Insights for providing solutions to complex problems

Black board showing complex geometry

What is a solution provider versus a problem solver? A problem solver addresses a specific problem or issue. A solution provider asks a lot more questions to get to the root cause and may uncover several other problems on the way to providing a solution that is much broader in scope than first intended. The solution provider works to address the initial problem, but typically adds more value by helping find solutions beyond the initial scope of the assignment.


Interest based solutions


An interest-based solution is a solution that clearly defines the problem and then takes steps to consider all stakeholders upstream and downstream. By approaching complex problems systematically and obtaining both data and human feedback it is possible to consider a wide range of concerns to develop an optimal solution. Keys are staying focused on the problem and truly listening after correctly defining the problem.

All too often the problem is defined to narrowly and only considers immediate concerns without considering who else may be impacted in some way. That is why it is so important to pause before initiating the process to make sure the problem is defined properly. Similarly, often a solution is proposed at the very beginning. In instances like this it is quite possible that the problem is defined to fit the proposed solution. This may be acceptable with simple problems. However, with complex problems, that usually is not the case.

From The Collaboration Effect text here are ten steps to an interest-based solution.

  1. Define the problem or issue and take on only one problem or issue at a time
  2. Listen to understand the emotion and facts associated with the issue
  3. Identify and clarify interests
  4. Generate options
  5. Determine the impacts of options considering economic, social, and environmental impacts
  6. Evaluate the impacts of the options considering economic, social, and environmental impacts
  7. Select a solution
  8. Consider implementing the solution or return to an earlier step based on what you have learned.
  9. Consider testing the solution before implementing the solution
  10. Consider BATNA and WATNA: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) and the Worst Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement if no solution can be found

Now let us return to defining the problem, since we can see a system that can be applied to a complex problem.


Defining the problem


Initially you may know, or you may think you know the root cause of the problem If you think you do, you are suggested to pause and dig deeper. In an article by Creately the authors take a deeper dive into defining the root cause. The author suggests this may take several hours and offers a few techniques for consideration. This is likely to be a collaborative effort with the relevant participants and experts all contributing to this analysis. It is suggested that you:

  1. Define the problem and gather data with a concise definition of the problem
  2. Determine the factors that caused the problem
  3. Identify the root cause
  4. Decide on corrective actions
  5. Review and evaluate

Some tools are suggested. On step 2 above consider the five whys or a fishbone diagram. Other tools offered include a Pareto chart, a scatter diagram, and a fault tree analysis. These are possible tools to help you.

However, the human element is often key. That is why communication and listening are so important when analyzing systems. Do not blame others or yourself. Stay focused on the problem. However, what if the problem is another person? There will be times when you do not agree completely with someone else. The next section offers you some ideas.


What if the problem is a person?


In a recent article in Forbes this question was asked relative to partners in a business. The article suggests fifteen tips to realign and resolve conflicts. They are summarized here for your consideration.

  1. Communicate respectfully
  2. Remove the emotional component
  3. Establish the facts
  4. Find common ground
  5. Set the foundation
  6. Have an active listening session
  7. Release tension and have fun
  8. Focus on interests
  9. Follow a conflict resolution process
  10. Change your environment
  11. Talk to a third party
  12. Write down your thoughts
  13. Find the root cause
  14. Be timely
  15. Take a step back

Did you notice that whether the issue is a system issue or a personal issue both authors recommend that you need to take the time to determine the root cause, communicate effectively and listen respectfully. There are techniques you can apply if there is conflict in the workplace or if the situation makes you uncomfortable.  These techniques can help you collaborate better with others. Exploring the commentary in each of the above sections and having conducted over 2,500 mediations, negotiations, and facilitations, I want to offer some insights from mediation training that you may find useful.




In mediation the mediator builds trust up front with both parties. You may want to focus on building trust, team building, and connecting with the others involved in your situation. What can you do to build trust and bond with the parties involved? Define the facts together. Note that you may have vastly different perspectives of the facts. Actively listen by

  1. Paraphrasing
  2. Asking open ended questions
  3. Summarizing
  4. Suspending judgment
  5. Empathizing
  6. Do not offer advice

Once you have determined the facts, work with the others to define the issues. Listen with empathy to understand the emotion around the issues. Where are you and where are they coming from and why? Then you can begin to uncover interests. Interests lead to solutions. That is where you want to end up. Build bridges to negotiate closure and collaborate with others to find a workable solution going forward.

Hopefully, the ideas presented here will provide you with some insights for how you can work with others to provide solutions to complex problems. I welcome your thoughts and ideas. Please share with me what you have found worked or did not work so we can learn together.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]