Solving Problems the Agile Way

by Chijioke Egbulefu

Problems are wrinkles that we want straightened out as soon as we possibly could and they come in many shapes, sizes and forms. Solving them require a combination of critical and creative thinking skills and  this is something we should all be familiar with no matter what job we do. 

Critical thinking is defined by Wikipedia as the analysis of facts to form a judgement. It involves identifying and analysing a problem with facts and logic in order to evaluate ideas, to decide which potential solution is likely to deliver the best result.

Creative thinking on the other hand involves brainstorming. Potential ways to solve a problem are put forward and analysed. This method applies divergent thinking as you begin with a prompt or question and generate many solutions.

Looking at the problem as a whole or as one big thing can be very daunting and honestly, may make it seem  impossible to solve but taking it as a series of parts and through steps makes it look human and less monstrous and a whole lot easier to resolve.

The problem solving process is popularly divided into 5 steps and in these steps we see both critical and creative thinking come to play.

1. Identify  

2. Analyse 

3. Explore 

4. Select 

5. Implement

Identify: Correctly identifying the problem is the first step to getting a viable solution. While this might seem obvious, many people do not take the time and effort to do so. Being clear about what the problem is will help you focus your efforts in the right direction. A problem well stated is a problem half solved.

By asking  the Who, When, Where and What questions, you’ll understand the situation. Do not try to poke at the solution at this point by asking Why and How. This follows  the agile principle of beginning with clarity on the problem before you try to solve it. 

Write a problem statement. By doing this, you put together the key facts of the problem and provide a concise description of it. For example:

In the first quarter, the company fulfilled 208,000 orders. Of those orders, 20,000 were returned resulting in a 9.6% return rate.  This rate is above the accepted 5% and caused the company an additional 10 million for the quarter.

Analyse: Thinking of a solution first is like putting the cart before the horse which is a common mistake. You examine the problem carefully and then think of different ways to solve it. In this step you devote more time learning about the problem and viewing it from all angles.The 5 WHYS is a popular way of getting to the root cause of a problem.  

5 WHYS is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?”. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The “five” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem. (Wikipedia)

The 5 whys is not the only way to identify the root causes of a problem. Root cause analysis can be done using a number of other tools such as cause and effect diagrams and there could be more than one root cause to a problem and no, 5 is not a magical number. It could be less or more than 5 but you get the general idea. 

Asking these questions may lead to discovery. Something we thought was a technical problem might just turn out to be a human or leadership problem. Someone was probably trying to cut costs and hired the wrong person which has led to a series of events culminating in frequent downtimes. Etc. 

Explore: this is where we come up with several ideas to solve the problem. The Yorubas say that one single road does not  lead to the market. There is no single approach to solve a problem. At this point, no idea is useless. A common mistake is killing ideas off before they are fully refined or understood. While brainstorming, it is important to not let one person dominate the discussions and to not look down on ideas because they sound weird or too simple or impossible.

Effective brainstorming happens when people look outside of their areas of expertise or experience and think out of the box by involving more people. 

This is likely going to lead to one or two light bulb moments. Some ground rules for brainstorming sessions are:

– Quantity over quality:  creativity beats practicality at this point. The goal is to uncover as many approaches as possible. 

– Expand other people’s ideas: It’s encouraged  to build on other people’s ideas, refine them and watch the idea transform itself into another that’s probably better. Ideas can also be combined to form whole new ones.

– Don’t criticize: this may be difficult but it’s important to avoid killing an idea just because you see a problem with it. it’s not uncommon for an idea that sounds absurd to inspire a second excellent idea a few minutes later.

Select the best solution: The whole idea of the problem solving process is to arrive at the best possible solution to a particular problem. So going through a list of potential solutions, the process at this point should help us make an informed decision.  

Once you have potential solutions in place, selecting the best one shouldn’t be hard. 

Methods like The Ease and Effectiveness matrix have been used by stakeholders to decide what solutions they should prioritise and the ones to avoid to save time and resources.

Implementation is the final step of the problem solving process. Implementation require you to ascertain.

– What can help you measure any solution’s effectiveness

– deciding what constitutes success 

– deciding what you will measure to gauge that success and deciding how you will conduct that measurement.

Basically, what success will look like. Being able to measure your solution does two things: it helps you see if it’s working and if it’s solving the problem to the extent that you want it to solve it. Then you decide if you should go back to the drawing board or if you made the best decision.

Treat the problem. Not the symptom(s).  How to know the real problem? Ask the right questions. Explore ideas for all possible solutions and ensure to choose the best. Be agile and ready to go back to the drawing board if the chosen solution turns out a wrong fit. 

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