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Soft Skills for Safety - Solving Open-ended Problems

Posted by Matt Segal on Sep 16, 2019 2:28:15 PM

To help you hone your craft, we’re writing a series of articles each highlighting a different soft skill. Today’s topic is solving open-ended problems with the four-step process below:

  1. Define your goal
  2. Establish your parameters
  3. Identify your resources
  4. Make an informed decision

The core of this strategy revolves around working backwards to solve an open-ended problem so that you always have a reason for the decisions you’re making.

Let’s dive in.

What is an open-ended problem?

An open-ended problem is a problem where the solution or path to the solution is unclear. Unlike closed-ended problems, which have only one solution, open-ended problems have many possible solutions.

That makes solving open-ended problems much more difficult. Before you can make a decision, you’ll need to consider many different approaches and weigh the pros and cons of each one.

When it comes to your career, solving open-ended problems is an essential skill, and one that will solve you in many personal situations as well. Below, we’ll outline one solid strategy that you can employ the next time you feel like you need to produce a great result.

How to solve open-ended problems

Imagine your boss storms into your office on Monday morning and tells you she’s unhappy with your organization’s lab inspection performance. You have too many labs that have not been inspected recently, too many outstanding unresolved corrective actions, and you needed to fix it yesterday. She leaves in a huff.

Now what?

Depending on your temperament, you might want to immediately spring into action. And while it’s good to be decisive, if you act without considering all your options, you run the risk of making a poor decision.

On the other hand, you might be the type of person who likes to analyze every possible scenario before making a decision. Again, that’s helpful in some situations, but you might end up analyzing the problem for so long that you’re unable to act at all (we’ll get more into Analysis Paralysis later in the article).

Fortunately, there is a middle ground that will enable you to solve problems without overanalyzing or jumping the gun. It follows these four steps:

  1. Define your goal
  2. Establish your parameters
  3. Identify your resources
  4. Make an informed decision

As we mentioned above, the core of this strategy revolves around working backwards to solve an open-ended problem so that you always have a reason for the decisions you’re making. In the chaos inherent in the research environment, it's critical to have a strong compass to guide you.

If you ever find yourself feeling like you don’t have a reason for making a decision, it’s a great signal that there’s more work to be done somewhere earlier in the process.

1. Define your goal

Before you begin evaluating solutions, it’s important to articulate what you want to accomplish. Without a clearly defined goal, your problem-solving efforts will lack direction. That makes it easy to get off track or make an unsatisfactory choice. When you know what your desired end result looks like, it’s much easier to focus your time and resources.

Defining your end result is especially important if you’re trying to solve a problem that involves other stakeholders (like your boss). Make sure you're actively listening to the other person so that you understand the final outcome they want. Otherwise, you run the risk of choosing a solution that solves the problem as you understood it, but doesn’t meet the criteria the other person expected.

Once you have your goal, write it out clearly. Writing down your goal is important because it gives you something to refer back to as you’re making decisions. Also, by putting in writing what you want to accomplish, it forces you to get specific about your desired outcome.

When you write down your goal, add a few notes about why it’s the goal. These details can be invaluable later on in the process when you’re trying to decide why to choose one line of action over another.

What are the must haves for your solution to be successful? What are the things that, if you don’t hit on, will mean failure? Write these out as well, and then pause for a moment. Is this everything? Are there some things on the list that are more of a “nice to have” than a “must have”?

Sometimes, an attempt to unearth a complex solution gets bogged down trying to satisfy a bunch of results that, at the end of the day, aren’t actually mission critical.

2. Establish your parameters

At this point, you may recognize that there are dozens of possible solutions.

Good news: this is where we’re about to narrow things down a whole lot more. Establishing your parameters can help you shrink your list from 20 options to only a handful.

What are your limitations? What are the things you have to work around? At this stage, you should be thinking about what you don’t have more than what you do. When you understand what’s limiting you, it makes it easier to understand which resources you have that are truly valuable, and how you can apply them in the most efficacious way.

If your goal is to increase your organization’s inspection performance, you’d need to consider the number of inspectors you have available, the time frames you have to work within, the funding you’ve been given, and the ways you can approach the task.

Many people view limitations as a negative. However, constraints can be quite helpful when solving open-ended problems, as they free you up to focus only on tenable solutions. There’s a great saying to describe this seeming paradox: “Restriction breeds creativity.”

Perhaps when considering how to improve your inspections, you realize you’ve only got 3 months to produce results, or that ⅓ of your inspection team is going to be on vacation for a chunk of time in the next few months, or that you have a giant project coming soon that’s going to absorb a large amount of your bandwidth. These are all useful realizations, because they help you do a better job of what’s important, instead of getting distracted by nonessentials.

3. Identify your resources

Now that you know your limitations, what resources do you have available?

Resources most often include people, funds, equipment, information, and time. Maybe a resource is that you have a high-quality Single Source of Truth you can rely on for information. Sometimes, thinking about your resources helps you realize that you may have forgotten an important parameter – that’s great! Just go back, add it, and see if that provides more clarity for you.

Remember that some resources may only be available at certain times. It’s critical to understand these conditions before you embark on a solution.

For example, let’s say you have two full time inspectors available until next quarter, an available budget of $10,000, or an active researcher safety group you can leverage to help you out. Knowing that these resources are available lets you craft your plan to maximize the effect you can extract from them.

4. Make an informed decision (and avoid analysis paralysis)

After you’ve defined your goal, established your parameters, and identified your resources, you’re left with a handful of possible solutions. Now the time has come to put pen to paper and develop a plan. How do you decide what to do?

The beauty of this methodology is that by the time you reach this step, your path should be reasonably clear. You’ve laid out your goals, restrictions, and resources in such a way that your viable courses of action are limited, and thus easier to choose from.

When they don’t employ a methodology like this, the decision steps are where people most often get stuck. They spend so much time analyzing and overthinking each option that they’re unable to make a decision – a phenomenon known to psychologists as analysis paralysis.

You’ve probably encountered analysis paralysis when you’re at the drugstore staring at 130 different tubes of toothpaste. Or when you’re ordering off a menu with lots of different (and hopefully delicious) dishes.

Research shows that when faced with too many choices, people are less likely to make a choice at all – and if they do, they’re typically less satisfied with their selection.

Fortunately, there are a few steps that can help you avoid analysis paralysis.

First, make sure you’ve gathered enough information. Often analysis paralysis happens because you simply don’t know enough to solve the problem. Instead of banging your head on your desk, step back and re-evaluate. Is there anything you might have missed?

Second, it may truly be the case be that you are simply left with two equally good options. In that situation, the best decision is… any decision! When all else is equal, list out the pros and cons, run your thoughts by a colleague you trust to make sure your thinking is clear, and then make a choice. Part of being a leader is making (and owning!) decisions like these.

Third, if you’re well and truly stuck, stop and take a deep breath. Step away for a bit. This may be a sign that you missed something important earlier.

  • Reexamine your goals – it could be that you didn’t fully understand how your boss was describing the results she wanted.
  • Look over your parameters – there might be a restriction in place that would easily strike out one of these seemingly equivalent options.
  • Review your resources – is there anything you’ve missed? Do you have time, people, money, equipment, technology, mentors, or anything else you could draw from?

The hard truth

There isn’t always a solution.

At least, not one with the goals, parameters, and resources you’re working with. If the goals you’re working towards are truly critically important, this is the time to go back to your boss, outline your thinking, and clearly illustrate why you need the goals to change, restrictions to be lifted, or additional resources to be provided.

Your takeaway

Solving open-ended problems isn’t always easy, but following this four-step process can make it much more approachable. And remember, be patient – problem solving is a process, and it’s OK not to have an immediate solution.

To recap:

  • Write down the end goal. Putting it in writing helps you process the problem and think more critically about the solution.
  • Establish your limitations up front. Don’t waste time exploring solutions that won’t work.
  • Take stock of your resources. Poor resource planning can leave you and your team feeling overwhelmed.
  • Avoid analysis paralysis. If you’ve followed the steps above, you’ll be in a much better position to choose a satisfactory solution.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back and reassess. You may be unable to find a solution because, based on the circumstances, there is no solution.

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