Beating Problems At Their Own Game

by Valarie Chavis

The Ladder of Problem Solving makes evident the dynamic nature of problems and the progressive thinking needed to plan ahead of them. There are six rungs on this cognitive ladder from problem identification to effective resolution.

RUNG #1 – DETECTION is sensing a change or awareness that the environment is different; people and situations are different and strange things are occurring. It is the level of sensitivity one has for noticing slight shifts in occurrences, changes in routines, unusual or unexplainable events. Detecting problems can begin in one moment of wonder, with a flash of doubt or at any point of indecision. Problem detection or sensing an opportunity for involvement is the first point of engagement. It is intuition.

Challenge: We solve only what we see. So, even upon notice and receiving new information we reject it or deny its existence. We surmise that if it were a problem someone else would already be working on it.

Goal: Detect problems sooner and take action at the point of origin

RUNG #2 – INCLINATION to act is necessary. The reactions to a detected problem may include avoidance, deferral, denial or paralysis. Inclination refers to the level of desire one has to get involved. It is the motivation that drives one to make a difference, to move past acceptance and to affect change. While some jump in for fear of reprisal, others for the sake of honor, some only step up to be noticed. At a minimum there must be a willingness to try.

Challenge: People are more likely to avoid acting not because of motivation or desire but because of mixed signals, unclear goals, undefined roles, conflicting priorities or unnecessary barriers.

Goals: Reduce approach avoidance by building confidence and providing proper incentives. Improve the motivation to address problems as they emerge before they take root.

RUNG #3 – CAPABILITY is the experience, knowledge, and ability one uses to identify the best responses and then act on them. Technical skills and content knowledge are developed and most effective in predictable stable environments. The employee is able to rely on habit, routine, and recall. In new situations a person searches their memory for the experiences and knowledge that apply to the situation at hand. They must be able to search for new answers that expands their span of control and to develop the confidence needed to act on new problems as they arise.

Challenge: Prior successful experience using one approach results in a reluctance to investigate alternatives. Even when people have the requisite technical skills they don’t know how to apply to the specific situation. Reliance on existing knowledge becomes a barrier to addressing new situations. When facing new situations there is a tendency to screen out, reject, and rely only on previous learning. That selective filtering diminishes the ability to detect shifts soon enough and the variations between them to be effective.

Goal: Increase span of control and ability to identify and address problems effectively to retard their growth. Improve the ability to apply technical knowledge, experience and to identify the root cause of problems and accept that more is within their control.


Skilled purposeful questioning used to uncover the unknown; what information is needed, and what more can be done. Inquiry begins with what is already known and uses questions skillfully to gather more information; analyze problems from multiple perspectives, examine underlying issues, predict consequences, explore assumptions and consider alternative explanations. Inquiry is needed to isolate the most important issues, separate opinion from fact and connect previous experiences to new ones.

Challenge: Eagerness to solve a problem before the problem is properly defined. There is a tendency to ask low-level questions of confirmation and not enough high level questions for exploration. Asking questions to prove what is rather than finding out what is not and why? Leaning too much on what is believed and not challenging those beliefs or revealing the unknown.

Goal: Increase level of intellectual curiosity, reflection and insight needed to predict the nature and growth of problems. Ask high level, high productivity questions until links become apparent and hidden opportunities are revealed. Develop greater understanding, make more connections, identify patterns, and trends.


A skilled response is thinking turned to action in uncertain and unpredictable environments. It is the situation recognition, focus and accurate performance without prompting or hesitation. Start at the beginning. Examine the problem from all sides, isolate the issues and identify the gap that needs to be closed. The focus is on goal formation and devising a manner for tracking and measuring output. To get there requires sorting, analyzing and synthesis of all information received. The response produces the best options and many alternative paths that will lead to the goal.

Challenge: The tendency to select the most obvious but incorrect solution to the problem. The failure to consider probabilities and consequences before taking action produces alternative pathways with no consideration for costs or trade-offs; to jump to solutions without thought of how they will impact the goals.

Goal: Begin with the end in mind creating the highest set of viable options that will slow the growth and speed the disposition of the problem.


Goal focused plans direct the energy, resources, time, and effort toward value-added results. Directed results are the evidence of sound judgment and reasoned decision making. They require collaboration and effective communication to influence outcomes and negotiate obstacles in real time. Directed results include selecting the paths, the options and the alternates with the highest probability of success. It means weighing the possible gains against the projected costs. Start with measures that matter and work toward them. Execute on the plans with an expectation that challenges and sub-problems will emerge. Results are expressed in measures of money, cost, time, and quality not merely in the completion of tasks.

Challenge: Getting trapped in the tasks and losing focus of the goal. Getting stuck on what worked before. Changing the plan too quickly or not recognizing when a new plan is needed before cost rise, time elapses, or resources are compromised.

Goal: Start with measures that matter and dispose of the problem in the most effective way to deliver the highest rate of return. Solve the problem in a way that produces fewer unintended consequences.

About the author

Valarie is a Performance Improvement Strategist passionate about learning and improving performance in organizations. She’s a writer, presenter, and executive coach on a mission to get every employee and organization focused on and thinking about the SIX business driving goals that matter.

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Contact Valarie Chavis at [email protected]