How to Solve A Problem in 5 Minutes


“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — Albert Einstein

If it’s good enough for Einstein…

Perhaps we should all start solving problems more quickly. Think about it: no more long, drawn-out meetings or projects blocked because someone further up the chain hasn’t got round to making a decision just yet.

Slow decision-making is the enemy of innovation. You want your new product to be fast to market. That means solving problems along the way, but solving them quickly so your product life cycle isn’t held up.

Quickly, But Not Too Quickly

However, innovation also relies on the deep, creative thinking that you can’t do in a few minutes. It involves getting a full understanding of the problem, talking to customers, testing out different options and working as a team to refine a creative idea through to a marketable endpoint. There’s a management overhead to that too: we should support our team’s creativity (find out why here). It all takes time.

When you’re too focused on firing off an email to unblock a problem in the project team, you’re not giving the issue the depth of understanding it most likely needs. This is a particular problem in companies where managers and project teams are valued for their decisive action and quick results, rather than their contemplation and thought leadership when faced with sticky problems.

So Can You Solve Problems Fast?

As anyone who has ever sat in a brainstorming session knows, when there are no parameters, the boundaries for creative thinking are never-ending. That might be appropriate for some business problems.

On the other hand, there are many times on a project where you don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to deep dive into all the criteria – and, more importantly, there is no business risk of doing that.

You can solve problems quickly and to do so you have to provide a framework.

First, identify what is significant. Pinpoint the big things about this problem. You could call this the brainstorming step, but don’t turn it into a two-hour workshop with lots of sticky notes. You have already established that this problem is something that you can solve quickly with no business risk and want to solve quickly.

Limit your brainstorming time. Give people three sticky notes instead of a pad. Ignore the advice that says “anything goes” and facilitate the discussion around practical points of significance, not blue sky solutions. You’re looking for a picture frame around your problem, not the whole gallery.

Second, identify what you don’t know and need to know. Involve your team in this. Look for your blind spots; the pieces of information that would help shape a better decision, if only you knew them. It doesn’t take long to work out which pieces of the puzzle are missing with the right people in the room.

Third, gather your facts. Now you know what data is crucial for making the right decision, send out your team members to track it down. Get all the facts together so you can see the complete picture. This is an important part of the puzzle because it requires you to assimilate potentially large data sets, look for patterns and identify trends.

Finally, prioritize what is important. From everything you have on the table, work out what is most important. This could be customer satisfaction, quality, speed, brand reputation or anything else that is top of the tree when it comes to making your final decision. This information, in conjunction with the relevant data, will help you identify the best solution.

Now For The Crucial 5 Minutes

When you’ve spent 55 minutes on this activity, you should be far better placed to identify the solution in 5 minutes.

In fact, you might already know it. The thinking time and research that you’ve done with your team to this point will have highlighted some potential scenarios and solutions. You’ve been creative within your structured decision-making framework and you’ve gathered all the evidence you need to come to the right conclusions.

I bet if you asked someone in your team to make the decision right now they could, without any further input. And they’d probably have come to the same conclusion as you.

Use your five minutes like Einstein: reflect on everything you know about the problem and let your brain bring the right solution forward. You might not even need the whole five minutes.

Make More Time For Thinking

This approach to solving problems quickly only works because of the time you’ve invested upfront in understanding the issue. Within an hour you can take an issue from a disaster for the project to something that is already resolved. To do so, you need to have built-in that hour, with the golden five minutes in the end. Managers and team leaders who are struggling to get everything done may feel as if they can’t afford the luxury of that thinking time.

If that sounds like you, one of two things will happen:

  1. You make a snap decision without understanding the context and facts and risk getting it wrong.
  2. You put off making the decision until “you have more time” and hold everyone else up with your inaction.

The best way to make more time for thinking is to get organized and stay organized. Arm yourself with the project management tools, technology and checklists to streamline your processes (Jennifer Bridges, PMP, shares a good checklist for project initiation in this video to get you started). The more you are comfortable delegating and empowering your team, the more you’ll find they don’t constantly come to you with questions, giving you more time for the value-added work on the project.

Build thinking time into your day and your personal work habits, even if it’s just an early cup of coffee before your day really starts to collect your thoughts and run over the big challenges facing your team right now. In the longer term, you’ll benefit from being able to make those decisions faster.

An easy decision is to use ProjectManager for your project planning, management and tracking. It’s fast to set up and it will keep all your project information in one place: perfect for when you need to find something quickly to unblock your team.

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