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Nine Steps for Solving Any Problem
By Earl Nightingale

© 2012 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

What are the similarities in problem solving, decision making, and goal achievement?

Actually, they’re alike in many ways. A decision that must be made is little more than a problem awaiting a solution. We might even call it a simple problem. When we’re faced with a decision, we rarely have to choose between more than two or three alternatives, whereas, in solving a problem, we sometimes face what seems to be an endless list of possibilities. And, what about goal achievement? Isn’t a goal a point we wish to reach? The problem is to move from where we are now, to where we want to be. So, problem solving, decision making, and goal achievement are all closely related functions of creative thinking. It’s important that we keep this in mind.

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The first step in solving any problem is to define it. You should always be sure you understand a problem before you go to work on its solution.

Next, you should write down everything you know about the problem. This information might come from your own experience, from books that contain background and statistical data, from the Internet, or from friends and business associates who know something about the area in which the problem lies.

Third, decide whom to see. List the names of people and organizations that are recognized authorities on the problem. This is your opportunity to go “all out” for the facts. After determining who can help you, contact them, talk with them, and pick their brains for all the information they possess that can help you solve the problem.

After doing this, be sure to make a note of each thing that’s germane to the problem. Don’t risk forgetting anything that could help you find the solution.

The fifth step in solving a problem creatively is called “Individual Ideation.” This is personal “brainstorming,” or thinking with the brakes of judgment off! Don’t try to decide whether an idea is good or bad — just write it down the moment it comes to you. You can pick and choose — what you’re after is a lot of ideas.

Remember the four rules for brainstorming: (1) No negative thinking; (2) The wilder the ideas, the better; (3) A large number of ideas is essential; and (4) Combination and improvement of ideas is what you’re after.

One idea often leads to another, better idea. Don’t worry if some of your ideas seem far-fetched or impractical. You’re looking for all the ideas you can possibly find. Don’t reject any — write them all down!

Then “Group Brainstorm.” This is your opportunity to put the minds of others to work on the problem. Handle this session the same way you did your “Individual Ideation.” No negative thinking, no criticism at this stage; the wilder the ideas the better; get as many ideas as possible; and, try for idea combination and improvement. Write down all the ideas the group comes up with.

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When you have all your ideas written down, rate them for effectiveness and facility. The effectiveness scale ranges from “very effective” to “probably effective” to “doubtful.” And the facility scale ranges from “easy” to “not so easy” to “difficult.” The rating of ideas will clearly indicate the likely success of any possible solution. Of course, it’s best to consider first the idea or ideas that are rated both “very effective” and “easy.”


Suppose you’re a manufacturer. And suppose your sales and marketing team’s brainstorming comes up with some ideas to increase sales. Let’s say one of the ideas is to revamp completely one of the products that your company is offering to the public. Let’s rate this idea in terms of effectiveness. You know the present product meets a need and is acceptable to the buying public. What about an entirely changed product? Without a lot of marketing tests and then a period of actual manufacturing for sale, it would be hard to say just how effective this idea would be in increasing sales. Better rate it “doubtful.”

And how does this idea of completely revamping one of the products check out in the facility area — “easy,” “not so easy,” or “difficult”? It would be “difficult,” wouldn't it? It would require new engineering, new tools, new manufacturing plans, new packaging, and new marketing methods.

Suppose, however, that one of the salesperson’s ideas is to run TV advertisements for the company’s product on one of the major television networks. This would be “probably effective” and would be “not so easy,” but it could be done.

Let’s say another idea is to set up a new sales incentive program, a program directed to those people who are at the front of the problem, the salespeople. If it were a well-designed and well-implemented incentive program with predictable compensation for increased performance, it would stand a good chance of being “very effective.” It would be relatively “easy” to do. It should increase the company’s sales.

There are many other evaluation yardsticks you might use. Two more are time and money. Try rating your ideas against these measurements. For example, in the case of a manufacturer who wants to increase its sales, certainly to change the product would take a great deal of time and money. And to advertise it on a popular network television program would cost a great deal. On the other hand, to introduce a new sales incentive program might be neither too costly nor too time consuming.

Remember, when you evaluate your ideas, measure them against these four yardsticks: effectiveness, facility, time, and cost. Not every idea you have may be worth creative action, and that’s why you must skillfully evaluate each of them. But once you've carefully judged your ideas, take action.

Enter your ideas into an “Action Plan”: Decide who should do it, when it should be done, when to start, and how to do it. These are all important considerations because the execution of the solution is just as important as the solution itself.

Be certain to give yourself a deadline for putting your plan into action. We work hardest and most efficiently when we know there is a definite time element involved. So, make a note of the date when you must put your solution to work. It’s good to remember that timing is often critical when a new idea is introduced. Carefully calculate the deadline in the light of the general situation. You might write down a second date — the one by which you intend to have the action completed and the problem solved.

Remember what was said earlier about problem solving, decision making, and goal achievement? They have a great deal in common. They can all be attacked in much the same way.

For any problem — no matter how big or complex it may be — there is a solution. All you have to do is find it! History is filled with people who believed a problem did not have a solution, and they did not find it, and people who believed there was a solution, and they did find it — same problem, different perspective, one successful and one not. Which type of person will you be?

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Remember these steps for brainstorming your ideas:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Write down everything you know about the problem.
  3. Decide what people and resources to bring into the solution.
  4. Make a note of everything that is germane to the problem.
  5. Conduct a personal brainstorming Individual Ideation.
  6. Utilize Group Brainstorming and rate your ideas for effectiveness, facility, time, and cost.
  7. Evaluate your ideas for the best options.
  8. Create an "Action Plan."
  9. Give yourself a deadline for putting your plan into action.

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