What’s the problem?

Solving jigsaw puzzle One important task for leaders is to make good decisions that lead to effective problem solving.  As we know, within higher education such decisions are rarely made alone.  Most problem solving involves a village, if not a small city.  So how can we make sure that our efforts are going in the right direction?

One requirement is to be sure that we’re solving the real problem.  This sounds obvious, but it’s often quite tricky.  It can be tempting for groups to jump right in and start taking action, but without thoughtful preparation our activity may not be leading to the results we want.

The Community Tool Box is a website that provides resources for community development and education.  It provides a useful model for problem solving.  Briefly, the steps are:

  1. Clarify the problem.  What do you know? What information is missing?  How can you gather more data? Once you have enough information,  write a brief and clear statement of the problem.
  2. Decide whether to solve the problem.  Is the issue worth the energy it will take to address it?  Is this the best way to spend our limited resources? Is now the right time? Are there any possible unintended negative consequences of addressing it?
  3. Analyze the problem.  Answer the who, what, why, when, how much questions.  Use appropriate tools to identify the root cause, such as five whys or force field analysis.
  4. Generate solutions.  There are a wide variety of methods for generating solutions.  The most important thing is not to select a solution too quickly.  Make sure you have explored the problem and possible solutions from a variety of viewpoints.
  5. Select solutions.  Evaluate your possible solutions and create an action plan.  Remember that complex problems in higher education often require a set of inter-related solutions. Consider what you will do first, and what needs to follow.
  6. Implement and evaluate the solution.  Putting your plan into practice requires strategic action.  Who will do what?  How will you know if it’s successful?  What will your evaluation process look like?  Who needs to know the results?

Solving problems is one of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of leading groups.  As the Community Tool Box says, “operating together, groups can overcome obstacles individuals have found insurmountable.”  What strategies do you use to be sure your teams are addressing the right problem?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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