7 Ways To Solve Problems Like a Consultant

November 13, 2017 • 8 minute read • by Saeed


“All the greatest and most important problems in life are fundamentally insoluble … They can never be solved, but only outgrown.” ~ Carl Jung

At the core, consultants are problem solvers. Most consultants are brought in to solve a problem or provide a new way of looking at a problem. Garnering insights, thinking on your feet and learning to turn around a problem takes practice. The classic problem solving mechanism, based on a continuous improvement model, goes something like this:

1.      Define the problem.

2.      Assess all potential causes for the problem.

3.      Identify scenarios that can resolve the problem.

4.      Select a scenario for implementation.

5.      Develop an implementation plan.

6.      Monitor implementation of the plan.

7.      Verify if the problem has been resolved or not.

8.      Course correct as needed.

While, this is a rational and linear process that provides a clear frame of reference around which people can communicate, some people would argue (and they’d be right) that the world is much too chaotic for the rational approach to work as cleanly as intended. The dynamics of organizations and people are not nearly so mechanistic as to be improved simply by using off the shelf problem solving models.

In truth, the quality of an organization or life comes from how one thinks about the journey, not the destination. So, what I want to deal with in this post is the mindsetbehind the mechanism.

The mindset consultants bring to the table is different than most. They have to look past the problem itself. They have to challenge all of the assumptions and constraints around the problem. They have to ask the right questions which is far more important than having all the right answers. A good consultant will help the client come to their own conclusions while acting as a guide for the discussion.

Whether you are consulting on a project or not, and whether you are tackling problems in your personal life or at work, this post breaks down the mindset behind seven problem solving approaches you can take from the consulting world to begin breaking down your problems and tackling them like a pro.

1.      Consultants rely on data more than intuition.

I’m a big believer in intuition. But intuition is typically backed by years of experience. Consultants are typically generalists, which means they lack the 30 or 40 years of in-depth industry experience that their clients often have. Therefore, research will help you focus on key drivers that you can back up with hard data given your time constraints. Your boss or client might have a “gut” instinct for how to solve a specific problem based on their experience, and that is fine. But a good consultant will dig for hard data to prove or disprove that “gut” instinct before moving forward..

2.      Consultants don’t boil the ocean, they dive for the pearl.

It’s important to realize that when figuring out how to solve a problem, there is always an enormous amount of research and data analysis you could potentially do. Instead of trying to perform all of it, which is the equivalent of trying to boil the ocean, consultants focus on doing enough research and analysis to thoroughly prove or disprove the key drivers behind the problem they are analyzing and ignore everything else. By focusing their time and energy on the ‘key drivers’ of the problem, they dive into the largest and most salient aspects of the problem that, if solved, would have the biggest immediate impact. For example, if you are looking to cut costs, there may be a plethora of different ways to do that. Instead of spinning your wheels analyzing all of the potential cost saving areas, you’re better off focusing on the two or three costs that, if reduced, would have the largest overall impact on the organization.

3.      Consultants don’t just look at obstacles, they look for opportunities.

Most people see a wall, accept that it is there, and never examine the problem or even “push” against the wall to see where the resistance is coming from. Because no one has really checked, it may well be that the obstacle or constraint they were referring to was there years ago and no longer exists. Instead of thinking about what cannot be done, consultants think about what can be done. They use the obstacle as an opportunity to think of creative ways to overcome it. When you hit a wall, find a way to climb it or burrow a hole in the wall to get to the other side. Don’t just stand there and wonder why you hit the wall.

4.      Consultants don’t just see weaknesses, they look for strengths.

Focusing on strengths does not mean forgetting about your weaknesses and not working to improve them. But tripling down on your strengths will get you where you want to go faster than always pondering why your fail. A good consultant will hone in on and leverage you and/or the organizations’ talents, skills, or assets to make you even better at what they’re already good at. They will help you match people to environments or roles that are also congruent with their skills, knowledge, and assets. They will recognize this simple truth: most people are good at the things they enjoy, and they enjoy the things they’re good at.

5.      Consultants don’t focus on symptoms, they seek out the roots of the problem.

Consultants help determine the real problem – the problem behind the problem if you will. Often the client is trying to tackle a technical problem, when the issue is actually a business problem. It doesn’t help, for example, if you improve the efficiency and speed of your operations if the overall leadership strategy is driving the business off of a cliff. Finding the root cause requires persistence. It all starts by acknowledging the real situation. Ask yourself: “Is this same issue occurring again?” If your answer is “yes”, you are just facing and the symptoms are coming back again and again, you have a problem on your hands that requires a root cause analysis.

6.      Consultants look for how things have always been done and wonder if they could be done differently.

People are prone to all kinds of cognitive biases – be it false consensus or status quo bias or confirmation bias, or any of a variety of others that blind them to seeing the root cause of the problem or a viable solution.  People are often blinded by their very focused view of the world, and often get stuck on industry views, trends, and group-think within the company. Culture can stall innovation and constrain options. Consultants look for what’s behind the words someone is saying. Challenging all the basic assumptions is a good start to problem solving. In many cases the problem presented by the client is the wrong problem – they are asking the wrong question, and they just don’t know it.

7.      Consultants have more than a hammer in their toolbox.

In 1966 the prominent psychologist Abraham Maslow said: “It is tempting if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” When you only have one tool at your disposal, you fall prey to confirmation bias believing that the solutions to problems demand solutions we already happen to have at hand. When limited tools are applied inappropriately or indiscriminately, results suffer.  When a variety of tools are leveraged and customized to fit the situation, you are able to unlock the art of what’s possible. Build up your problem solving tool box with techniques you can adapt to a variety of situations.

A final Word…

In my experience consulting, nearly all the external constraints on a problem. To start, learn to ask probing open ended questions and see where they lead. Why is this important? How much does this impact the business? Why are you doing it this way? If you started from scratch today, would you do it the same way? What does that really mean? What matters most is don’t try to be clever or seem brilliant . Sometimes the right questions are being asked, and forcing some clever alternative is actually the wrong approach. Strategy consultants and problem solving professionals recognize that developing insight takes practice and takes active listening skills.  With practice and time, your problem solving process will become easier and you’ll be ‘nailing’ it like a pro.

Good luck.

Wait! Before you go…

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Last thing, if you liked this post, consider checking out my other recent posts for inspiration and concrete actions steps to become more effective at work and life.

Best,

Saeed

©2017 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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