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Five Easy Steps to Analyze Any Problem

February 07, 2017 | By Alan Gonsenhauser

  • Problems can be defined, analyzed and solved in five easy steps
  • Key to problem analysis: define problem, evidence, impacts, causes and recommendations
  • When causes of problems are properly stated, your recommended solutions are simply the reverse of the causes

Throughout my career in finance, consulting, marketing, sales and general management, there have been a few constants I have learned and used again and again successfully. Allow me to share three of them:

  • First. Less is more. It really is. Reduce, consolidate, net it out. When you simplify, you will be far better received by your audiences. Example: Do a content audit and cut out 80 percent of the assets that customers and sales don’t need or use, or can’t find!
  • Second. Information is not power. Access to it is. Make sure the right information is at your fingertips at the moment you need it. For example, ask yourselves what customers really need and when they need it.
  • Third. Use a reliable methodology to simply and accurately define, analyze and solve problems.  This is the subject of my blog post today – problem solving in five easy pieces.

Regardless of functional area or level in the organization, we are frequently faced with problems to define, analyze and solve. As leaders, we need to easily understand and solve problems so we can move the business forward and drive intelligent growth and productivity. Following is a five-step process that can be implemented on one side of an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper or digitally, as you prefer. A consistent language of problem definition and analysis is the key.

Key steps to problem analysis:

  1. Problem: Is there a deviation from expectation? First, clearly define the problem. (A problem is a deviation from expectation or goal.) For example: We want a strong product portfolio innovation process to drive future growth. A problem statement could be: Our portfolio innovation process is not driving adequate market success.
  2. Evidence: What’s the proof that the problem is real? How do you really know that the problem exists? It’s important to present evidence that proves the problem is real. In this case, we would cite specific examples of established competitors and startups that were first to market, leaving our firm behind. We would also cite customer feedback that demonstrates a failure to meet their emerging market needs or the organization’s lateness to market.
  3. Impacts: Why do we care? How does the stated problem pass the “so what?” test? Here we state the impact the problem is having on our business or department. Using our innovation example, loss in market share, missed growth opportunities, and missed revenue and profitability targets are all relevant and significantly impact the business.
  4. Causes: What’s driving the problem? It’s important to analyze the systemic causes of the problem. In this case, the causes could be: 1. Product development activities are based on incremental improvements to existing products vs. disruptive or major innovations based on market needs. 2. A lack of a consistent process to determine and vet high-priority customer needs. 3. Unclear roles, responsibility or accountability for product development processes.
  5. Recommendations: Simple; just reverse the causes! As long as the first four pieces are done properly, the recommendations are obvious and simple – just reverse the causes. In our example: 1. Revise the product development orientation to take market needs into account, including disruptive innovations – not just incremental improvements to current products and services. 2. Define and implement a standard enterprise innovation process to consistently determine and act on customer needs. 3. Clarify roles, responsibilities and accountability for the product portfolio innovation process.

If the causes are stated accurately and solved with the corresponding recommendations, the problem should be solved, or at least mitigated. Note that some causes could be problems in themselves, worthy of their own problem analysis. Any of the above causes could be problems with their own deeper causes and impacts. In this way, a logical argument can be constructed – an extremely useful and compelling way to solve the problems placed before us on a day-to-day basis. This approach to problem solving is highly actionable and ties back to my lesson of “less is more,” and it provides access to critical information when and where you need it. Try it out, and please share your feedback!  

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Alan Gonsenhauser

Alan Gonsenhauser is a principal analyst in Marketing Executive Services at SiriusDecisions. He is passionate about accelerating growth, driving innovations and leading business transformations, and works closely with global chief marketing officers and sales and product leaders to drive positive organizational change and cross-functional alignment, benchmark against peers, and mobilize deployment of new marketing methods to accelerate innovation and growth. Follow Alan on LinkedIn or Twitter @agonsenhauser.

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