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Section 1. An Introduction to the Problem-Solving Process

Learn how to solve problems effectively and efficiently by following our detailed process.


  • What is a problem?

  • Why is a group process particularly important?

  • What is the problem-solving process?

"We must try to trust one another. Stay and cooperate."  - Jomo Kenyatta, (1891 - 1978), former president of the Republic of Kenya

Imagine for a moment that your coalition's mission is to encourage development in a traditionally poor downtown neighborhood. Your first goal is to recruit members, but you find a lack of interest among area residents. So you work for months to convince people to join, and meet with some modest success. Then, at your first all-coalition meeting, you find that members don't want to work together. The students you have recruited don't trust the police officers who have shown up; the police officers, in turn, pay no attention to the students; and an argument has broken out in one corner of the room between a few fundamentalist Christians and gay rights activists. Your head is in your hands. You are halfway through your grant, and it seems that you haven't made any headway whatsoever towards your stated goal. What are you going to do now?

Problems are a fact of life at home, at play, and at work. Unfortunately, problems aren't always isolated cases. They tend to be like onions - you peel away one problem only to find another, and then another, and you can't solve the problem you were first interested in until you solve a variety of related problems. For example, you can't increase safety at a crosswalk until you hire more crossing guards. And nobody will apply for the job until you can increase the salary.

In short, we will always be confronted with problems, so the importance of problem solving can't be overstated. That's why this chapter of the Tool Box is focused wholly on the subject. Because most of us labor in groups or coalitions that are working together on an issue, we will focus primarily on the group problem-solving process.

What is a problem?

So, what's a problem? How would you define one? We usually define a problem fairly negatively: a problem is a hassle, it's a pain in the neck. This is often true, but more generally, a problem can be considered the difference between what is, and what might or should be. And believe it or not, problems have their advantages, too. What are some of the good things about problems?

  • Most problems are solvable (or partially solvable, or at least improvable). We can do something about them. The task may seem overwhelming (it surely did when David fought Goliath, or when suffragettes worked to give women the right to vote), but it's not hopeless. Our optimistic assumption is that we can change the world.
  • Problems are opportunities to make some good things happen. If it weren't for problems, what would be our motivation to create change?
  • Problems are also challenges. They call upon the best of our abilities, and ask us to go beyond what we thought we could do. They make life interesting, and, at least sometimes, fun. Without problems, life could be pretty boring.

You don't agree? Think of all of the games based on problem solving. Chess is thousands of years old and is still as popular as ever, based on the number of books you might find on it at your local bookstore. The Rubik's Cube was a national rage some years back. True, the stakes may be very different between a chess game and finding a way to connect with local young people. But both can present a challenge that stretches us in the same ways.

With all this in mind, what is "problem solving?" A good definition can be found in Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. The authors define problem solving as "an individual or collaborative process composed of two different skills: (1) to analyze a situation accurately, and (2) to make a good decision based on that analysis."

Why is a group process particularly important?

Why are we focusing on a collaborative process in this chapter? Well, for several reasons. You probably already do a lot of individual problem solving, and there's a good deal of merit in that. But many of the problems and challenges we face as members of our organizations affect everyone in the group. It makes sense then, that everyone is part of the solution. And, as the saying goes, two heads are better than one - so just imagine what can be accomplished with a room full of dedicated people!

Now, let's change the emphasis for a moment. Why are we focusing on a collaborative process in this chapter? Maybe your group is used to doing things haphazardly on an as-absolutely-necessary basis. Why should you take more time (already a precious commodity among most groups) to go through a lengthy process?

  • Effective group processes enhance a group's ability to solve problems and make decisions. When working with more than just a couple of people, solving a problem with a set process becomes more manageable.
  • It increases the group's efficiency and productivity.
  • It increases the group's participation - more people tend to be involved, and, as a result,
  • It increases group satisfaction. This means, among other things, that the group is more likely to want to take on other problems. And when they do so, they'll be better placed to solve them.

What is the problem-solving process?

Like any other process, there are many different tasks that need to be done to properly solve problems. And again, like any other process, skipping some of the steps will make the job more difficult in the long run. Here is a brief explanation of each of the steps, to be discussed in more detail in the following sections:

  • Running effective meetings - Since your work will be in a group, the first thing you need to understand is how to hold a good meeting. You may have the problem-solving process down pat, but that won't make any difference if nobody shows up at your meeting, or if no one pays attention to what goes on.
  • Developing facilitation skills - Strong facilitation skills go hand in hand with running an effective meeting. A good facilitator helps diffuse explosive emotions, makes sure everyone's voice is heard, and steers the group towards the best decisions.
  • Developing recorder skills - Again, these skills are part of running an effective meeting. A good recorder works hand in hand with the facilitator, and together, they make sure that not only are everyone's opinions heard, they are also seen, remembered, and followed up on. Having a good recorder is one of the most important parts of setting up an effective meeting.
  • Defining and analyzing the problem - This is the core of the problem solving process. Sometimes, the real problem isn't originally apparent.
  • Generating and choosing solutions
  • Putting your solution into practice - If you have followed the process carefully, you'll be surprised at how easy implementing it actually is!

In Summary:

As we said before, the world is full of problems, and some of them look pretty challenging, to say the least. But the rewards are great. Solutions that are well thought out and carefully implemented can work. How much can you do?

Jenette Nagy
Catie Heaven

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., & Weiss, L. (1981). A handbook for consensus decision making: Building united judgement. Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution.

Dale, D., & Mitiguy, N. Planning, for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development.

Dashiell, K.A. (1990). Managing meetings for collaboration and consensus Honolulu, HI: Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu, Inc.

Interaction Associates, Inc. (1987). Facilitator institute handbook. San Francisco, CA: Author.

Lawson, L., Donant, F., & Lawson, J. (1982). Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Meacham, W. (1980). Human development training manual. Austin, TX: Human Development Training.

Morrison, E.(1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books.