What challenges does your library face? Problem solving techniques

In the last two weeks we’ve discussed the challenges that we face in our workplaces, and heard from a few members of our community about the challenges they’re currently wrestling with at work. In the opening post we talked about how sharing our challenges can help us realise how much we have in common. In this post we’ll be looking at ways to think about problems and challenges that help get to solutions.

One of the reasons we might want to talk about problem solving techniques in general, rather than specific problems, is that we will all face multiple problems throughout our careers. Having confidence in your ability to solve problems means that you’ll be adaptable and able to cope with changes in our professional environment. It is more powerful to feel that you can solve problems generally than to feel you can only solve one very specific kind of problem.

Feynman problem solving algorithm - it's not always that simple! Image from Duncan Hill, used under CC-BY.

Feynman problem solving algorithm – it’s not always that simple! Image from Duncan Hill, used under CC-BY.

Is that all?

According to this article on the MindTools website, there are just four steps to solving a problem:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Generate alternative solutions
  3. Evaluate and select solutions
  4. Implement solutions

That makes it sound so simple! But when we dive into those individual steps, things can get complicated.

Defining problems

Understanding the real nature of the problem you’re facing is key to finding effective solutions. Problems may have several interacting causes, and addressing just one of them may not be sufficient.

There are a number of techniques or ways to think about problems that can help understand them better. This article from the Rockefeller Foundation talks about how the Foundation identifies problems using a “problem space” framework.

Some questions to ask in this step include:

  • Why do you believe there is a problem?
  • What is the immediate impact of the problem?
  • Who is impacted by this problem? Is it a problem for staff, clients, managers?
  • Are there people who think this is not a problem?
  • What would it look like if this problem suddenly disappeared?

Generating solutions

Creative thinking can be very useful when trying to identify possible solutions to a problem. Using creative thinking techniques can help you think beyond the immediately obvious answers, and help bring new ideas into your workplace. The ILN hosted a discussion topic on creativity in libraries in one of our earlier rounds – have a look at the introduction post here and the following articles here.

Evaluating and selecting solutions

At the ILN we sometimes use a technique we think of as “pathway scenarios”. We consider different options and imagine what the situation would look like six or twelve months later if we implemented those solutions. This helps us identify the longer term impact of our decisions, and sometimes makes the right choice clear.

Here are some more decision making techniques for your consideration. 

Implementing solutions

It’s one thing to think of great solutions; it’s quite another to be able to implement them in an effective and sustainable way. Project management skills are useful here, as they enable us to identify the resources, timelines and steps required to implement the solution and ensure that implementation stays on track. Many educational institutions and professional associations offer training in project management skills, and these skills are useful regardless of whether you are a formal project manager.

There’s one final step to implementation that is often overlooked, which is evaluation. In order to build your skills, it’s important to reflect on the effectiveness of your work. This could be a formal evaluation conducted across your organisation, or just a moment of reflection, asking yourself whether the solution really fixed the problem, what worked well, and what could have been improved.

Now what?

Think about the problems you’ve discussed with your partner over the last two weeks. Could this framework help in solving those problems? What about problems you’ve already solved – did you use elements of this framework? Or did you use different techniques? What was effective?

We’d love to hear about your experiences. Join in the wider conversation here in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook using #interlibnet.

-Alyson Dalby, ILN Director


Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2016B and tagged , , , , , .

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