Problem-Solving Frameworks: Go Down to the Root

Problems of all shapes and sizes pop up on a daily basis. So the big question is: How to solve them? We bring you several frameworks that could help.

Problem-Solving Frameworks: Go Down to the Root

Do you consider yourself a problem-solver? Well, you certainly should. Because that's what you and your team do every day. 

First and foremost, you solve the problems that your prospective customers have, for which they want to find a solution (i.e. your product).

Then, there are unexpected errors and usability issues that your existing users face while using your product, or the bugs that your engineers encounter.

On a higher level, you need to find the right solution for the new features you want to develop, discover new opportunities for growth, and so much more. 

Now, the big question is: How to solve all those problems? 

We bring you several problem-solving frameworks that could help.

The Phoenix Checklist #

Have you ever wondered how the CIA goes about solving problems? Well, they’ve developed The Phoenix Checklist to “encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles”.

The Phoenix Checklist was popularized by Michael Michalko, a former CIA creative consultant, in his book Thinkertoys, as a blueprint for dissecting the problem into knowns and unknowns to find the best possible solution.     

Some of the questions of The Phoenix Checklist are:

  • Why is it necessary to solve this particular problem?

  • What benefits will you receive by solving it?

  • What is the information you have?

  • Is the information sufficient? 

  • What is the unknown?

  • What isn't a problem?

  • Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?

  • Where are the boundaries of the problem?

  • What are the constants of the problem?

  • Have you seen this problem before?

  • If you find a similar problem that has already been solved, can you use its method?

  • Can you restate the problem? How many different ways can you restate it?

  • What are the best, worst, and most probable solutions you can imagine?

There’s no doubt that The Phoenix Checklist can be a complementary problem-solving technique for your product team, even though it wasn’t developed with product managers in mind. Use it to frame, deconstruct, and reframe the problems you encounter.

Root Cause Analysis #

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method that aims at identifying the root cause of a problem by moving back to its origin, as opposed to techniques that only address and treat the symptoms.

The RCA is corrective in its nature with a final goal to prevent the same problem from happening again in the future. But that doesn’t mean that root cause investigation is simple or that it only needs to be done once. 

The starting questions are: 

  • What is currently the problem?

  • Why does this problem occur?

But don’t stop at the first why. Keep asking why that happened, until you get to the bottom and the real cause.

When you first start using the RCA method, it will be a reactive approach to solving problems. It is typically in use when something goes wrong. But once you perfect this technique, you can use it as a proactive action towards identifying problems before they happen and preventing them from happening. The end goal of the Root Cause Analysis is continuous improvement.

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CIRCLES Method #

The CIRCLES method is a problem-solving framework that helps product managers provide a meaningful response to any questions coming from design, marketing, customer success, or other teams. 

The creator of the CIRCLES method is Lewis C. Lin, author of the book Decode and Conquer. The way he explains it, you should always start by clarifying the goal, identifying the constraints up front, and understanding the context of the situation.

The seven steps of the CIRCLES method are:

  • Comprehend the situation: Understand the context of the problem you’re solving

  • Identify the customer: Know who you’re building the product for

  • Report customer’s needs: Rely on the customer research to uncover pain points 

  • Cut, through prioritization: Omit unnecessary ideas, tasks, and solutions

  • List solutions: Keep the focus on the most feasible solutions

  • Evaluate tradeoffs: Consider the impact, cost of delay, and other factors

  • Summarize your recommendation: Make a decision and explain your reasoning

The main goal of the CIRCLES method is to help you keep an open mind as you move through the steps, as well as to avoid jumping straight into the conclusions.

The mathematician’s “universal” way #

Although there isn’t exactly a universal way to solve problems that would perfectly fit every situation and scenario, mathematician Claude Shannon developed a strong problem-solving system that has given results across disciplines.

The essential part of his framework involves creative thinking to get out of standard mental loops, critical thinking to question every answer and every possible solution, and the process of restructuring a problem, whether it’s by maximizing it, minimizing it, contrasting it, inverting it, or anything else. 

As explained in the article from Quartz:

"Claude Shannon didn’t just formulate a question and then look for answers. He was methodological in developing a process to help him see beyond what was in sight."

Shannon’s problem-solving process includes:

  • Finding a problem

  • Understanding a problem

  • Going beyond obvious questions

  • Defining a shape and a form of a problem

  • Focusing on essential details, but always keeping a bigger picture in mind

  • Changing a reference point and reframing a point of view

  • Uncovering insights from the sea of information

That said, Claude Shannon certainly developed a methodology that is relevant for every problem-solving situation, not only math problems. 

Next Chapter

Innovation Frameworks: Where Will You Go Next?

Changing a perspective, having a fresh new approach, and flipping the problem over are some of the best ways to solve problems. That’s also a good approach to come up with innovative solutions for growth. So, let’s move on to the next chapter – innovation.

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