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Project Management Practitioner: Problem Solving and Decision Making

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

Problem Solving and Decision Making go hand in hand


Have you ever thought about the mental exercise you go through in solving a problem? Even for even the simplest choice of what to buy at the store or for buying a car? In business and the military this is often a much larger exercise with far more at stake than everyday personal preference choices. PMs and leaders face situations that involve problems, risk, business changes, questionable, or incomplete data, and several possible alternative solutions. They must be able to recognize that a solution is need and how to decide between multiple options. The more complex and grander the scale of the problem, the more consideration has to be made to all the increased variables and risk to both the problem and its solution. Learning and effectively executing a sound methodology for the solving of problems and making decisions is invaluable. In this article we will explore a 10-step problem solving and decision making.


Problem Solving

A problem may be regarding how best to accomplish a project, encourage a team member or the need to expand employee work skills. We believe we know that a problem exists; however, we may not have it well defined and there may be more to the story with symptoms or effects not identified; plus, we will still need to determine a solution. We need to determine what caused the problem, erroneous action, event or occurrence; determine how to cause or achieve an action, event or occurrence; and, identify risk, as in potential problems that require potential solutions.

Decision Making

A decision may be as simple as a yes or no, buy or sell, and hire not hire. It can be more complex as in selecting a solution among multiple options, for example: choosing a new car, a new project, product, or service from among several, even selecting a new employee out of many qualified candidates. In business, military operations, project and program management have risk management issues that will that require potential solutions. Once we have our solution or multiple option(s), however, we still need to choose to either "accept" or "decline" a single choice or "select" between one or more Courses of Action (COA).

10 Step Problem Solving and Decision Making

Step 1 - Identify the Problem

Keep in mind that the initial perceived problem may only be a partial picture and require more investigation and analysis. In order to understand a problem correctly, the essential first step toward finding the right answer is to clearly define and refine the problem statement. A frequent cause of wrong answers and confused thinking is an initial failure to realize fully how problem is put together. A good way of finding out how something works is to break it down into the smallest part practical. Start with asking: why do we think there is a problem; what is the situation and condition that warrant calling this a problem; and, what do we know about the problem? Notate any relative information that establishes the criteria for a successful solution?

Step 2 - Collect/Review Background Information

Collect all information watching out for faulty assumptions, extraneous information, overlapping problems, unclear elements, and oversimplification of the problem. Methods can include, but not limited to: Brainstorming, Ishikawa Diagramming, Cause and Effect Diagramming and Charting. These will help you better understand the full extent of the issue and redefine the problem statement. It may be necessary to carve up the original or initial problem statement to narrow the focus of the perceived issue to reduce ambiguity while refining and redefining the problem statement. In order to arrive develop reliable applicable and testable solution; we need to be sure that our problem solving is on the right track.


Cause and Effect Model

Cause and effect mapping will rarely result in a single event or cause. An effect can also be a cause or another effect. Sound confusing, not really.

Consider this example: Your Company has had an unusual number of employee injuries over the past month. Using cause and effect mapping you start with the circumstances and type of employee injuries. Next we learn that all the injuries are related to falls. You also learn that all the falls seem to be happening in the same area of the business. Checking with the janitorial staff and some of the injured employees you also find that the floor has been wet from time to time during the past month. After learning where the wet floor areas are located, you have the facility maintenance crew inspect the area for any possible water leaks. The crew finds a loose water pipe that only leaks when it's shaken. But what is causing the pipe to shake? You continue to analyze the scene and you see that a large punch press machine attached to the wall, when operated, the machine causes the floor and wall to shake, to include all the water pipes on that adjacent wall where the water on the floor is found. Thus, we now have a better and clearer picture of the actual root cause of the injuries. Loose or leaking pipes are not the only cause: the punch machine on the wall is a more direct root of the problem. Fixing the pipes alone won't solve the problem in the long term, resolving the effect the large punch press creates. That is your real problem and that is the problem that needs to be solved. I'll stop there - you've got it now. The effect of one thing is the cause of another and another and another and may require multiple solutions.


Organizational Charting Method

The advantage of this method is that it's a top-down view that maybe more effective for linear thinking people. This method also work well in groups since the diagram can be enlarged so that every participant can see the information as the process evolves. The perceived (initial) problem is stated/noted on the chart at the top. As you can see above, this is a hierarchical breakdown structure, an organizational chart with the first level (columns) below the problem or issue, showing categories or functional areas, for example: Human Resources, Procurement, Training, Costs, Customers and Operations, just to name a few.


Ishikawa (Fishbone) Model 

The Ishikawa diagram works the same way as the Organizational Breakdown chart, except that the heading items already mentioned are labeled for the fish bones. Participants look at the problem from the perspective of each major function area and list the cause/effect items on their respective branches (Chart method) or bones (Ishikawa method). Eventually, the true picture and nature of the problem becomes clearer to the group and you might find that the collected data redefines the original question and, as well, provides information that determines the selection criteria for any proposed decisions.


Step 3 - Redefine Problem (well defined)

Clearly define and agree upon statement of the problem; sometimes it takes a meeting just to clearly establish this statement.

Step 4 - Define the Criteria for the Solution (Selective versus Elective Criteria)

Before developing a solution or multiple COAs we must determine the criteria for the solution and how we know when we have a "good" solution. Determine the selective, the "got to have," criteria and the elective, the "nice to have/want to have, criteria.

Step 5 - Determine the Priority or "Weighting" of each solution criteria

The simplest way to do this is by scoring the criteria. Selective criteria are not necessarily weighed against other selective criteria because they are "must have" and, generally, are yes or no items; the solution or COA either meets or does not meet the criteria. Elective criteria on the other hand, are weighed against all other elective criteria. These are the criteria that a solution or COA may meet or fail to meet at varying levels. For example: Elective criteria number one is more important than elective criteria number three and criteria two more than one. A scoring value for elective criteria one is 1.1, criteria number three is 1.0, and criteria two would be 1.2. These represent the multiplying factor used when you score or rank the solutions and COAs against one another in respect to each criterion (selective and elective).

Step 6 - Develop Solutions/Courses of Action

Try to come up with three to five possible solutions/COAs. This is not a hard and fast number. If you only have two choices then that's all you have to measure against the criteria. If you have far more than five solutions/COAs, that's fine too - however, there will be exponentially more data to work with as the number of solutions/COAs increase.

Develop plausible solutions or courses of actions based on the data collected through the previously described methods like Ishikawa Diagramming, Cause and Effect Diagramming and Charting. Brainstorming (not covered here) is also a very effective way to develop solutions and COAs and allows for free thinking with ideas that are not limited to in-the-box thinking and tunnel vision views. Remember to take your time and don't prejudge or block the group to new and different ideas.


Step 7 - Evaluate each Solution/COA against the "Quality Criteria for Success"

Decision Matrix: A Decision Matrix is a valuable tool in evaluating several two or more potential solutions or COAs against predetermined selective and elective criteria described previously. One of the great advantages of this method is that it can be used for a complex problem with many possible solution options and many solution criteria. In the case of a large number of choices/solutions/COAs it is very useful to take advantage of automated tools like Microsoft Excel or even Microsoft Word table tools. Automated spreadsheet tools like Microsoft Excel provide the benefit of allowing for the use of the automated mathematics formulas to calculate the criteria values, and, ultimately, the total value for each solution/COA. The best choice or COA will become quickly apparent as the Decision Matrix is filled in. Still, even without automated tools, it can also be done with tools as simple as a piece of paper and a pencil.


Step 8 - Determine the Strengths and Weaknesses of each Solution/COA as weighted against the criteria using a "Decision Matrix"

How well does each COA meet all criteria? Example of the calculations: Make sure the solution/COA meets all the selective criteria. If solution/COA "A" ranks second for elective criteria one its rating value is 2.2; if it's first for criteria three, its rating value is 1.0; and if it ranks third for criteria two, its rating value is 3.6. Repeat this for every criterion versus solution/COAs.


Step 9- Select the Best Solution/COA

After totaling the values for the criteria in respect to each solution/COA; the solution/COA with the highest score that also meets all selective criteria is your best answer to the problem.

Step 10 - Develop an Implementation, Action or Establish a Project Plan (Project Initiation/Planning)


If you accept the solution or choose a different one, then it's time to develop it into an executable plan. The simplest method is an action plan. If it is a complex solution then, in business a project plan is applicable and in a military environment it is an operation plan that is appropriate. The basics of an action plan are: determine the activity and desired outcome, assigning an owner to the item and a suspense date for completion of that task. These items will be discussed later in further articles on project and operational planning.

Final Word

We all face situations that involve uncertainties, questionable or incomplete data and several possible alternative solutions; it is beneficial to have a systematic approach to recognize a problem, relevant data, analyze, revise the problem statement, determine solution criteria, develop solutions and evaluate those solutions against the quality or solution criteria in order to make an intelligent decision. This 10-step systematic approach to problem solving assists in applying thoroughness, clarity, judgment, logic, and professional knowledge to that task.



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  1. Project Management Institute A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK), 5th Edition. Newtown Square: Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013.

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