When you're faced with a difficult problem it's easy to be overwhelmed with anxiety. This can lead to paralysis which prevents any chance of moving towards a potential solution. In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie outlines a simple (not to be mistaken with easy) 4 step process that you can try the next time you feel stuck (some of this will feel obvious, but its surprising how often we forget these things when stress takes over).
1. What is the problem?
A problem well-stated is half-solved - Charles Kettering
I am guilty of regularly skipping over this step whenever I first run into a problem. It is easy to start reacting emotionally and focusing on all of the potential consequences that might arise from the problem. At this point the best thing to do is to pause and write down the problem (physically writing the problem down can really help you think through what exactly you are trying to say). An additional bonus to this step is that it can start to break your paralysis and restore some empowerment that even for a seemingly insurmountable issue, there are steps you can take.
Example: "I'm stressed because we are going to miss an upcoming deadline for our project" vs. "Our project is going to be two weeks late because an additional feature was added to the scope"
2. What is the cause of the problem?
Ask why five times about every matter - Taiichi Ohno
After correctly stating the problem, the process of diagnosing the root cause becomes much more straight forward. At this point it is good to look beyond the surface level issues that are causing pain to identify what the issue really is. A common framework for this is the "5 Why's Approach" which states that if you ask "why" 5 times about any issue you should arrive at the true cause (it is important to remember that although 5 Why's sounds like a simple process it gets complicated pretty quickly in practice).
Example: "Our team is consistently missing its sprint goal"
"Why is the team missing its sprint goal?"
"We committed to too much work"
"Why did you commit to too much work?"
"The stories weren't broken down enough to properly estimate"
"Why weren't the stories broken down enough?"
"The team didn't dedicate enough time to backlog refinement"
"Why didn't the team spend enough time in backlog refinement?"
"The were pulled into other requests and wanted to conserve time to finish the current sprint's work"
"Why were they pulled into other requests?"
"Stakeholders were not aware of the team's sprint commitment / process"
3. What are the possible solutions to the problem?
Inspection without adaptation is pointless... - Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland
Once you have identified the root cause of the problem, it's time to start thinking of possible solutions. There are many different approaches for brainstorming solutions, the important thing is to start getting some ideas out of your head. One of the mental models I have found particularly helpful here are visualizing the current and future states of the challenge I am trying to address. From there it's easier to start to think through potential paths to get from the current to future state. After identifying a couple of initial paths, it can be helpful to dig a little further into the details to see what it would be like to actually bring the solution to life ("and then what?" is a really helpful prompt for thinking through the steps towards implementation).
Continuing with the example from above, after identifying a root cause of the team missing sprint commitments because they were getting pulled into other requests, a few potential solutions are identified. This might include conducting training sessions for stakeholders on scrum principles and practices, setting up a process to make it easier for the team to push back on requests, or creating information radiators to provide more visibility on progress and the impacts of interruptions. From there ("and then what...") I would create an outline for the training, example of an information radiator to share with the team, or a process diagram for how to handle incoming requests. I would keep working on fleshing out the potential solutions until I feel like I have enough information to properly evaluate the effort / impact of each.
4. What solution do you suggest?
If a decision is reversible, the biggest risk is moving too slow. - James Clear
With the possible options laid out, it's time to pick a direction. With the effort placed into the first three steps of the process there's a good chance there will be a clear winner among the solutions that have been identified. Review the pros and cons, ensure there is a risk mitigation plan in case things don't work out as expected and then move forward with a solution. One way or another, there will be lessons learned that will continue to help with solving the challenge and build momentum in the right direction.
With the solutions from the example in step 3, the risk of failure is pretty low overall and it would be easy to reverse any of these if needed. If stakeholders don't find a training session particular helpful or if the information radiator I put together doesn't make sense, there wouldn't be a huge negative impact on the team and I would get valuable feedback so it's something I would try to roll out as quickly as possible.
Although these steps might feel obvious or overly simplistic, the next time you find yourself feeling stuck or anxious about a problem try walking through each one and actually writing the information down. Ideally, the solution and next steps will become apparent, but at worst you will have the right information to seek assistance from others and build momentum towards a positive outcome.
Do you have a problem-solving process that has worked well for you? How do you typically approach a new challenge you are presented with?