Too many leaders choose the wrong tool for the problem at hand. Our infographic, “What’s Your Problem,” explains the four different types of problems leaders face. Once you’ve read it, you may be left thinking: OK, I know what kind of problem I have. What tool do I use?

In this post, we share over 100 tried-and-true problem-solving tools. These are effective and elegant methods that you can use to address the four types of problems.

Simple Problem-Solving Tools

SOP from UCLA.
SOP from UCLA.

Simple problems have easily seen cause and effect relationships. Your job is to assess the facts, categorize the facts, and then apply the appropriate best practice. These problem-solving tools have been around so long that they’re no longer used only by specialists and consultants. You can probably implement them easily.

  • Best Practices – Why reinvent the wheel when someone already knows how to make a perfectly good one? Best practices are techniques that, through research, have been proven to produce results. Not everyone likes best practices, by the way. For an interesting counterpoint, read “The Problem with Best Practices.”
  • Check Sheet – You might not think of this as a tool, but it’s a great one for simple problems. A check sheet collects data on frequency or patterns of events. For example, want to know why customers call? Use a check sheet to track the number of events having to do with technical assistance, product inquiries, and so on.
  • Policies – Policies make company guidelines explicit. They’re best for overarching, simple problems like “what is the company’s policy on working from home?”
  • Standard Operating Procedures – Standard Operating Procedures provide detailed, step-by-step instructions for how to complete specific tasks. The best SOPs are graphical, like the hand-washing procedure shown here.

Complicated Problem-Solving Tools

Sample RACI Matrix created by 24Point0.
Sample RACI Matrix created by 24Point0.

Complicated problems have cause and effect relationships that are harder to discern than those in simple problems. Your job is to assess the facts, analyze the facts, and then develop a solution that addresses the root cause.

  • Flowchart – Tasks falling through the cracks? People unsure what’s supposed to happen when? A flowchart is a graphic that makes the series of steps in a process clear. There’s a reason why flowcharts are so popular. They’re elegant and easy to understand.
  • Responsibility Charting – Work falling through the cracks? People pointing fingers? This model, shown to the right, helps people identify who takes which role (responsible, accountable, informed, or consulted) in relation to each neglected or conflicted task. (Check out our take on the Responsibility Chart, also known as the RACI Matrix, here.)
  • Root Cause Analysis – Root cause analysis gets talked about a lot. Yet few know how to do it properly. When done right, root cause analysis identifies the underlying causes of the problem. It helps problem solvers shift from addressing symptoms to creating real solutions. A doctor who didn’t do root cause analysis properly might respond to a patient complain about pain with a prescription for a pain killer. A doctor who did root cause analysis might notice that the pain is due to a fractured arm and reset the bone.
  • SWOT Analysis – A SWOT analysis examines the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats associated with a new initiative. Originally designed to support with strategic thinking, it can be used to assess any proposed strategy, product, process, or invention.

Other popular tools for complicated problems include Six Sigma and Performance Measurement. For a directory of 50+ tools, check out the American Society for Quality’s resource page.

Complex Problem-Solving Tools

Four scenarios from the NOSCC.
Four scenarios from the NOSCC.

Complex problems don’t have easy answers. In fact, they might have many answers. Your job is to build relationships, align people around the goal, experiment with different solutions, and learn from experience.

  • Agile Development – Once upon a time, organizations could develop software in one fell swoop. They’d define specs, build, and then release functionality all at once. Today, many organizations find their environments to be much more complex. Agile “helps teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences, known as sprints” ( Agile, and its companions, Scrum and Structured Agile Framework (SAFe), help organizations accommodate volatile environments during software development.
  • Ecosystem Mapping (PDF) – When faced with many options and courses of action, ecosystem mapping can help by creating a holistic picture of how an industry or system operates. Ecosystem mapping makes visible what is often difficult to see and identifies hidden opportunities within complex environments.
  • Scenario Planning – How well will a strategy perform if the economy thrives or if it stagnates? Scenario planning is a great way to explore different futures that may emerge and to test how well a strategy will work within those futures. The image to the right shows four scenarios developed for the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
  • Stakeholder Analysis – Stakeholder analysis identifies the players involved in a change effort and assesses their interest in and influence over the situation at hand. It helps leaders gain a clearer map of positions and people affecting the change process.
  • World Café – World Café is an energizing, collaborative process that brings together multiple stakeholders to discuss questions that matter. It’s best when there is no clear right answer and when people have many different perspectives and approaches to the issue.

Other popular tools for complex problems include Dialogue (PDF) and Mind Mapping. A fantastic resource for participatory problem-solving methods is the Liberating Structures’ menu, which lists 30+ activities that can help diverse groups come to shared solutions. Some of these activities also can be useful in chaotic environments.

Chaotic Problem-Solving Tools

Sense making illustration by Kelvy Bird.
Sense making illustration by Kelvy Bird.

Chaotic problems change so rapidly that they exhibit no stable patterns that can be managed. Your job is to respond in the moment, seek guidance from experts, spot patterns and seize opportunities, and help others share observations, learn, and take action.

  • Sense-Making – Sens- making is a practice of creating, testing, and refining mental maps to help navigate challenging situations.
  • Pattern Spotting – When pattern spotting, you observe activity and seek to match what’s happening into patterns. Some types of patterns have been named—for example, there are innovation patterns, ecosystem patterns, and archetypal patterns—but, in many cases, you’ll be working in a realm where there aren’t existing patterns. You’ll need to describe them and name them yourself.

Got a favorite tool to add to this list? Let us know!