Truly complicated problems necessitate team solutions. If your team does not function well, its’ problem solving capability will be limited. To tackle intricately detailed problems a team must successfully answer these questions. I recommend answering the questions in sequence and posting the team responses on some visual media. I recommend spending approximately 5 minutes on each question. This keeps your meeting moving quickly and helps keep all team members involved.

1. What specifically is the problem? Yogi Berra said, "You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." Before you can solve a problem you must define it. A good definition clearly states the current situation and the desired situation. It should be a concrete, comprehensive statement that is realistic and without any implied causes or solutions. For example: Less than 5% of the targeted 20% of first time customers are returning for additional purchases. Failure to be specific, as in the example, will lead you down the path Yogi suggested earlier in this paragraph.

2. What are the causes of the problem? The team must search for the underlying causes, not the superficial. When you go to the doctor with an unusual abdominal pain, you want to know why. It is not enough for the doctor to prescribe something to ease the pain. Similarly in business don’t look at the symptoms. This is an excellent opportunity to use creative problem solving or brainstorming, which I address in a separate article, Twelve Steps to Effectively Manage a Creative Meeting. Keep in mind while looking for “the” cause that there may be multiple causes.

3. What are alternative solutions? Once you have clearly stated the underlying causes, the team should now focus on alternatives. To maintain the creative flow of ideas, no offered solution is too wild or foolish. If one team member judges another’s idea, remind everyone the goal is quantity not quality at this point. Sometimes a totally unworkable solution will spark someone else to think creatively. A number of years ago in Phoenix, AZ an automobile sales team was trying to brainstorm ideas about how to increase foot traffic on the outside lot in the scorching hot summer. Someone offered, “What if we could air condition the car lot?” His team members dismissed his idea, but he’s not selling cars anymore. He invented misting fans.

4. Which alternatives are more elegant? At this point the team will have created a list of causes and a list of solutions. Now the team shifts from brainstorming mode to evaluative mode. The moderator asks the team to assess the validity of each proposed solution. A tactful way to do this is ask the probable outcome of each solution. If handled correctly the originators of some of the unworkable ideas will withdraw them spontaneously. This approach is one of exploration. What would be the probable outcome of each solution? As this process continues your list of potential solutions becomes smaller and more specific.

5. Which solution does the team believe to be best? In many instances this decision will be reached during the discussion occurring in the evaluation phase. As the potential solutions decrease, the more viable ones rise in the team members’ minds. If two solutions are both judged practical then the originator of each should be given a chance to “sell” his/her idea to the team. Most likely a vote will not be necessary. If needed, a show of hands can be used to select the solution that will be undertaken.

6. What is the detailed action plan to implant the solution? The key to answering this question is the word “detailed.” The steps of the action plan must be specified and team members assigned to each step. Target dates for completion of each task are agreed upon. The plan is written up, circulated for additional input and then finalized.

7. How will the team evaluate the success of the solution? In many cases the evaluation of the solution is underemphasized. There are many reasons… cost, time, uneasiness in evaluating others’ work, political climate, and fear of dispute. The complexity of the problem and the agreed upon solution are deciding factors in the comprehensiveness of the evaluation. Whether the approach is as simple as a follow up meeting to discuss outcome or more complex with multi-leveled evaluations of all steps, an evaluation is extremely important. This step gives the team closure on the process. It may be a time for congratulations or a restart of the process, but it is integral to the growth of the members as a problem solving team.

Following an organized process for solving business problems allows two outcomes. First, it produces viable solutions for real issues with a positive influence on company profit. Secondly, it provides opportunity for employees to participate and develop team cohesiveness. This is a win-win solution for your company and team.

Author's Bio: 

Richard Highsmith,, is President of Quality Team Building. He has twenty-five years experience training and coaching. He has built and sold two successful businesses. To learn more about becoming a team leader visit our website at