7 steps to the optimal problem solution: Make the right and good decision with the checklist of the CIA agents


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For some office workers, working life seems to consist of nothing else: the solution of problems. The most important thing: just start somewhere. This works best with a checklist like a CIA agent.

7 steps for optimal problem solving: Make the right and good decision with the checklist of the CIA agents. 7 steps for optimal problem solving: Make the right and good decision with the checklist of the CIA agents


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Professor Dr. Martin-Niels Däfler Professor Dr. Martin-Niels DäflerProf. Dr. Martin-Niels Däfler teaches at the University of Economics and Management (FOM) in Frankfurt am Main.

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Step 1: Get to know what the task is

In fact, regardless of the specific task, the ability to identify and eliminate problems is a key skill.

Content is important!

Often it is not so obvious what the actual problem is. Many people make the mistake and react too fast - "Ah, that's the problem, let's do XY."

At first, pauses would be good. It is necessary to recognize the real problem. For example, your problem might be the decision between two employees for the project leader's position. At the core, however, this is not a question of personnel, but the question of how the project can be processed quickly, economically and successfully.

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The Five-Time-Why Method

A very helpful way to identify the actual problem is the "five-times-why-method." The Japanese Kaizen philosophy assumes that the cause of a problem can never be found out by asking yourself once.

Often it is - as just said - very different reasons that lead to problems, as one would assume at first. Experience has shown that you have to ask about five times why, until you get to the root cause of the problem.

And only then can you find lasting solutions. So ask like a toddler several times "Why?" - sometimes it only takes three questions, sometimes you'll have to ask six times.

Circular questions

Another way to capture problems is to ask "circular questions". This method actually comes from systemic psychotherapy and is often used to solve discussion blocks; but it can also help solve business problems. The principle is simple: Instead of asking yourself, "What is our problem?", You transfer yourself to other people.

For example, you are looking for answers to questions such as: "How would our customers present the problem?" Or: "What are we doing wrong in the eyes of the sales force?" This "multi-spectacle principle" changes the perspective and helps you to give new perspectives to a problem wrest.

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Step 2: Determine the value of the problem

You now know what the real problem is. Before you use your creative energy for analysis and solution, you should determine how the problem is to be classified. Only then can you determine the amount of time and effort you are willing to invest in the next steps.

To put it differently, you should not shoot cannons on sparrows. Problems that have a high strategic value deserve, of course, more attention than problems of a more short-term or operational nature.

Step 3: Analyze the problem

Considering that there are countless types of problems with countless variables, it is difficult to make general recommendations. My special tip is therefore: do it like CIA agents. Solve the problem using a question checklist.

It is the "Phoenix Checklist for problem identification". The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents from the United States Foreign Intelligence Agency use the following checklist to look at a problem from different angles.

Checklist with problem solving questions

The following questionnaire can also help you with a professional or economic problem. And best of all, it helps you to analyze almost every problem.

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  • Why is it necessary that we solve the problem?
  • What is the benefit of solving the problem?
  • What is known to us?
  • What do we not understand?
  • What information is available to us?
  • What is not the problem? Is the information sufficient? Are they insufficient? Are they redundant? Are they contradictory?
  • Can we describe the problem graphically? Can it be quantified?
  • Can the problem be broken down into sub-problems?
  • How are the subproblems related?
  • What are the variables that can be influenced by the problem?
  • Have we seen this problem before?
  • Have we seen a similar problem before?
  • Do we know any related problems?
  • Is there a known problem with the same unknown quantities?
  • If there is a related problem we have already solved, can we use the solution to our current problem? Can we apply the same methodology?
  • Can we reformulate our problem? How many different ways can we describe it? Can it be generalized or specified?

Step 4: Work out solution alternatives

If you have analyzed the problem and pointed out the alternative solutions, then the most difficult step is likely to come: you must make a decision and implement it. Also helps a systematic approach!

Now it's about lighting a fantasy fireworks. If you have some ideas, you should fix them in writing.

Describe central thoughts

Try to describe the central idea in a few words. For the further process, it is useful if you give the individual alternatives also meaningful short names, such as "savings option" or "Japanese solution".

When setting up alternative solutions, always include the "zero variant" as well: So think about what would happen if you did not do anything undertake.

Make a preselection

Managers are often forced to act, but overlook the fact that it may be a wise decision to do nothing. Mind you, this may or may not be the case.

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Before you decide for the further development of an idea, you should make a preselection. Use knock-out criteria: Which conditions must the solution in any case meet? So you already check at this point, if an idea would be suitable for the implementation.

Step 5: Choose an alternative

To solve complex problems, a simple decision matrix is ​​not enough, because it is assumed that all criteria are equally important. In the case of the evaluated decision matrix, on the other hand, you must additionally assign a weighting to the individual criteria. To do this, first create a decision matrix.

However, for each alternative you add two more columns in which you weight the individual criteria on a percentage basis. Criteria that are more significant receive a higher percentage than the less important ones. As you suspect, all weights must add up to 100 percent.

What is important to you?

To find out what the "normal" importance value is, you must divide 100 by the number of criteria; with four criteria, these would be 25. Criteria that are above average are thus given more than 25 percent weighting.

The value for each criterion is now calculated by multiplying the respective score by the weighting. Then add up again for each alternative all points. The evaluated decision matrix can produce entirely different results than with a simple, unweighted matrix.

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Alternatives probe with the CAF method

If you have further problems, you should not and should not just rely on your feelings. This is where the CAF method ("Consider all facts") helps, in which as many influencing factors as possible are used for a decision. The principle is banal: you list all the points that have something to do with your problem, such as:

  • the cost or the price / performance ratio,
  • the time required,
  • the effect on customers or
  • the acceptance by employees.

Which alternative is best suited?

You can then use this list to determine which of the alternative alternatives is best suited. The advantage of this method is that all decision-making factors can be seen at a glance, due to the written form.

When creating your criteria list, a factor should of course never be missing: the feasibility. After all, what is the best idea when it is difficult or difficult to implement it?

Step 6: Set up an action plan

Once you have made a decision, you are now ready to implement it. Depending on the complexity of the problem and the scope of the solution alternatives, you should now create an action plan.

Whether you call it the so-called project plan or the to-do list is not decisive, but rather the fact that you plan the individual tasks and steps of the problem solution in terms of time, money and personnel. So, determine who is doing what and when.

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Step 7: Check the results

Assuming that you are not only responsible for finding a solution, but also implementing it, perhaps the longest part of the mission, namely the continuous monitoring of work progress, may begin: if the actions defined in the Action Plan are actually completed in the defined time and quality ?

One last tip: ask yourself after completing the problem-solving process: what went well, what bad? What can I learn for the future? Has the effort paid off? Perfect your problem-solving skills by critically analyzing your work.


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  1. Eberhardt

    Making the right decisions is not always easy. Thank you for the great article.

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