Project Management Institute

A Journey to Solutions

How Project Professionals Can Lead Their Teams through Problem-Solving

By Leigh Espy, PMP



Having the right information at the right time can make or break a project's success. But it's a mistake for project managers to assume this means that they have to have all of the answers at the ready, for any questions their team may have.

Instead, they should know how to help their teams find those answers as questions arise. Building that capability helps build stronger and more independent teams, and can help ensure the project manager isn't stretched so thin by chasing down answers that they're not able to focus on the project's bigger picture.

One way to cultivate this skill in team members is to lead them through problem-solving processes. I like to set expectations with my team from the start by telling them they should feel empowered to search for answers when they hit a stumbling block and that strengthening this skill is an ongoing and collaborative process. Then, I walk them through the following steps:

1. Drill down to identify the actual problem. Use tools like the “five whys”—in which you ask what the problem is and then “why” five times, as the answers get more specific each time—to better understand the root cause. Searching for a solution to the most superficial stumbling block will likely yield only superficial fixes—while the real issue continues to impede or slow project progress. Encourage the team to dig deep in their search for the true issue.

2. Analyze. Once you're focused on the right problem, look for all the problem's contributing factors. I like to use the Ishikawa Fishbone diagram, a cause-and-effect chart that helps teams break down a problem into its components. It's an intuitive and effective tool, and I've found that most teams get the hang of mapping it out on their own quite quickly.

3. Choose. Now that you've analyzed the problem and understand contributing factors, identify the areas to address first. Your team likely can't address all elements of a problem at once, so they need to prioritize solutions in ways that will give the project the best ROI of energy and time.

4. Implement. If the change is something that only involves the project team, implementing it should be straightforward enough. If it's a change that requires buy-in from another department or stakeholder group, though, draft a plan on how to communicate both why the change is needed and how it will be implemented. This doesn't have to be a time-intensive step, but it is a crucial one.

5. Evaluate. After a predetermined amount of time, assess how well the change has worked. Identify ahead of time which metrics you'll use to determine whether the approach is working and what success looks like. It's also worthwhile at this stage to assess whether there are any new issues or challenges that the change has inadvertently created, which will need to be addressed.

For a simple example of this in practice, let's say an IT project team notices a significant uptick in the number of help tickets being submitted. The team would first drill down to figure out what the root issue is that's causing the increase. In this case, it learns that a large number of the help tickets are related to a new software solution the team had recently rolled out. Next, it would gather data from those tickets and analyze the specific problems users are experiencing. That step might yield the discovery that many of the tickets point to training-related issues. The team could then map out which areas of the training seem to generate the most confusion and decide to create online aids focusing on those areas. The online aids would be rolled out to users of the new software solution, along with a clear explanation of why the aids were created and what problem they're intended to solve. In evaluating the results after a set period of time (say, one and three months), the team would likely find that the number of help tickets related to this area fell.

Helping your team develop its problem-solving skills means you're better able to lead project teams capable of finding solutions to challenges, no matter the size. You'll increase the value you're providing to your organization and develop a skill you can use even as you grow in your career. It's a win for your team, your customers and you. PM

img Leigh Espy, PMP, is project/process adviser at FedEx Services, Memphis, Tennessee, USA and the author of Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effective, Focused, and Produce Results.
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