Project problem solving 101

Posted on 13th September, by JimYoung in Blog. No Comments

Projects are often initiated to solve problems, although such problem solving projects may aim to take us from good to better, rather than simply putting right something that has gone wrong within our project.


Sometimes in project management we make a distinction between problems and issues – problems are those that we as project managers can resolve within our delegated authority, whereas issues require a solution beyond our authority as defined in the project charter.  Of course should we escalate an issue to our project sponsor for a decision, we should also suggest some solutions and preferably identify our preferred solution and explain.

Project management problems are not of course confined to behind-schedule or over-budget concerns, but check here if that’s your concern.  There might also be at least 34 other types of problems:

  1. attitude problems
  2. business problems
  3. capacity problems
  4. communication problems
  5. competition problems
  6. control problems
  7. cultural problems
  8. economic problems
  9. environment problems
  10. equipment problems
  11. ethical problems
  12. feedback problems
  13. financial problems
  14. health problems
  15. legal problems
  16. management problems
  17. measurement problems
  18. motivation problems
  19. organisation problems
  20. performance problems
  21. stakeholder problems
  22. personnel problems
  23. political problems
  24. production problems
  25. productivity problems
  26. psychological problems
  27. quality problems
  28. resource problems
  29. safety problems
  30. staffing problems
  31. social problems
  32. systems problems
  33. technical problems
  34. training problems

Although the terms “problem-solving” and “decision-making” are sometimes used interchangeably, let’s make a clear distinction between the two.  Problem-solving is a larger process that starts with the identification of a problem and ends with an evaluation of the effectiveness of the chosen solution.  Decision-making is a subset of the problem-solving process and refers only to the process of identifying alternative solutions and choosing from among them.


Problem solving might be an individual endeavour or involve others, and might be undertaken reactively or proactively, creatively or logically.  Whether or not to involve others in the process might depend on a number of factors, including time available.  Reaching a time-consuming (“we’ll decide”) consensus among a large group of stakeholders may not always be practicable on a time-driven project.  In such circumstances a more autocratic style (“I’ll decide”) or one of empowerment (“you decide”) might be more appropriate.  The following Force Field Analysis identifies some pros and cons about involving other project team members and stakeholders in the process:


Incidentally, a useful way to assess ‘go’ ‘no go’ decisions, often as a prelude to a cost-benefit analysis (CBA), is to brainstorm advantages and disadvantages.  For example, should we emigrate from New Zealand to Aussie?


Arguments in favour of emigrating to Aussie are:

  1. Enable us to reunite with relatives.
  2. We might benefit from an economically better-off country, due mainly to Australia’s considerable mineral wealth.
  3. Fewer idiot “greenies.”
  4. We might enjoy a higher material standard of living, and have more tertiary education options and improved employment prospects.
  5. Would allow us to avoid earthquakes.
  6. We would escape the most truly frightening possibility of Helen Clark’s return from UN as President of the fledgling Republic of New Zealand.

Arguments against emigrating to Aussie were:

  1. Burgeoning population of mostly terrifying creatures, including snakes, spiders, cane toads, blowflies, bull ants, crocodiles, sharks and poison jellyfish – all keen to wound or kill us.
  2. Aussies speak funny, say bad things about us, and are generally too full of their own importance.
  3. Would miss my Kiwi friends.
  4. Most Australian countryside is ugly, uninhabitable and prone to fires and floods.
  5. Has greater race relations issues and more crime (a consequence of their convict heritage perhaps) and political corruption.
  6. Too far to travel between their cities, most of which are too big.
  7. Lack of fresh water in several parts.
  8. We would not be immediately eligible for Aussie health and social welfare benefits.
  9. Much too hot and too close to an angry Indonesia.
  10. Would miss the All Blacks and do not like Holdens.
  11. Disruption to our familiar and comfortable routine with no real promise of improved circumstances in Aussie.
  12.  Aussie dollar is falling like a rock.

During problem solving we need to develop and maintain a positive attitude.  Comments such as these will not usually help:

  1. There is no-one capable of doing the job.
  2. We have never done it that way.
  3. We have tried that before.
  4. It’s not in the budget.
  5. Too expensive.
  6. Too academic.
  7. Too early.
  8. Too late.
  9. It’s not good enough.
  10. There are better ways than that.
  11. The client won’t like it.
  12. The users won’t like it.
  13. Management won’t like it.
  14. It’s against policy.
  15. You haven’t considered this, this, this…
  16. Somebody would have suggested it before if it was any good.
  17. Let’s discuss it at some other time.
  18. You don’t understand our problem.
  19. We’re too big for that.
  20. We’re too small for that.
  21. The new people won’t understand.
  22. The old people won’t use it.
  23. Let’s make a market research test first.
  24. Has anyone else ever tried it?
  25. What idiot thought that up?
  26. Let’s form a committee!
  27. That’s not our problem.

Yet a negative point of view may help ensure a robust analysis.  I sometimes say “If we have two people in our team who always agree, then maybe we’ve got one team member too many, but if we have two team members who never agree, maybe we are better off without either of them.”  One technique to ensure an analysis from different points of view is De Bono’s six hats where different team members are assigned different hats for problem analysis:


Having a structured approach to solving project problems will helps us resolve them more efficiently and effectively.  Importantly we need to identify the root cause and ensure that this particular problem does not occur again.   I’ve mention here both a basic and more advanced methodology:

Basic methodology

1. Identify the problem or symptom.  We should not assume that everyone knows the problem already. Take time to document the problem in clear terms that everyone can understand.

2. Identify the root cause (or causes).  This is the most important step, since we do not want to spend our time resolving a symptom that we think is a root cause. Instead we should be very clear on the root cause and explain how the root cause ultimately results in the problem. If we cannot track the root cause to the perceived problem, we have not taken our investigation far enough.

3. Determine alternatives and impacts.  Once the true cause has been identified we may assign one or more people to determine alternative solutions.  For each alternative, we should also address the impact to the project.

4. Select the best alternative.  The project team and appropriate stakeholders can all be involved with determining the best alternative.  This may include members of the project team only, or outside stakeholders.  A very useful tool to employ here is a decision matrix whereby plausible options are evaluated against weighted attributes.

5. Resolve the problem.  A plan is put into place to address the problem and implement the chosen alternative. This could just be one simple activity or it could be a complex plan.  These activities should be moved into the project schedule to ensure that they are performed and their effectiveness monitored.

6. Validate the problem is resolved.  The situation must be monitored to ensure that the problem is resolved as expected.  If the problem appears to be resolved we are done.  If the problem or a related symptom still exists, we have more work to do.  Return to step 1.

A more sophisticated approach

1. Recognise problem.  Here we recognise the problem, need or opportunity.  We might be reactive or proactive in our approach.  Reactive means waiting for the problem to arise, whereas proactive is about effective risk management and seeking out opportunities for improvement.


It may help to ask ourselves:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. What are we trying to preserve?
  3. What are we trying to avoid?
  4. What are we trying to eliminate?

sccrrrb_22. Define problem.  Once we recognise there is a problem and decide it needs to be resolved, it is useful to develop a problem statement:

“We have insufficient storage space.”

“Our safety procedures are not being followed.”

“There is an increasing number of complaints from our customers about late deliveries.”

Usually this statement is clear, concise, specific and contains no assumptions, likely causes or solutions.  It helps to verify the problem statement by conferring with our colleagues.  If there are several problems, they may need to be prioritised in terms of their importance and urgency.  What might make a problem important?


Problem clarity often evolves.  In some case, the definition of a problem may be complete only after the problem has been solved!  This step in particular may need to be revisited as further evidence is revealed or gathered.

3. Identify  cause(s).  Care needs to be taken to identify the root cause or causes and not simply symptoms.  Solving or removing symptoms doesn’t treat the cause and the problem remains.  A simple ‘why analysis’ often gets to the root cause.  We repeatedly ask “why?” until the true cause is revealed.  Other techniques are brainstorming and fishbone (root cause analysis) diagramming.  It is also useful to get input from others who notice the problem or are affected by it.  However, not all problems are caused, and not all causes can be corrected.

4. Determine solution attributes.  What will the situation look like when the problem is resolved?  We now determine the characteristics (essential and desirable) of the ideal solution.  Again brainstorming is useful as is a ‘paired comparisons analysis’ in order to priorities the characteristics, criteria, features, functions, or attributes inherent in the ideal solution.  Once we are clear about the ideal solution, we can identify possible solutions.

bbbbbb5. Generate possible solutions.  Here we typically brainstorm various solutions – new or improved processes, policies, protocols, procedures, products, people etc.  This step in the  may involve a literature review, research, benchmarking, surveys, discussion groups, and even preparing an RFP for outside solutions.

 6. Shortlist probable solutions.  Some solutions might not be viable, feasible or practicable.  Short-listing eliminates those solutions that are inadequate in terms of our essential solution attributes.  Also, there may be other constraints that would rule out a possible solution, such as ethical, political, economic, financial, environmental, legislative, cultural, social, time, risk, market and resource availability considerations.  A short-listing checklist could be developed.

 7. Evaluate shortlisted solutions.  Here we assess the suitability of each viable solution against the various solution or selection attributes or criteria that we identified earlier.  A useful tool to use at this step is a weighted-attributes decision matrix where each attribute is assigned a numerical value that represents its relative importance.  This enables us to quantify decision-making and helps us make an objective assessment of the viable options.

bbbbbbbbb 8. Select best solution.  The evaluation of options enables us to identify the best solution.

 9. Future-proof solution.  The best solution is then subject to some scrutiny in order to identify and respond to potential implementation problems.  Such risks are usually assessed in terms of their estimated impact and probability.  A risk analysis worksheet can be employed.

 10. Prepare implementation plan.  As a minimum, our action plan identifies who is to take action, describes the activities needed to implement the solution, resources and timings.

11. Implement and control.  The solution is implemented as per our plan, progress is monitored and action taken where necessary to resolve deviations and accommodate changes.  To solve deviations easily, we must detect them early.

12. Evaluate outcome.  Has the problem been resolved?  What have we learned?  Have new problems been created?  What should be done to prevent this type of problem in the future?  Was the process useful?  Consider any changes to policies, procedures, training, etc.


So what principles apply to problem solving?  Principles are universal truths.  They are usually hard-learned, but don’t guarantee success.  Yet we ignore them at our peril.  Here are some to think about:

  1. Don’t make decision that aren’t ours to make.
  2. Remember, when making a decision, we are simply choosing from options, not making a choice between right and wrong.
  3. Avoid snap decisions wherever possible, especially if they are irreversible.
  4. Remember that making no decision or retaining the status quo is a decision.
  5. When unsure, select the option that will result in the least negative outcome, should we happen to be wrong.
  6. Avoid entrapment – doggedly pursuing a losing course.
  7. Sunk costs have no influence on future decisions.
  8. Identify the underlying cause, not just the obvious symptoms in order to solve problems.
  9. Have a fall-back position when solutions go wrong.
  10. Use reason to analyse problems and emotion to enhance action.
  11. Give problem solvers feedback on the accuracy of their assumptions and estimates and the effectiveness of their solutions.
  12. When the issue affects others, involve them in the resolution process.
  13. Leave intuitive decision making to the experts when time is short and facts are unavailable.
  14. Avoid groupthink.

Some problems raise matters of ethics.  Our problem solving should be ethical.  Yet, there are no widely agreed rules of ethics and it isn’t a precise science.  Ethics, which are not necessarily covered by legislation, are often a matter for subjective judgement and may include issues such as:

  1. dishonesty and distortion of facts
  2. withholding information
  3. manipulation of people’s feelings
  4. deception , trickery, rule-bending
  5. exploitation of weakness and vulnerability
  6. greed and excessive profit
  7. negatively impact future generations
  8. unsafe practices likely to cause harm
  9. inertia-based approvals
  10. failing to consult and notify
  11. secrecy and lack of transparency
  12. coercion, inducement or bribes
  13. betrayal of trust
  14. breaking confidentiality
  15. by-standing or failing to intervene or report
  16. unfairness, unkindness, lack of compassion and humanity.

The ‘greater good’ argument is sometimes used to support decisions that involve conflict in the above considerations.

Objectivity and fairness are the basis for ethical decision-making, not usually personal believe, religion, wealth, power, or even the majority view.  The UK Institute of Business Ethics suggests the following three simple tests to help us evaluate our solutions/decisions from an ethical perspective:

  1.  Transparency.  Am I happy to make my decision public, especially to those affected?
  2. Effect.  Have I fully considered the potentially harmful consequences of my decision and how to avoid or mitigate them?
  3. Fairness.  Would my decision be considered to be fair by those affected?

Number 3 could be a challenge particularly when we evaluating proposals, tenders and applications for grants when resources are limited and someone invariably misses out.

Murphy’s Law is attributed to an Air Force captain who apparently created this now famous phrase when a series of electrical problems kept occurring in a Californian Air Force base missile site.  He attributed the problems to Murphy, an electrician, who frequently wrong-wired expensive equipment.  These are some of the items to which most people will relate:

1.    Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.

2.    Whenever you set out to do something, something else must be done first.

3.    Nothing is as easy as it looks.

4.    Everything takes longer than you think.

5.    If there is the possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will occur.

6.    Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.

7.    It always costs more than first estimated.

8.    It is easier to get involved in something than it is to get out of it.

9.    Every solution breeds new problems.

10.    If you try to please everybody, somebody will be disappointed.

11.    It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so clever.

12.    If you tinker with anything long enough, it will break.

13.    If there is a 50 per cent chance of success, there will be a 75 per cent chance of failure.

14.    Interchangeable parts won’t.

15.    In any computation the figure that is obviously correct will be the source of error.

16.    Blame will never be placed if enough people are involved.

17.    Nothing is lost until you begin looking for it.

18.    If in the course of several months only three worthwhile social events take place, they will all fall on the same evening.


In his book “Judgement Calls” John Mowen  suugests the following rules to keep us safe:

  1. Think realistically when making the decision and act confidently when implementing.
  2. When unsure, select the alternative that would result in the least negative outcome, should you happen to be wrong.
  3. Give decision makers frequent feedback on the accuracy of their assumptions and predictions in order to reduce overconfidence.
  4. Avoid entrapment – doggedly pursuing a losing course of action. Don’t throw good money after bad.
  5. To avoid entrapment, create milestones which if not achieved will result in the cancellation of the project.
  6. Sunk costs should have no influence on future decisions. A sunk cost is the investment that cannot be recovered if a strategy is abandoned. If future benefits do not outweigh future costs, it is time to quit.
  7. If endurance is paramount, burn you bridges and commit yourself to the course of action.
  8. Identify the underlying cause, not just the obvious symptom, in order to solve problems.
  9. Avoid the tendency to attribute bad outcomes to uncontrollable situational factors and good outcomes to your own brilliance.
  10. Do not assume that big events result from single, big causes.
  11. We usually exaggerate in hindsight what we anticipate in foresight.
  12. Use reason to analyse problems and emotion to enhance action/
  13. Leave intuitive decisions to the experts when time is short and facts are unavailable.
  14. Have a reserve an/or fall-back position when plans go wrong.

But what might we do if we disagree with a solution?  Certainly if it is an important issue we might consider the following strategies:

  1. First check you really understand the decision and reasons for it.
  2. Muster your relevant evidence and present it well.
  3. Ask for a break – an opportunity for individual reflection.
  4. Put your reservations in writing – clear, precise, complete, and coherent.
  5. Bring in the non-combatants – third party/mediator/facilitator.
  6. Encourage group to assess consequences of their decision.
  7. Has the decision-making process been appropriate?
  8. Invite expert opinion, via ‘Delphi technique’ for example.
  9. Is it possible to trial the decision – simulation perhaps?
  10. Get the project sponsor to veto their decision or delay its implementation pending review!  The sponsor would presumably need convincing evidence.

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