Fundamentals of Problem Solving
In business, academia, and even one’s personal life, we are often faced with unexpected situations. The ability to efficiently find solutions for complex problems is an essential soft skill to have in your arsenal.
The tenets of problem solving have been refined in many prominent industries, such as management consulting and business strategy. By taking a step back and applying fundamentals of problem solving, difficult and complex issues can be broken down and resolved quickly and effectively.
At DataMa, where we specialize in business and data analytics, we provide interactive corporate training and workshops to teach these key skills, which we have summarized below.
The Top-Down Approach
Oftentimes when faced with a difficult problem, we are overwhelmed by a lot of information, and may be unsure about how to start, or get stuck completing insignificant tasks that don’t contribute to the larger solution.
It is therefore useful to think about the “Top Down” approach to find the solution most efficiently. This approach prioritizes finding an answer first. Completing a lot of analysis or research is not helpful when what you really want is a product, whether that is a paper to turn in, a deliverable for a client, or a presentation. Ultimately, what you need is an answer, not an analysis.
It’s important to remember that you don’t need to “boil the ocean,” that is to say, doing too many things over too wide of a scope that don’t lead to a solution. It is not possible to analyze all the data at your disposal, or do research on every aspect of a topic: You need to prioritize based on a guiding question.
This guiding question can often be created using hypothesis-driven analysis. Having a guiding hypothesis based on your initial assumptions prevents a haphazard approach. This high-level hypothesis is a good way to start an analysis or project – if your initial hypothesis proves to be incorrect, you’ll at least be guided in a different direction.
The Top-Down approach ensures that you always have something to present to a client, or have a deliverable readily available. Instead of focusing on the details, you will be approaching things from a client point of view, and can always drill down the areas you need to elaborate on if you have more time or need to adjust. The amount of time you spend tweaking and adding to the product could be never-ending: Starting from the top ensures that you at least have a viable product if you need to stop earlier than expected.
The 80/20 Principle
The 80/20 principle is the idea that you achieve eighty percent of the end result with twenty percent of the effort. This principle can also be referred to as the Pareto Principle, or Pareto analysis. By keeping this principle in mind, you can make sure that the bulk of your labor is finished quickly, leaving the rest of the time to refine.
The first step to applying this principle is defining the goal of your analysis or project. You need to understand the size and scope of your end product to understand what constitutes eighty, or twenty, percent of it. Particularly when working with a client or external parties, it is essential to communicate about the complexity of a project, and explain the estimated time and cost. This will ensure that there is mutual understanding throughout the length of the project.
Using Pareto thinking and analysis is essential for every step in a project. Steps such as asking questions, preparing materials, performing research, and analyzing data should each come to an end once eighty percent of the value is achieved. Always prioritize low-hanging fruit to front-load the bulk of your work and get more done sooner.
Keep it Simple
It’s easy to get excited about all you have learned and achieved, and then include everything in the final product. This can be overwhelming and confusing for the recipient. Whatever the project, it is important that you have your audience in mind to create something they are able to understand. Oftentimes, the simplest way to convey a concept is the most effective.
If a client doesn’t understand your recommendation, they won’t do anything with it, and if a deliverable is unclear, all the work that led to the conclusions will be lost. Not everything needs to be explained.
Finally, not only does content matter, but aesthetics is also essential. Especially for client-based work, buy-in frequently comes from an attractive pitch, so make sure you factor in the time and cost required to clean up your final product.
Oftentimes, what the client is asking for is not actually what they want. Make sure you take the time to discuss and understand the client’s problem, or to solidify the requirements of the deliverable you are producing. Communication is essential to make sure you are working on the right thing. Open communication and dialogue can lead to raising questions that even the client may not have thought about, leading to a clearer idea of a better product.
It can be helpful to map a new question using the previously proposed question. Reformulating the different parts to build up a new or different question can clarify any ambiguity and streamline your work. As the question will likely go through several iterations as you work, it is important to continue communicating with stakeholders throughout the project timeline.
When you have a particularly large or complex problem, it can be overwhelming to scope the project. Forming a MECE, or a Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive framework, is often designed as a decision tree, and helps break down and prioritize different parts of the problem, eventually leading to the solution.
Building an effective decision tree often requires a clear understanding of the business process or the scope and context of the project. Doing due diligence to understand the essentials and forming a clear decision tree will facilitate a better work process: Structuring the problem and communicating the results of your work will become easier with an accurate decision tree.
Keep in mind a design-to-cost approach, which aims to optimize the total time, energy, and resources required to produce a deliverable. This requires analysis and optimization, and taking into account client expectations.
Improving your problem-solving skills can be impactful both personally and professionally. By applying these fundamentals to develop your analytical and creative thinking skills, you will be able to easily and independently adapt to future personal and workplace challenges.
If your business is interested in providing professional training for your team, whether in problem solving or other business, analytics, or consulting topics, please reach out here.
Interested in optimizing your data analytics processes to get clear, automated business insights? Check out our DataMa algorithms library.