Creative Problem Solving


Bernard L. Erven
Department of Agricultural Economics

Ohio State University Extension

A manager's primary function is to solve problems. A manager's understanding of his or her approach to problems and problem-solving style most often used is an essential early step to becoming a more effective creative problem solver.

Managers tend to deal with problems in one of three ways:

1. Avoid them - refuse to recognize that a problem exists

2. Solve them as necessary - deal with the urgent

3. Seek them out - anticipate to avoid them becoming urgent

Managers tend to one of two basic problem-solving styles: systematic or intuitive. Systematic thinkers are logical and rational. They prefer narrow and focused problems, step by step processes, rules to be followed, and computer programs that grind to a recommendation. Intuitive thinkers are more comfortable with solutions that just "came to" them. Compared with systematic thinkers, for the intuitive thinker, data are less important, complexity is less bothersome, changing external and internal environments are expected rather than assumed away, and being more or less right is more important than being precisely wrong.

Paradigms

Paradigms are the strongly held beliefs and assumptions we use to "filter" incoming information. They are the eyeglasses through which a manager "sees" problems and potential solutions to those problems. A manager suffering from paradigm paralysis fails to change his or her beliefs and assumptions when new information shows a change is needed.

Paradigms may be long standing:

"Salespeople are only interested in selling me something."

They also may be new:

"The web makes hard copy obsolete."

In their most constraining form, they appear to be completely consistent with common sense and the decision maker's life experiences. Note the following paradigms about management succession - the challenge of transferring management to a new generation of people that every family business eventually faces.

The paradigms labeled as "new" avoid an artificial separation of family and business. The paradigms labeled "old" summarize the more traditional views that have dominated thinking about management succession. Imagine two families each facing similar management succession challenges. The first family has all the old paradigms. The second family has all the new paradigms. Undoubtedly their management succession problems solving would differ markedly.

New: Some families will decide, for good and justifiable reasons, to liquidate their successful businesses rather than pass them to the next generation.

Old: Managers of successful family businesses oppose liquidation in their life times and believe they owe the next generation the opportunity to continue their businesses.

New: In management succession, family and business concerns are overlapping and inseparable.

Old: In management succession, the business concerns dominate and family matters are secondary and separate.

New: Mission and goals for the family business continuously address management succession.

Old: Management succession, retirement planning and estate planning are relevant issues only at the end of the business founder's career.

New: Planning of management succession encompasses the extended family.

Old: Planning of management succession concerns only the people directly involved in ownership and operation of the business.

New: Successful management succession does not guarantee the long-run viability of a founder's thriving family business.

Old: A family business thriving in this generation depends primarily on management succession to be successful in the next generation.

New: Employment outside the family business may provide essential perspective, maturity and experience necessary for success in the family business.

Old: Haste in joining the family business is essential because the opportunity may be lost.

New: Joining the family business as an employee in a non-management capacity with a formal job description and regular performance evaluations provides a beneficial testing period both for the family and the family member employee.

Old: Family members come into the business as managers and co-owners so that they have an immediate sense of responsibility, importance and commitment.

Problem Solving Steps

The following five questions provide a systematic step-by-step approach to problem solving: 1. What is the problem?
2. What are the causes of the problem?
3. What are the possible solutions to the problem?
4. Which is the best solution to the problem?
5. What action(s) do we take?

1. What is the problem?

A problem occurs when accomplishment is less than expected. The expectation may be a goal, a standard of performance, a rule or a policy. Even if performance is greater than expected, a manager may still see room for improvement. This form of a "problem" is called an opportunity.

Managers have little opportunity for success if they cannot distinguish problems from symptoms of problems. Working on symptoms rather than the base problem rarely leads to problem solution.

Problem identification requires continuous surveillance of the internal and external environments within which the business operates. Attention to bits and pieces of information from various sources in combination with experience, judgement and intuition are all part of problem identification.

2. What are the causes of the problem?

More than a careful statement of the problem is necessary to solve it. The manager needs to know the underlying causes of the problem.

A great urge to jump to a problem solution often follows problem identification. Limited understanding of what caused a problem constrains finding a solution to the "real" problem. Solving an "easy symptom" of the problem leaves the "real" problem waiting to happen again. To illustrate, an offer of a ride from a neighbor fails to solve the real problem of a vehicle not starting on a cold morning.

Problem diagnosis requires getting from the simple why (a symptom) to the management why. The management why searches out the management causes of a problem. These management causes usually go beyond technical reasons. Management causes are best found by the repeated asking of why as we dig deeper and deeper into a problem.

The following list of questions should be helpful for problem diagnosis and discovering the causes of a problem:

3. What are the possible solutions to the problem?

Creative problem solving requires careful attention to possible solutions for the problem. A paradigm of "many possible solutions" differs dramatically from satisfaction with the easy and familiar.

Generating multiple solutions tests the creativity of decision makers. Consequently, close mindedness, traditionalism and fear of the unusual limit managers. Brainstorming is a proven tool for expanding the range of solutions considered. In brainstorming, the emphasis is on spontaneous suggestion of ideas for problem solution. Brainstorming rules include:

4. Which is the best solution to the problem?

From the list of possible solutions, one must be selected. The size of the problem and complexity of the problem's causes determine how much effort the manager can justify for choice of a solution. Criteria for choice of a solution should reflect the organization's mission, goals and culture.

Two managers facing the same set of possible solutions can make quite different choices depending on their propensity to assume risk. Generally speaking, greater potential return is accompanied by greater risk. Creative solutions with high potential for payoff may be rejected simply because of their risk.

5. What action(s) do we take?

The first four steps are for naught if the chosen alternative cannot be implemented. Implementation requires resources, courage, persuasion, attention to detail, evaluation of progress and corrective action.

Teaching Problem Solving (1)
A recent opportunity to teach Creative Problem Solving in Farm Management Excel caused me to rethink the topic. I was delighted to have the opportunity because I consider problem solving one of the most important topics in Management Excel.

I developed a new set of materials for the Farm Management Excel notebook. (If you want a copy, please contact me.) In developing these materials, I organized my thinking about creative problem solving under three headings: (1)managers understanding themselves as problem solvers, (2)steps in problem solving and (3)exercises and examples to help the participants internalize the problem solving concepts we teach. Throughout, I kept the focus on problem solving as the core function of management around which the other functions (planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling) are developed.

Self-Understanding

Managers easily recognize that they differ greatly from each other. Some tend to be systematic problem solvers and some tend to be intuitive problem solvers. Regardless of their preferred orientation, our objective is to help managers anticipate and face problems rather than avoid them until they become urgent.

I encouraged the managers in Farm Management Excel to identify who on their management team tends to be systematic thinkers and problem solvers and who tends to be intuitive thinkers and problem solvers. A key point is that both systematic and intuitive thinking is important. A manager's intuition about his or her business helps in each step of the problem solving process. Sometimes, pure intuition about a situation or opportunity turns out to be key to the right decision being made. On the other hand, a manger's systematic addressing of problems is also important. Extremes in either approach is problematic. We all know "fly by the seat of my pants" managers and "I'm still analyzing" mangers who have major management problems.

Steps in Problem Solving

A step-by-step approach to problem solving is well known. There are many versions of the approach. Some approaches involve as many as ten or more steps. I chose a narrow approach assuming that analysis of the environment in which the problem is being addressed is known from the planning function. Further, I assumed that the evaluation of the decision and acceptance of the responsibility for the decision come under the controlling function. Therefore, the five steps I included were the same as or similar to what several others in Management Excel have used: (1)What is the problem? (2)What are the causes of the problem? (3)What are the possible solutions to the problem? (4)Which is the best solution to the problem? and (5)What action(s) do we take?

I like limiting the number of steps as much as can be justified and keeping the statement of each step as simple as possible. However, I recognize that other Management Excel teachers of problem solving may be uncomfortable with as few as five steps or wording as simple as what I used. Each of us teaching problem solving needs to conceptualize this core function of management in a way that we are comfortable.

Exercises and Examples

Here for me is the most challenging part of teaching problem solving. I wanted completely new examples that made each step crystal clear to the participants. Instead, I had to settle for re-using old examples and slight modification of some other examples. I used a forage quality example that leads to the conclusion that a plan for backup labor rather than forage quality is the problem. I also used the car won't start example which shows that execution of a routine maintenance program rather than a cold morning or the need for a ride is the problem. It seems to me that we need additional creative thinking to come up with better exercises and examples than we have had to date.

Conclusion

Our teaching of problem solving will continue to be critical to the success of Management Excel. What we have done thus far is good. Our challenge is to do better. The challenge rests more with our exercises and examples than with the content. It is not enough that our participants recognize the importance of problem solving, better understand themselves as problem solvers and know the five steps in problem solving. We want them to actually be better problem solvers on a day-to-day basis back home in their businesses. Our teaching coming alive with exercises and examples they will remember seems to me to be the best way of accomplishing this goal.

Managers Tend to Deal with Problems in One of Three Ways

1. Avoid them - refuse to recognize that a problem exists
2. Solve them as necessary - deal with the urgent
3. Seek them out - anticipate and face now in order to avoid their becoming urgent

Objective: Make the third our usual approach to problems

Exercise

Managers tend to use one of two basic problem-solving styles:

1. Systematic problem solvers
They prefer a logical and rational approach to problems. They prefer narrow and focused problems, step by step processes, rules to be followed, and computer programs that grind to a recommendation.
2. Intuitive problem solvers

They are more comfortable with solutions that just "come to" them. Compared with systematic problem solvers, intuitive thinkers find: data less important, complexity less bothersome, continuous change expected, and being more or less right less scary than being precisely wrong.

A manager finds very helpful an understanding of his or her approach to problems and usual problem-solving style. This understanding is an essential early step to becoming a more effective problem solver.

1. Who on your management team tend to be systematic thinkers and problem solvers? List an example to illustrate.

2. Who on your management team tend to be intuitive thinkers and problem solvers? List an example to illustrate.

Important Note ---> Both systematic and intuitive problem solvers can be successful managers.

A paradigm is the strongly held beliefs and assumptions we use to "filter" incoming information.

Paradigm paralysis is failure to change our beliefs and assumptions when new information shows a change is needed.

Paradigm Work SheetThis exercise will help you identify paradigms within your industry or organization.

Step 1. Select an industry or organization with which you have extensive experience.
Step 2. List three paradigms from this industry or organization. Reminder:

A paradigm is a strongly held belief or assumption we use to "filter" incoming information. A paradigm is the eyeglasses through which a manager "sees" problems and potential solutions to these problems.

a.
b.
c.

Step 3. For each one of these old paradigms, list a new paradigm that could replace it.

a.
b.
c.

Steps in Problem Solving

1. What is the problem?
2. What are the causes of the problem?
3. What are the possible solutions to the problem?
4. Which is the best solution to the problem?
5. What action(s) do we take?

1. What is the problem?

"I have a problem!!"

It is 7:00 a.m.
The temperature is 4 degrees below zero.
I have an important appointment at 8:00 a.m.
It will take me fifty minutes to get there.
The only vehicle available to me won't start.

1. What is my immediate problem?
2. What is my longer-run problem?

2. What are the causes of the problem?

Problem Diagnosis Answers the Question:A great urge to jump to a problem solution often follows problem identification. Limited understanding of what caused a problem constrains finding a solution to the "real" problem. Solving an "easy symptom" of the problem leaves the "real" problem waiting to happen again. To illustrate, an offer of a ride from a neighbor doesn't solve the real problem of a vehicle not starting on a cold morning.

Problem diagnosis requires getting from the simple why (a symptom) to the management why. The management why searches out the management causes of a problem. These management causes usually go beyond technical reasons. Management causes are best found by the repeated asking of why as we dig deeper and deeper into a problem.

Imagine a dairy farm manager who had a goal of producing haylage with 20 percent protein. Instead the manager's haylage had only 15 percent protein. The problem is low quality forage. Problem diagnosis might go as follows:

WHY does the haulage have only 15 percent protein?

The weather didn't cooperate.

WHY was the weather a problem?

The rain damaged the hay.

WHY did the rain damage the hay?

We were unable to harvest the hay quickly.

WHY were you unable to harvest the hay quickly?

We were a person short during harvest so the person driving the chopper had to stop to haul the hay to the barn.

WHY were you a person short during harvest?

We have no plan for backup labor when an employee quits or is sick.

WHY don't you have a plan for backup labor?

No one has been given the responsibility for developing and implementing a plan for backup labor.

So the "real" cause of the problem is neither the weather, nor getting the hay harvested quickly, nor being a person short. The management why suggests that the cause of the problem is lack of a plan and follow through to assure that backup labor is available in emergency situations.

Problem diagnosis starts with the assumption that there can be multiple causes for a problem. There can also be short-run as well as long-run implications. Most importantly, problem diagnosis requires a commitment to finding the "real" problem so that its reoccurrence can be prevented.

"I have a problem!!"It is 7:00 a.m.

The temperature is 4 degrees below zero.
I have an important appointment at 8:00 a.m.
It will take me fifty minutes to get there.
The only vehicle available to me won't start.
What are the causes of my problem?

What are the possible solutions to the problem? Brainstorming Exercise
Situation

You employ four year-around full-time and twenty seasonal employees in your landscape contracting business. The seasonal employees are divided into four crews with full-time employees as their supervisors. Motivation of the seasonal employees is a major challenge. They work about sixty hours per week often in hot or wet weather. Their work is physically demanding. A crew meets its productivity goals only if all employees are cooperative and take initiative without explicit instructions from a supervisor. You pay the seasonal employees about 20 percent more than they could earn in their next best alternative to working for you.

You are seeking ways to use recognition and reward to motivate these seasonal employees without increasing wages paid. You have considered offering paid vacation, health insurance, paid sick days and retirement benefits. You have concluded that none of these alternatives would be cost effective.

The question

What are twenty-five(2) possible ways that the seasonal employees can be recognized and rewarded without increasing their cash wages and employee benefits?

Which is the best solution to the problem?

What action(s) do we take?

1. From April, 1995 edition of "Teacher to Teacher, A Newsletter for OSU Extension Management Excel Team Members," Lanny Anderson, Editor, Ohio State University Extension, Ashtabula County

2. If twenty-five seems like an insurmountable hurdle, you may want to consult the book by Bob Nelson, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, Workman Publishing, 1994 (ISBN 1-56305-339-X)