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Thinking your way to successful problem-solving

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VOL: 97, ISSUE: 37, PAGE NO: 36

Jacqueline Wheeler, DMS, MSc, RGN, is a lecturer at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College

Problems - some people like them, some do not think they have any, while others shy away from them as if they were the plague. Opportunities, in the form of problems, are part of your life.

The most difficult decision is deciding to tackle a problem and implement a solution, especially as it is sometimes easier to ignore its existence. Problem-solving takes time and effort, but once a problem has been addressed the nurse can feel satisfied that the issue has been resolved and is therefore less likely to re-emerge.

Nurses make clinical decisions using two different approaches. The first is the rationalist approach, which involves an analysis of a situation so that subsequent actions are rational, logical and based on knowledge and judgement. The second approach is based on a phenomenological perspective, where a fluid, flexible and dynamic approach to decision-making is required, such as when dealing with an acutely ill patient.

Types of problems

Problems come in different guises and the solver can perceive them either as a challenge or a threat. One of the most common types of problem is when the unexpected happens. As a nurse you plan and implement care for a patient based on your knowledge and experience, only to find that the patient’s reaction is totally different from that expected but without any apparent reason.

Another type of problem is an assignment where others set a goal or task. Throughout your working life you will be required to undertake duties on behalf of other people. For some this is difficult as they feel unable to control their workload. Others see it as an opportunity to develop new skills or take on additional responsibilities. Opportunities can be perceived as problems by those who fear failure.

A third type of problem is when a dilemma arises. This is when it is difficult to choose the best solution to a problem because the nurse is confronted with something that challenges his or her personal and/or professional values.

Diagnosing problems

The sooner a problem is identified and solutions devised, the better for all involved. So try to anticipate or identify problems when they occur through continuously monitoring staff performance and patient outcomes.

Listening to and observing junior staff will help you to detect work or organisational concerns, because when there are problems staff are likely to behave in an unusual or inconsistent manner.

Initial analysis

Remember that people view things differently, so what you perceive as a problem may not be one to anyone else. So before you begin thinking about what to do - whether to keep it under surveillance, contain it or find a solution - you should undertake an initial analysis. This will help you to understand the problem more clearly.

An analysis will also enable you to prioritise its importance in relation to other problems as problems do not occur one at a time.

Routine problems often need little clarification, so an initial analysis is recommended for non-routine problems only. Even then, not all problems justify the same degree of analysis. But where it is appropriate, an initial analysis will provide a basis from which to generate solutions.

Perception is also important when dealing with patients’ problems. For example, if a patient gives up reading because he or she cannot hold the book (objective), the nurse may assume it is because the patient has lost interest (subjective, one’s own view).

Generating solutions

It is essential for the problem-solver to remember that, where possible, solutions must come from those connected with the problem. If it is to be resolved, agreement must be owned by those involved as they are probably the best and only people who can resolve their differences. The manager should never feel that he or she must be on hand to deal with all disputes.

To solve a problem you need to generate solutions. However, the obvious solution may not necessarily be the best. To generate solutions, a mixture of creative and analytical thinking is needed (Bransford, 1993).

Creativity is about escaping from preconceived ideas that block the way to finding an innovative solution to a problem. An effective tool for assisting in this process is the technique of lateral thinking, which is based largely on the work of Edward de Bono, who regards thinking as a skill.

There are several ways to encourage creative decision-making. One method that works best for specific or simple problems is brainstorming. If the ground rules of confidentiality and being non-judgemental are applied, it will produce a free flow of ideas generated without fear of criticism (Rawlinson, 1986).

Time constraints and staff availability may make it difficult for all those involved in a problem to meet. In such cases an adaptation of brainstorming - where a blank piece of paper is given to those involved and each writes down four solutions to the problem - may be the answer. A similar technique is the collective notebook, where people are asked to record their thoughts and ideas about a problem for a specified period.

An alternative is where one person writes down a list of solutions in order of priority, which is then added to by others. This helps to prioritise the ideas generated. All these methods produce data that can then be analysed by the problem-solver.

When the problem affects people in different geographical areas, solutions can be generated by obtaining the opinion of experts through the use of a questionnaire, which is known as the Delphi technique (McKenna, 1994).

When an apparently insurmountable problem presents itself, it is often useful to divide it into smaller pieces. This is known as convergent thinking. Using divergent thinking - where you consider a problem in different ways to expand your view - may also help. 

A final alternative is the stepladder technique, which is time-consuming but effective if the issue is stirring up strong feelings. This requires the people involved in the problem to be organised into groups. First, two people try to solve the problem, then a third member is drawn in, to whom the solution reached by the first two is presented. All three then try to agree a solution. More people are added to the group, if necessary, in a similar way, until there is agreement of all involved. Provided the individuals are motivated to solve the problem, this technique creates ownership and commitment to implementing the agreed solution.

Analytical thinking, which follows a logical process of eliminating ideas, will enable you to narrow the range down to one feasible solution.

Although someone has to make the ultimate decision on which solution to implement, there are advantages to group decision-making: a greater number of possible solutions are generated and conflicts are resolved, resulting in decisions being reached through rational discussion.

This does, however, require the group to be functioning well or the individuals involved may feel inhibited in contributing to the decision-making. One individual may dominate the group or competition between individuals may result in the need to win taking precedence over deciding on an agreed practical solution.

As nursing becomes less bureaucratic individuals are being encouraged to put forward their own ideas, but social pressures to conform may inhibit the group. We do not solve problems and make decisions in isolation, but are influenced by the environment in which we work and the role we fulfil in that environment. If group members lack commitment and/or motivation, they may accept the first solution and pay little attention to other solutions offered.

Making a decision

There are three types of decision-making environments: certain, risk and uncertain. The certain environment, where we have sufficient information to allow us to select the best solution, is the most comfortable within which to make a decision, but it is the least often encountered.

We usually encounter the risk environment, where we lack complete certainty about the outcomes of various courses of action.

Finally, the uncertain environment is the least comfortable within which to make decisions as we are almost forced to do this blind. We are unable to forecast the possible outcomes of alternative courses of action and, therefore, have to rely heavily on creative intuition and the educated guess.

Taking this into consideration, you should not contemplate making a decision until you have all the information needed. Before you make your decision, remind yourself of the objective, reassess the priorities, consider the options and weigh up the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each solution.

An alternative is to use the method that Thomas Edison used to solve the problem of the electric light bulb. Simply focus on your problem as you drift off to sleep, and when you wake up your subconscious mind will have presented you with the answer. But bear in mind that this is not a scientific way of solving problems - your subconscious can be unreliable.

If you are not sure about your decision, test the solution out on others who do not own the problem but may have encountered a similar dilemma. Once you have made your choice stick to it, or you may find it difficult to implement because those involved will never be sure which solution is current. They will also be reluctant to become involved in any future decision-making because of your uncertainty.

The next step is to ensure that all the people involved know what decision has been made. Where possible, brief the group and follow this up with written communication to ensure everyone knows what is expected of them. You may need to sell the decision to some, especially if they were not involved in the decision-making process or the solution chosen is not theirs.

Implementing the solution

Finally, to ensure the solution is implemented, check that the people involved know who is to do what, by when and that it has happened. Review the results of implementing your solution (see Box) and praise and thank all those involved.

- Part 1 of this series was published in last week’s issue: Wheeler, J. (2001) How to delegate your way to a better working life. Nursing Times; 97: 36, 34-35.

Next week. Part three: a step-by-step guide to effective report writing.

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