A man sits at a table in front of an open laptop with a thoughtful look on his face. The man is wearing a chambray shirt and has a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard. An open book sits next to the laptop on the table, and shelves of books stand behind the man.
There are many methodologies related to problem-solving. If you find that one isn't helping, try another and see if adjusting your way of thinking presents a solution. — Getty Images/10'000 Hours

Small business owners face problems of all shapes and sizes during the course of the workday. Whether it’s resolving a customer service issue or managing inventory, problem-solving is a critical skill for most merchants. And, fortunately, it’s a skill that you can hone with practice and the right approach. Try these problem-solving techniques to run your business smoothly.

Creative or rational problem-solving?

There are two approaches to problem-solving: rational and creative. A rational approach is one that is relatively basic. At a high level, it involves defining the problem, brainstorming potential solutions, making a decision, and taking action.

Creative problem-solving is a process created by Sidney Parnes and Alex Faickney Osborn. This approach embraces generating lots of creative ideas in a brainstorm-style session, restating problems as questions, and being as open-minded as possible when coming up with potential solutions.

Neither approach is better than the other. But, if you’ve tried to solve a problem rationally and hit a wall, mixing it up with a creative approach can be helpful.

Try different methodologies

There are frameworks and tools that can help you break down a problem into smaller parts and identify possible solutions. One option is the Kipling Method, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “I Keep Six Honest Serving Men.” With this method, you ask these questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is the problem important?
  • When did the problem arise, and when does it need to be solved?
  • How did the problem happen?
  • Where is the problem occurring?
  • Who does the problem affect?

Other possible options to help guide your problem-solving are the Simplex Process, the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FEMA), Hurson’s Productive Thinking Model, and the 5 Whys.

Work collaboratively

Getting input from others on your team can shift your perspective and help you see the problem in a new light. But don’t wait until you’re stuck to ask for other people’s advice. Brainstorming sessions can help you solve a problem and motivate your team to be engaged at work.

If you find yourself getting stuck, try to recalibrate and put yourself in a more creative mindset to see the issue from a different angle.

“Brainstorming should include a diverse group of stakeholders: people who are affected by the problem and/or may be affected by any changes made in an attempt to solve it. Seek continuous feedback from these stakeholders as you monitor the implementation of your solution to make sure it works well for everyone,” wrote Indeed.

[Read more: 5 Suggestions to Make Your Next Brainstorming Meeting Successful]

Break down barriers to productive thinking

Psychologists have identified a few barriers that can prevent you from thinking through a problem productively. For instance, entrenchment can cause you to mentally fixate on a solution that has worked for you in the past but has no bearing on the current issue. Another cognitive bias is known as “functional fixedness” — basically, being unable to think outside the box.

“For example, say you need to cut a piece of paper in half but only have a ruler,” wrote Wrike. “Functional fixedness would lead you to think the ruler is only good for measuring things. (You could also use the ruler to crease the paper, making it easier to tear it in half.)”

If you find yourself getting stuck, try to recalibrate and put yourself in a more creative mindset to see the issue from a different angle. Drawing the problem is one way to get yourself out of a mental trap.

Take a ‘dragonfly eye view’

Dragonflies are able to see wavelengths of light not visible to the human eye. It’s a helpful analogy for being able to take a high-level view of the problem you are trying to solve.

As McKinsey describes, “The idea of a dragonfly eye taking in 360 degrees of perception is an attribute of ‘super forecasters’—people, often without domain expertise, who are the best at forecasting events. Think of this as widening the aperture on a problem or viewing it through multiple lenses.”

Understanding the problem in a greater context can help you find the best path forward. Return to your business values and mission statement, your growth goals, and your customer promise to make a decision that aligns with your bigger picture.

Sleep on it

When you sleep, your brain is turning the day's events into memories and processes things on a subconscious level. Sleep plays an important role in our ability to make decisions and see things more clearly. A good night’s rest can help you think through things more creatively and recharge so you can tackle the next challenge.

[Read more: CO— Exclusives: Insider Strategies]

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