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Problem-solving for Project Managers

By: Hajime Estanislao, PMP, CSM

Are you a project manager facing the relentless pressures of deadlines, unforeseen issues, and changing project scopes? 

Imagine possessing skills that transform every challenge into an opportunity, enabling you to manage and lead projects efficiently. A problem-solving strategy is your most powerful tool, and it will help define how a project manager supports and leads the way in removing roadblocks.

With the strategy Project Pathfinder, you will learn to navigate through historical data, anticipate pitfalls in business strategy, and act proactively to provide support to business leaders in their data-driven decisions. You will gain the ability to inspire confidence in your team, enhance data-driven decision-making, and significantly boost project quality and efficiency. Embrace the techniques that will let you adapt flexibly to new challenges and continuously evolve your approach based on real-world feedback.

Ready to elevate your project management and problem-solving skills to new heights? Dive into this article on mastering problem-solving techniques tailored for project success. Equip yourself with the knowledge to solve project-related issues and lead in the field of project management. 

"Hand writing 'Problem Solving' in bold red letters on a white background with related motivational words like 'strategy', 'motivation', and 'achievement'."

What is Problem Solving?

Problem-solving is about identifying a challenge or obstacle and developing methods to address or overcome it. It involves understanding the problem, measuring and analyzing data, brainstorming potential solutions, evaluating and selecting the best option, and implementing the solution. Effective problem-solving requires analytical thinking, creativity, and practical data-driven decision-making skills. It is a fundamental activity in all aspects of life and business, as it drives individuals and organizations to achieve goals, overcome barriers, and innovate for future success. In essence, problem-solving enables us to navigate customer data and turn challenges into opportunities for improvement and growth.

Reasons You Need to Know Problem-Solving as a Project Manager

As one might expect, problem-solving skills are a job requirement for project managers. The reason is that dynamic projects involve constant changes, unexpected obstacles, and tight deadlines. Being adept at problem-solving equips you to handle these uncertainties efficiently and ensures that your projects stay on track toward their objectives.

Anticipating and Mitigating Risks

Identifying potential risks early and devising strategies to mitigate them is essential for the smooth execution of any project. By having a data-driven culture within project teams, empowered team members anticipate and mitigate risks by using their data skills to draw conclusions and improve how the project will go. A project manager steers the project with confident decisions rooted in having the right data and strategic business decisions. Anticipating and mitigating risks help build the data sets needed for business leaders, and as a project manager, you are an enabler of such a data-driven approach.

Enhancing Decision Making

Effective problem-solving improves your ability to make informed decisions quickly, which is vital in a fast-paced project environment. In agile and traditional project management, concluding project data, reports, and information contribute to making informed decisions. Stakeholders, functional managers, and the project team depend on the truthful data presented through data visualization, which enhances their data analysis about project work. The company’s goals are achieved through necessary problem-solving and data-driven decision-making.

Increasing Project Efficiency

With strong problem-solving skills, you can identify inefficiencies and develop solutions that streamline company operations and save time and resources. Resources, measurements of success, company processes, and feedback all contribute to data generation. Data analytics skills for project managers and team members contribute to making actions efficient. An example would be the knowledge of Lean Six Sigma methodology, which encapsulates critical aspects of reducing waste and variation, which contribute to possible defects or inefficiencies. Data analytics contribute to the implementation of such a framework.

Boosting Team Confidence

Demonstrating reliable problem-solving abilities can inspire confidence in your team, leading to improved morale and productivity. Project managers lead and manage activities that build the confidence of stakeholders and the project team. Aside from critical technology investments in project management tools, establishing proper processes to address issues raises the confidence of colleagues. Resolving problems results in value. Predicting and preventing problems from happening results in better project performance.

Adapting to Change

Projects rarely go as planned; problem-solving skills help you adapt strategies and actions flexibly as circumstances evolve. In agile and adaptive project management, value creation and delivery rely on strategic alignment with the defined business goals, and said strategic goals must be considered when managing projects. Actionable insights from data visualization contribute to informed decision-making, thus making projects more robust and resilient.

"Diverse corporate team discussing project details with sticky notes on a glass board, including African American and Caucasian business professionals in a light-filled office."

Problem-Solving Step-by-Step Instructions

Addressing issues in projects demands a systematic approach. This article offers a step-by-step guide, the Project Pathfinder, specifically tailored to navigate the complexities and ensure the smooth progression and success of projects. The steps are as follows:

  • Identify the problem
  • Collect information
  • Generate solutions
  • Select the best solution
  • Implement and monitor

Identify the Problem

Clarify the issue by precisely defining the problem.

Detailed understanding is critical as you cannot address what you do not comprehend; similarly, you cannot solve what you cannot measure.

Start by clearly identifying and defining the issue at hand.

Use specific terms and assess the scope and impact of the project.

Relevant questions are, ‘What exactly is the issue?’ and ‘Why is it impacting the project?’

Collect Information

Gather and compile all relevant data and information that could help understand the context and extent of the problem.

Collected information includes insights from your team, data from similar past situations, and stakeholder feedback.

At this stage, data will be collected from all available sources first.

It should project documentation, input from team members, and lessons learned from similar past challenges. This step ensures a well-rounded understanding of the problem from multiple perspectives.

Generate Solutions

Brainstorm possible solutions, and encourage innovative and diverse thinking to ensure a broad range of ideas are considered.

With a solid grasp of the problem, facilitate a structured session using data to generate possible outcomes.

Perform creative thinking techniques to encourage wide-ranging and outside-the-box ideas.

Combine data (qualitative or quantitative) and integrate it with the different approaches, methods, or practices.

Navigating through the noise within data is a skill needed to communicate and provide insights optimally.

Data sources may be limited or behind siloed teams.

In short, as a leader and project manager, you must have data literacy.

Select the Best Solution

Evaluate and decide the feasibility, risks, and potential benefits of solutions and then choose the one that optimally aligns with the project objectives and constraints.

Consider important factors such as resource availability, time constraints, cost implications, and alignment with long-term project goals.

Decision matrices, case studies, customer feedback, organizational process assets, and enterprise environmental factors are tools for data analysis that can be instrumental in this process to help quantify and compare the options.

Implement and Monitor

Execute and review the chosen solution.

Continuously monitor its effectiveness and adjust to ensure it addresses the problem effectively.

Measuring the correct and specific metrics used when solving problems is important as this action contributes to establishing a data-driven culture within the team and outward.

Implementing the selected solution with a clear, actionable insights plan, defined roles, responsibilities, and timelines all contribute alongside data to instill a culture of data-driven decisions.

Monitoring the implementation is critical to ensure the solution is effective and to make necessary adjustments.

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Key Considerations For Successfully Performing Problem-Solving

When performing analysis and problem-solving in project management, the key considerations go beyond the structured steps. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; the most common cycle when it comes to solving problems is the Demming Cycle of PDSA (or PDCA).

Embrace a Collaborative Approach

Problem-solving should not be a solitary endeavor. Involving team members, other employees, stakeholders, and external experts can provide new perspectives and insights that significantly enhance the solution development process. Collaboration broadens the range of potential solutions and facilitates buy-in and support during the implementation phase.

Maintain Flexibility and Adaptability

While following a structured problem-solving process is expected, flexibility is relevant. Be prepared to adapt your approach based on new information or changing circumstances within the project. This adaptability can be the gap between finding a temporary workaround and achieving a sustainable solution.

Prioritize Continuous Learning

Every problem presents an opportunity to learn and refine your problem-solving skills. Encourage a culture of continuous improvement within your team by conducting post-implementation reviews to identify what worked well and what could be improved. These learnings can be applied to future projects, enhancing the project team’s problem-solving capabilities.

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Taking it to the Next Level: How to Achieve Project Excellence

Achieving project excellence extends beyond following a problem-solving process; it requires a proactive and strategic approach to project management. To elevate your project management capabilities, focus on integrating analytics and modeling. These techniques and technologies can forecast problems before they manifest, allowing for preemptive measures that save time and resources.

Fostering a culture of innovation within your team and organization enhances problem-solving effectiveness. Encourage project team members to regularly engage in training sessions and workshops that promote creative thinking and innovation. This continuous development sharpens skills and keeps the team updated with the latest project management trends and technologies.

Ensure communication channels within your team and with all stakeholders are optimized for clarity and effectiveness. Clear communication prevents misunderstandings and ensures team members align with the project goals and strategies. By investing in these areas, project managers and organizations can build a resilient project management operation that solves problems as they anticipate challenges and mitigate them effectively, paving the way for sustained project success.

Alternatives to Problem-Solving Techniques

While Project Pathfinder provides a structured approach to problem-solving, several alternative techniques can be just as effective in different contexts or for teams with varying dynamic patterns.

Adaptive Project Framework (APF)

This approach is for projects where requirements evolve significantly. APF allows for continual reassessment and adaptation of project scopes, which can be a more flexible alternative to traditional problem-solving methods. This iterative approach to managing and adjusting project paths can better accommodate changing needs and emerging issues.

Lean Project Management

This technique focuses on maximizing value by eliminating waste throughout the project. It involves evaluating and improving project activities to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Lean project management is an alternative to more traditional problem-solving methods that preemptively reduce the likelihood of problems through tighter control of resources and processes.

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Wrapping Up and My Experience with Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is indispensable in project management. Throughout this article, we explored various techniques and methodologies that show the role of problem-solving in steering projects toward success. As we have seen through structured methods like the Project Pathfinder or alternatives such as Adaptive Project Framework or Lean Project Management, each approach offers unique advantages that can significantly enhance project outcomes.

From my experience, the capability to solve problems equips project managers with the tools to tackle immediate challenges, empowers teams, fosters innovation, and drives projects to achieve their strategic goals. Integrating robust problem-solving skills into your project management repertoire is a game-changer that can set you apart in a competitive field. It transforms obstacles into opportunities for growth and learning, ensuring that projects and project managers continue to evolve and excel.

Moving forward, remember that mastering problem-solving is not a one-time achievement. It is a continuous journey of learning and adaptation. Embrace it as a core competency in your professional development and achieve project excellence.


University of Massachusetts Amherst. (2023, August). What is problem-solving in project management? Here’s everything you need to know. Retrieved April 2024, from https://bootcamp.umass.edu/blog/project-management/what-is-problem-solving

Cable, J. (2022, January). What is innovation project management? PM World Journal, 11(1). ISSN: 2330-4480. Retrieved April 2024, from https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/pmwj113-Jan2022-Cable-what-is-innovation-project-management.pdf

Gallagher, S. (2015). Time, risk, and innovation: Creating space in your day to solve meaningful problems. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2015—EMEA, London, England. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute. Retrieved April 2024, from https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/importance-innovation-project-management-9858