By Shane Chagpar, Kepner-Tregoe


What makes a problem a "big" problem?

Urgency: Perhaps, time is working against you and the problem is impacting a critical business deadline or the problem has been occurring for an extended period, creating an escalated time sensitivity. Some level of urgency can help to motivate problem-solving teams, but beware of the risk of applying undue stress to an already tense situation.

Perception: Maintaining customers, shareholders and employees’ positive perceptions of your business is more critical than ever in the present social media-driven culture. Problems that impact their perceptions of your company can be devastating, and must be managed carefully.

Complexity: Big problems are rarely simple to understand and solve – if they were, then they would be resolved already and would no longer be a problem. Complexity can slow resolution time and generate anxiety amongst stakeholders.

The unknown: Big problems often involve a large number of assumptions, opinions, projections and subjective decision making that lead to a high degree of uncertainty in both overall success and comparative benefits of proposed resolutions. This uncertainty translates into risk for your company that must be understood and managed.

Resource scarcity: Assigning the right people and applying the right resources to solving a problem can often be challenging. In most organizations, the most qualified resources are already fully allocated to other critical business activities, resulting in either a prioritization trade-off for their time or the use of less qualified resources to assist in solving the problem. Resource scarcity can lead to delays in solving the problem as well as the potential for increased risk.

Impact on your business or customers: Sometimes a problem is a "big problem" because of the impact it has on your business operations (a work stoppage or quality issue) or to your customers (missed delivery timelines, cost overruns or failed delivery expectations). Problems with direct quantifiable impact often come with increased management oversight and scrutiny to the problem-solving team and process.


Problem-solving skills help you…

Distinguish between perception and reality: Managing perception is important, but during the problem-solving process, it is important to understand the difference between perception (which is often a distraction or "noise") and reality (which can help you understand the situation). Filtering the noise and strengthening the actual signals related to the problem are important skills that good problem-solving teams should develop.

Separate the symptoms from the causes: One of the most fundamental skills of problem solving is understanding the difference between symptoms (effects) and the causes that generate them. Most big problems involve a series of cause-and-effect relationships that the problem-solving team must understand to ensure that its members know the root-cause of the problem and apply a fix at the appropriate place for maximum effect.

Dissect complexity: Structured problem-solving methods can help a team dissect a complex problem into manageable parts as well as identify solutions that are actionable by the organization.

Validate unknowns: Uncertainty is a natural part of the problem-solving process. By taking a methodical approach to identify unknowns and areas of ambiguity and systematically validate them, the team can avoid the dangerous pitfall of developing solutions based entirely on assumption.

Make progress with the resources you have: Strong problem-solving skills and solid processes can help a team overcome gaps in subject-matter expertise and a scarcity of resources. This is accomplished by focusing activities and solutions on areas that are actionable with the resources available and avoiding "resource roadblocks."

Minimize (or maximize) impact: Not all impact is bad; in fact, sometimes problems can be translated into opportunities for your company or customers. Problems often reveal previously unknown information about your operations and environment that can have either positive or negative impacts on your business. Identifying this information quickly and translating it into actionable insights is an important part of the problem-solving process.

Transform a big problem into a manageable problem (or a set of smaller problems): Sometimes, the best way to address a big problem is to separate it into smaller, more manageable parts. Strong problem-solving skills can help your team understand when this technique is appropriate versus when it will just create an additional layer of complexity to the situation.


Kepner-Tregoe has a powerful toolkit for root-cause analysis and preventing future problems that organizations worldwide have utilized for more than 50 years.