In project management, problem-solving is a crucial and necessary skill. Whether you have failed to consider every possible factor impacting a project, a problem arises through no fault of your own, or conditions change that create issues, problems must be addressed promptly to keep projects on track.
In this article, we will define problem-solving and how it impacts projects, provide real-world examples of problem-solving, and give you a structured, step-by-step process to solve problems. We’ll also show you how earning a project management certification can help you gain practical experience in problem-solving methods.
What Is Problem-Solving?
Problem-solving is a process to identify roadblocks or defects that arise during a project. A structured system to define problems, identify root causes, brainstorm and test solutions, and monitor results can affect change to improve performance and overcome challenges.
Effective problem-solving enables teams to deal with uncertainties or gaps in planning to minimize the impact on outcomes.
The Importance of Problem-Solving in Project Management
During a project and operation, problems can arise at any time. You may find that your planning before launching a product, for example, did not consider all the factors that impact results. You may find that you were too optimistic about project timelines, performance, or workforce. Or, as many of us discovered over the past few years, supply chain disruption may make even the best project plans obsolete.
Regardless, your job is identifying, solving, and overcoming these problems. Project managers must be skilled in leading team members through a structured approach to resolving problems.
Proactive problem-solving requires careful consideration of all the variables in a project, including preparation to:
- Achieve project objectives
- Address obstacles before they arise
- Manage project risks and contingency plans
- Manage communication and collaboration
- Provide a framework for time and cost management
- Provide a pathway for continuous improvement
Problem-Solving Steps in Project Management
While the process you choose to solve problems may vary, here is a seven-step framework many project managers use. This problem-solving method combines primary and secondary problem-solving steps.
#1. Define the Problem
- Gather data and information from key stakeholders, team members, and project documentation. Include any relevant reporting or data analysis
- Itemized key details, such as a description of the problem, timelines, outcomes, and impact
- Frame the issue as a problem statement
A good example of a problem statement might be: An unexpected demand spike has exceeded our current production capacity. How can we still meet customer deadlines for delivery?
#2. Analyze Root Causes
- Break down issues into smaller components to diagnose bottlenecks or problems
- Identify the organizational, mechanical, environmental, or operational factors that contribute
- Distinguish between one-time issues vs. systematic, ongoing areas that need improvement
When analyzing root causes, it’s common to find multiple factors contributing to a problem. As such, it is essential to prioritize issues that have the most significant impact on outcomes.
#3. Brainstorm Potential Solutions
- Holding specific sessions focused on brainstorming ideas to resolve root causes
- Build on ideas or suggest combinations or iterations
- Categorize solutions by types, such as process or input changes, adding additional resources, outsourcing, etc.)
In brainstorming, you should refrain from immediately analyzing suggestions to keep ideas coming.
#4. Evaluate Potential Solutions
- Reframe the problem and concern for team members, providing a framework for evaluation such as cost, timing, and feasibility
- With ideas in hand, it is time to evaluate potential solutions. Project managers often employ strategies such as weighted scoring models to rank ideas.
- Consider the pros and cons in relation to project objectives
As you narrow the list, getting additional insight from subject matter experts to evaluate real-world viability is helpful. For example, if you are proposing a process change in operating a machine, get feedback from skilled operators before implementing changes.
#5. Decide on a Plan of Action
- Make a decision on which course of action you want to pursue and make sure the solution aligns with your organizational goals
- Create an action plan to implement the changes, including key milestones
- Assign project ownership, deadlines, resources, and budgets
Defining what outcomes you need to achieve to declare success is also essential. Are you looking for incremental change or significant improvements, and what timeline are you establishing for measurement?
#6. Implement the Action Plan
- Communicate the plan with key stakeholders
- Provide any training associated with the changes
- Allocate resources necessary for implementation
As part of the action plan, you will also want to detail the measures and monitoring you will put in place to assess process outcomes.
#7. Monitor and Track Results
- Track solution performance against the action plan and key milestones
- Solicit feedback from the project team on problem-solving effectiveness
- Ensure the solution resolves the root cause, creating the desired results without negatively impacting other areas of the operation
You should refine results or start the process over again to increase performance. For example, you may address the root cause but find a need for secondary problem-solving in project management, focusing on other factors.
These problem-solving steps are used repeatedly in lean management and Six Sigma strategies for continuous improvement.
Also Read: 5 Project Management Steps You Need to Know
How Project Management Tools Can Help You in Problem-Solving
Project management software can guide teams through problem-solving, acting as a central repository to provide visibility into the stages of a project.
The best project management software will include the following:
- Issue tracking to capture problems as they arise
- Chat and real-time collaboration for discussion and brainstorming
- Templates for analysis, such as fishbone diagrams
- Action plans, assigning tasks, ownership, and accountability
- Dashboards for updates to monitor solutions
- Reporting on open issues, mitigation, and resolution
Examples of Problem-Solving
Here are some examples of the problem-solving process demonstrating how team members can work through the process to achieve results.
Sign-ups for a New Software Solution Were Well Below First-Month Targets
After analyzing the data, a project team identifies the root cause as inefficient onboarding and account configurations. They then brainstorm solutions. Ideas include re-architecting the software, simplifying onboarding steps, improving the initial training and onboarding process, or applying additional resources to guide customers through the configuration process.
After weighing alternatives, the company invests in streamlining onboarding and developing software to automate configuration.
A Project Was at Risk of Missing a Hard Deadline Due to Supplier Delays
In this case, you already know the root cause: Your supplier cannot deliver the necessary components to complete the project on time. Brainstorming solutions include finding alternative sources for components, considering project redesigns to use different (available) components, negotiating price reductions with customers due to late delivery, or adjusting the scope to complete projects without this component.
After evaluating potential solutions, the project manager might negotiate rush delivery with the original vendor. While this might be more expensive, it enables the business to meet customer deadlines. At the same time, project schedules might be adjusted to account for later-than-expected part delivery.
A Construction Project Is Falling Behind Due to Inclement Weather
Despite months of planning, a major construction project has fallen behind schedule due to bad weather, preventing concrete and masonry work. The problem-solving team brainstorms the problem and evaluates solutions, such as constructing temporary protection from the elements, heating concrete to accelerate curing, and bringing on additional crews once the weather clears.
The project team might decide to focus on tasks not impacted by weather earlier in the process than expected to postpone exterior work until the weather clears.
Also Read: Understanding KPIs in Project Management
Improve Your Problem-Solving and Project Management Skills
This project management course delivered by Simpliearn, in collaboration wiht the University of Massachusetts, can boost your career journey as a project manager. This 24-week online bootcamp aligns with Project Management Institute (PMI) practices, the Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification, and IASSC-Lean Six Sigma.
This program teaches skills such as:
- Agile management
- Customer experience design
- Design thinking
- Digital transformation
- Lean Six Sigma Green Belt