There are always going to be problems. It is an inevitability of life, along with death and taxes. Yet without problems, there are no solutions to the things that are causing us pain.

Ask anyone in the workplace if they come up against problems that need to be solved on a daily basis and they will answer “yes”, but are we solving problems effectively in order to resolve them once and for all? Or are we just ‘solution driving’, which has the effect of sticking a piece of tape over the problem and hoping it will hold together long enough to move on to become someone else’s concern?

Problems and Conflicts

It’s no secret that people are natural problem solvers… just go back to the likes of Edison and Einstein to see this; the biggest challenge is to overcome the tendency to immediately try and identify a solution that will work in the short-term. This is the most common mistake in problem solving. The reason it’s such a big error is because it tries to place the solution right at the start, when it’s far more effective to work methodically through the issue at hand, think everything through properly and then propose the answer nearer the end of the whole process.

We tend to see a problem as a problem for two reasons. One, it exists to be resolved and we often experience anxiety if we are not sure how to do so properly, and two, there will probably be conflicts and divided opinions between all parties involved about what the best solution is. If conflict is present, the resulting decisions are likely to be contaminated and the true root cause can be lost along the way.

Penmarks’ Seven Steps to Problem Solving

The Seven Steps give a standard and structured approach for identifying and resolving the root cause of a problem, enabling an issue to be fully resolved and not just papered over temporarily. It is a technique based around the The Six Step Problem Solving Model[1] but results in a specific action plan to solving the problem over implementing and evaluating.

Here are the Seven Steps for an effective problem-solving session:

  1. Define the problem Why is this a problem?
    • Be clear about what the problem is and what effect is it having on the business
    • Use facts and figures as much as possible to help specify areas of concern
  2. Current state What is happening now?
    • This is a critical step that is usually overlooked
    • Provide some background on the process, stakeholders, current measures, responsibilities and so on
  3. Goals – What are the objectives/targets?
    • What is the gap between the current situation and the desired performance or outcome?
    • Always be realistic at this point and use SMART objectives[1] to help identify and lay out targets
    • Remember, most people will have very clear, individual interests around identifying and achieving the target, so it needs to be kept as uniformed as possible to keep everyone happy and engaged
  4. Root cause analysis – What is causing the problem?
    • This is where much of your time will be spent as you cannot move on to the next step until the true root cause is discovered (there may be more than one)
    • Use tools such as Five Whys, Fishbone[2] and Brainstorming[3]
    • Remember, blame the process not the people!
  5. Investigate options – How do we contain the problem and identify possible solutions?
    • List all short-term and long-term solutions
    • Outline the options and various solutions (there may be more than one)
  6. Select solution and define future state
    • Prioritise and decide on solution(s) to implement
    • What will the future state look like with your chosen solution?
  7. Action plan to implement and evaluate –What needs to happen to bring about the future state and how will we measure effectiveness?
    • What needs to happen and when do you need to put the countermeasure in place?
    • How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the solution?
    • Consider that conditions may need to change. Make contingency agreements about foreseeable future circumstances (‘if-then’)


This seven-step process can be used effectively in a large group, or by just one person or a small group of people. Always bear in mind, however, that effective problem solving takes time and attention to get right. Working through this process is not always a strictly linear exercise either. You may have to cycle back to an earlier step to revaluate progress.

The more difficult and important the problem, the more helpful and necessary it is to use a disciplined process like this. If you are just trying to decide where to go out for lunch, you probably do not need to go through all seven steps!

If you would like to find out more about resolving issues, or need a facilitator for your problem-solving session, please contact us at team@penmark.co.uk.


[1] (Management Books, 2015)

[2] (Herridge, 2017)

[3] (Visual, 2020)

[4] (Management Books, 2015)

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