their importance and urgency. Making 4 categories and placing them in matrix known also as Time Matrix below.

time matrix


What is Decision Making?

People often find it hard to make decisions – inevitably we all have to make decisions all the time, some are more important than others.

Some people put off making decisions by endlessly searching for more information or getting other people to offer their recommendations.  Others resort to decision making by taking a vote, sticking a pin in a list or tossing a coin.

Regardless of the effort that is put into making a decision, it has to be accepted that some decisions will not be the best possible choice.  This page examines one technique that can be used for effective decision making and that should help you to make effective decisions now and in the future.

Although the following technique is designed for an organisational or group structure, it can be easily adapted to an individual level.

In its simplest sense: Decision Making is the act of choosing between two or more courses of action‘.  However, it must always be remembered that there may not always be a ‘correct’ decision among the available choices.

There may have been a better choice that had not been considered, or the right information may not have been available at the time.  Because of this, it is important to keep a record of all important decisions and the reasons why these decisions were made, so that improvements can be made in the future.  This also provides justification for any decision taken when something goes wrong.

Hindsight might not be able to correct past mistakes, but it will aid improved decision making in the future.

Effective Decision Making

Although decisions can be made using either intuition or reasoning, a combination of both approaches is often used.  Whatever approach is used, it is usually helpful to structure decision making in order to:

  • Reduce more complicated decisions down to simpler steps.
  • See how any decisions are arrived at.
  • Plan decision making to meet deadlines.

Stages of Decision Making

In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities. Every decision-making process produces a final choice that may or may not prompt action. Decision-making is the study of identifying and choosing alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision maker. Decision-making is one of the central activities of management and is a huge part of any process of implementation.

Many different techniques of decision making have been developed, ranging from simple rules of thumb, to extremely complex procedures.  The method used depends on the nature of the decision to be made and how complex it is.

The method described here follows seven stages:

  1. Listing all possible solutions/options.
  2. Setting a time scale and deciding who is responsible for the decision.
  3. Information gathering.
  4. Weighing up the risks involved.
  5. Deciding on values, or in other words what is important.
  6. Weighing up the pros and cons of each course of action.
  7. Making the decision.


  1.  Listing Possible Solutions/Options

In order to come up with a list of all the possible solutions and/or options available it is usually appropriate to work on a group (or individual) problem-solving process. This process, could include brainstorming or some other ‘idea generating’ process (see our page: Problem Solving for more information). 

This stage is important to the overall decision making processes as a decision will be made from a selection of fixed choices.  Always remember to consider the possibility of not making a decision or doing nothing and be aware that both options are actually potential solutions in themselves.

  1. Setting a Time Period and Deciding Who is Responsible for the Decision

In deciding how much time to make available for the decision making process, it helps to consider the following:

  • How much time is available to spend on this decision?
  • Is there a deadline for making a decision and what are the consequences of missing this deadline?
  • Is there an advantage in making a quick decision?
  • How important is it to make a decision?  How important is it that the decision is right?
  • Will spending more time improve the quality of the decision?

Responsibility for the Decision

Before making a decision, it needs to be clear who is going to take responsibility for the decision.  Remember that it is not always those making the decision who have to assume responsibility for it.  Is it an individual, a group or an organisation?  This is a key question because the degree to which responsibility for a decision is shared can greatly influence how much risk people are willing to take.

If the decision making is for work then it is helpful to consider the structure of the organization that you are in.  Is the individual responsible for the decisions he or she makes or does the organization hold ultimate responsibility?  Who has to carry out the course of action decided?  Who will it affect if something goes wrong?  Are you willing to take responsibility for a mistake?

Finally, you need to know who can actually make the decision.  When helping a friend, colleague or client to reach a decision, in most circumstances the final decision and responsibility will be taken by them.  Whenever possible, and if it is not obvious, it is better to make a formal decision as to who is responsible for a decision.  This idea of responsibility also highlights the need to keep a record of how any decision was made, what information it was based on and who was involved.  Enough information needs to be kept to justify that decision in the future so that, if something does go wrong, it is possible to show that your decision was reasonable in the circumstance and given the knowledge you held at the time.

3.  Information Gathering

Before starting on the process of making a decision, all relevant information needs to be gathered.

If there is inadequate or out-dated information then it is more likely that a wrong decision might be made.  Also, if there is a lot of irrelevant information then the decision will be difficult to make, it will be easier to become distracted by unnecessary factors.

There is a need for up-to-date, accurate information on which to make decisions.  Such information needs to be gathered so that a well-informed decision can be made.  The amount of time spent on information gathering has to be weighed against how much you are willing to risk making the wrong decision.  In a group situation, such as at work, it may be appropriate for different people to research different aspects of the information required.

  1. Weighing up the Risks Involved

One key question is how much risk should be taken in making the decision? Generally, the amount of risk an individual is willing to take depends on:

  • The seriousness of the consequences of taking the wrong decision.
  • The benefits of making the right decision.
  • Not only how bad the worst outcome might be, but also how likely that outcome is to happen.

It is also useful to consider what the risk of the worst possible outcome occurring might be, and to decide if the risk is acceptable.  The choice can be between going ‘all out for success’ or taking a safe decision.

  1. Deciding on Values

Everybody has their own unique set of values – what they believe to be important.

Many people decide to buy a car for themselves but different people buy different cars based on their own personal values.  One person might feel that price is the most important feature, whereas another person might be more concerned with its speed and performance.  Others might value safety, luggage space or the cars impact on the environment or a combination of these features.

Depending on which values are considered important, different opinions may seem more or less attractive.  If the responsibility for a decision is shared it is possible that one person might not have the same values as the others.  In such cases, it is important to obtain a consensus as to which values are to be given the most weight.  It is important that the values on which a decision is made are understood because they will have a strong influence on the final choice.

People do not make decisions based on just one of their values.  They will consider all their values which are relevant to the decision and prioritise them in order of importance. If you were to buy a car, what would be the five most important factors to you?

  1. Weighing the Pros and Cons

It is possible to evaluate the pros and cons of each possible solution/option by considering the possible advantages and disadvantages. 

One aid to evaluating any solution/option is to use a ‘balance sheet’, weighing up the pros and cons (benefits and costs) associated with that solution. Having listed the pros and cons, it may be possible to immediately decide whether the option is viable.

However, it may be useful to rate each of the pros and cons on a simple 1 to 10 scale (with 10 high – most important to 1 low – least important):

In scoring each of the pros and cons it helps to take into account how important each item on the list is in meeting values.  This balance sheet approach allows both the information to be taken into account as well as the values, and presents them in a clear and straight forward manner.

  1. Making the Decision

There are many techniques that can be used to help in reaching a decision.  The pros and cons method (as above) is just one way of evaluating each of the possible solutions/options available.

There are other techniques which allow for more direct comparisons between possible solutions.  These are more complicated and generally involve a certain amount of calculation.  These can be particularly helpful when it is necessary to weigh a number of conflicting values and options.

For example, how would you decide between a cheap to buy but expensive to run car and another more expensive car that is more economical to keep on the road?

Intuitive Judgments:  In addition to making reasoned decisions using the techniques shown above, in many cases people use an intuitive approach to decision making.  When making a decision many influences, which have not been considered, may play a part.  For example, prejudice or wishful thinking might affect judgment.  Reliance is often placed on past experience without consideration of past mistakes.  Making a decision using intuition alone should be an option and not done merely because it is the easy way out, or other methods are more difficult.

Intuition is a perfectly acceptable means of making a decision, although it is generally more appropriate when the decision is of a simple nature or needs to be made quickly.  More complicated decisions tend to require a more formal, structured approach.  It is important to be wary of impulsive reactions to a situation and remember to keep a record of the decision for future reference, no matter whether the decision was made intuitively or after taking a reasoned approach.

If possible, it is best to allow time to reflect on a decision once it has been reached.  It is preferable to sleep on it before announcing it to others.  Once a decision is made public, it is very difficult to change.


Decision making is the act of choosing between a number of alternatives.  In the wider process of problem solving, decision making involves choosing between possible solutions to a problem.  Decisions can be made through either an intuitive or reasoned process, or a combination of the two.  There are usually a number of stages to any structured decision making.

You should always remember that no decision making technique should be used as an alternative to good judgement and clear thinking.  All decision making involves individual judgement, and systematic techniques are merely there to assist those judgements. © 2011 – 2015 The use of material found at is free provided that copyright is acknowledged and a reference or link is included to the page/s where the information was found. Material from may not be sold, or published for profit in any form without express written permission from For information on how to reference correctly please see our page on referencing.

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Guidelines for Problem Solving and Decision Making

Much of what people do is solve problems and make decisions. Often, they are “under the gun”, stressed and very short of time. Consequently, when they encounter a new problem or decision they must make, they react with a decision that seemed to work before. It’s easy with this approach to get stuck in a circle of solving the same problem over and over again. Therefore, it’s often useful to get used to an organized approach to problem solving and decision making. Not all problems can be solved and decisions made by the following, rather rational approach. However, the following basic guidelines will get you started. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the list of guidelines. After you’ve practiced them a few times, they’ll become second nature to you — enough that you can deepen and enrich them to suit your own needs and nature.

(Note that it might be more your nature to view a “problem” as an “opportunity”. Therefore, you might substitute “problem” for “opportunity” in the following guidelines.)

  1. Define the problem

This is often where people struggle. They react to what they think the problem is. Instead, seek to understand more about why you think there’s a problem.

Define the problem: (with input from yourself and others). Ask yourself and others, the following questions:

  1. What can you see that causes you to think there’s a problem?
  2. Where is it happening?
  3. How is it happening?
  4. When is it happening?
  5. With whom is it happening? (HINT: Don’t jump to “Who is causing the problem?” When we’re stressed, blaming is often one of our first reactions. To be an effective manager, you need to address issues more than people.)
  6. Why is it happening?
  7. Write down a five-sentence description of the problem in terms of “The following should be happening, but isn’t …” or “The following is happening and should be: …” As much as possible, be specific in your description, including what is happening, where, how, with whom and why. (It may be helpful at this point to use a variety of research methods.

Defining complex problems:

If the problem still seems overwhelming, break it down by repeating steps 1-7 until you have descriptions of several related problems.

Verifying your understanding of the problems—it helps a great deal to verify your problem analysis for conferring with a peer or someone else.

Prioritize the problems—if you discover that you are looking at several related problems, then prioritize which ones you should address first.

Note the difference between “important” and “urgent” problems. Often, what we consider to be important problems to consider are really just urgent problems. Important problems deserve more attention. For example, if you’re continually answering “urgent” phone calls, then you’ve probably got a more “important” problem waiting.

Understand your role in the problem—your role in the problem can greatly influence how you perceive the role of others. For example, if you’re very stressed out, it’ll probably look like others are, too, or, you may resort too quickly to blaming and reprimanding others. Or, you are feeling very guilty about your role in the problem; you may ignore the accountabilities of others.

  1. Look at potential causes for the problem
  • It’s amazing how much you don’t know about what you don’t know. Therefore, in this phase, it’s critical to get input from other people who notice the problem and who are affected by it.
  • It’s often useful to collect input from other individuals one at a time (at least at first). Otherwise, people tend to be inhibited about offering their impressions of the real causes of problems.
  • Write down what your opinions and what you’ve heard from others.
  • It’s often useful to seek advice from a peer or your supervisor in order to verify your impression of the problem.
  • Write down a description of the cause of the problem and in terms of what is happening, where, when, how, with whom and why.
  1. Identify alternatives for approaches to resolve the problem

At this point, it’s useful to keep others involved (unless you’re facing a personal and/or other performance problem). Brainstorm for solutions to the problem. Very simply put, brainstorming is collecting as many ideas as possible, and then screening them to find the best idea. It’s critical when collecting the ideas to not pass any judgment on the ideas — just write them down as you hear them.

  1. Select an approach to resolve the problem

When selecting the best approach, consider:

  • Which approach is the most likely to solve the problem for the long term?
  • Which approach is the most realistic to accomplish for now? Do you have the resources? Are they affordable? Do you have enough time to implement the approach?
  • What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?

(The nature of this step, in particular, in the problem solving process is why problem solving and decision making are highly integrated.)

  1. Plan the implementation of the best alternative (this is your action plan)
  1. Carefully consider “What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?”
  2. What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem? What systems or processes should be changed in your organization, for example, a new policy or procedure? Don’t resort to solutions where someone is “just going to try harder”.
  3. How will you know if the steps are being followed or not? (these are your indicators of the success of your plan)
  4. What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
  5. How much time will you need to implement the solution? Write a schedule that includes the start and stop times, and when you expect to see certain indicators of success.
  6. Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
  7. Write down the answers to the above questions and consider this as your action plan.
  8. Communicate the plan to those involved in implementing it and, at least, to your immediate supervisor.

(An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continual observation and feedback.)

  1. Monitor implementation of the plan

Monitor the indicators of success:

  1. Are you seeing what you would expect from the indicators?
  2. Will the plan be done according to schedule?
  3. If the plan is not being followed as expected, then consider: Was the plan realistic? Are there sufficient resources to accomplish the plan on schedule? Should more priority be placed on various aspects of the plan? Should the plan be changed?
  1. Verify if the problem has been resolved or not

One of the best ways to verify if a problem has been solved is to return to normal. Watch to see that the solution implemented solved the problem. If not, revisit the process and make necessary corrections.

The Six Step Problem-solving Model

6-step model

Problem solving is the mental process you follow when you have a goal but can’t immediately understand how to achieve it. It’s a process that depends on you – how you perceive a problem, what you know about it, and the end-state you want to reach.

Solving a problem involves a number of cognitive activities:

  • determining what the problem really is
  • identifying the true causes of the problem and the opportunities for reaching a goal
  • generating creative solutions to the problem
  • evaluating and choosing the best solution, and
  • implementing the best solution, then monitoring your actions and the results to ensure the problem is solved successfully

Clearly, problem solving isn’t a one-step process. Your success will depend on whether you approach and implement each of the stages effectively. The best way to do this is to use a well-established, systematic problem-solving model.

The six steps of problem solving

Problems vary widely, and so do their solutions. Sometimes a problem and its solution are clear, but you don’t know how to get from point A to point B. At other times, you may find it hard to define what’s wrong or how to fix it. Regardless of what a problem is, you can use a six-step problem-solving model to address it. This model is highly flexible and can be adapted to suit various types of problems. It also comes with a flexible set of tools to use at each step. The model is designed to be followed one step at a time, but you may find that some stages don’t require as much attention as others. This will depend on your unique situation.

The steps in the problem-solving model are as follows:

Identify the problem – Defining the problem is a crucial step that involves digging deeper to identify what it is that needs to be solved. The more clearly a problem is defined, the easier you’ll find it to complete subsequent steps. A symptom is a phenomenon or circumstance that results from a deeper, underlying condition. It’s common to mistake symptoms for problems themselves – and so to waste a lot of time and effort on tackling consequences of problems instead of their causes. To define a problem, you can use gap analysis, which involves comparing your current state to the future state you want to be in, to identify the gaps between them.

Gather the data and analyze the problem – You decide what type of problem it is – whether there’s a clear barrier or circumstance you need to overcome, or whether you need to determine how to reach a goal. You then dig to the root causes of the problem, and detail the nature of the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The five-why analysis is a tool that’ll help you get to the heart of the problem. Ask “Why?” a number of times to dig through each layer of symptoms and so to arrive at the problem’s root cause. You can get to the root of a more complicated problem using a cause-and-effect diagram. A cause is something that produces an effect, result, or consequence – or what contributed to the current state of affairs. Categories of causes include people, time, and the environment.

Identify as many potential solutions as you can – Brainstorm creatively – ask lots of questions about who, what, where, when, and how of the causes to point to various possibilities. Don’t limit yourself by considering practicalities at this stage; simply record your ideas.

Select and plan the solution – In evaluating your ideas, more options could present themselves. You could do this by rating each possible solution you came up with in step 3 according to criteria such as how effective it will be, how much time or effort it will take, its cost, and how likely it is to satisfy stakeholders.

During the planning step, you determine what steps must be taken, designating tasks where necessary. And you decide on deadlines for completing the actions and estimate the costs of implementing them. You also create a contingency plan in case of unforeseen circumstances so that if anything goes wrong with your plan, you have a “plan B” in place. Typically, this stage involves narrowing down the possible ways to implement the solution you’ve chosen, based on any constraints that apply. You also should draw up an action plan. The complexity of the plan will depend on the situation, but it should include the who, what, and when of your proposed solution.

Implement the solution – This is an ongoing process. You need to ensure the required resources remain available and monitor progress in solving the problem; otherwise, all the work you’ve done might be for nothing.

Evaluate the results—Check to see that your gained a favorable outcome and continue to monitor over time. If the result is not exactly what you hoped for, evaluate the places that may have contributed to the lesser outcome, revise your plan and try again.

Remember that this model is highly adaptable. Although you shouldn’t skip any of the six steps, you can tailor the amount of time you spend on each stage based on the demands of your unique situation.

The six-step problem-solving model, and the tools it provides, is an effective, systematic approach to problem solving. By following each step consciously, you can ensure that generating solutions is a fact-driven, objective, and reliable process. It encourages you to dig deeper to the root cause, allows you to get input from others, to be creative when finding solutions, and to monitor your solutions to make sure they’re working. So by following this model you’re more likely to come up with good, original, lasting solutions.

To solve problems effectively, you need to use a good problem-solving model. The six-step model is a tried-and-tested approach. Its steps include defining a problem, analyzing the problem, identifying possible solutions, choosing the best solution, planning your course of action, and finally implementing the solution while monitoring its effectiveness.  Copyright 2010 SkillSoft. All rights reserved. SkillSoft and the SkillSoft logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of SkillSoft in the United States and certain other countries. All other logos or trademarks are the property of their respective owners.




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