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How to run a problem-solving workshop

What is a problem-solving workshop?

A problem-solving workshop is a rapid session that helps you:

  1. Understand the root cause of a problem
  2. Quickly generate ideas to solve it
  3. Evaluate the ideas to ensure they’re robust
  4. Make a plan to test or implement the solution

This workshop critically assesses what’s going wrong and helps you find out what your options are to solve it, before you decide on the perfect solution.

Who should run a problem-solving workshop?

Product team leads, such as designers, product managers or engineers can run this type of workshop. There’s no one right person to lead something as important as this.

In fact, the core of your product development should start with the problem rather than the solution itself. It can be tempting to jump straight into features, but until you understand the problem well, you can’t begin to solve it.

When to run a problem-solving workshop

This workshop can be used in various circumstances:

  • A show-stopping problem that grinds everything to a halt
  • An intermittent problem that you want to get to the bottom of
  • A customer or user problem, such as a pain point when using a service or product
  • A high-level business problem, for example “too many customer complaints”, “conversion rate is too low”, or “operating costs are too high”

How to run a problem-solving workshop


Read on to find out how to do all that, and more.

1. Get the right people together

Get the right people in the room (and no one else!)

Invite all affected parties to a session. These are people that the problem has a direct impact on. Including those that aren’t impacted may offer a more objective view, but ultimately; more people equals more time. We want to solve problems with haste, so we can find out if it’s the right solution sooner rather than later!

2. Identify the right problem

The piston might have broken, but what caused the piston to break?

What may appear like the problem, could be one of many observable results of a deeper underlying problem. To identify the ‘right’ or ‘true’ problem, we need to delve into it. This method is often called “Root Cause Analysis”.

There are many ways to conduct a Root Cause Analysis, but the easiest and most pragmatic way is to use the Five Whys Analysis tactic.

Simply put, asking “why?” at least five times will lead you to the real problem. Solving this root problem subsequently solves all of the surface problems associated with it.

Learn how to run the Five Whys Analysis tactic

3. Come up with ideas to solve your problem

Round Robin technique

What normally follows identifying the right problem is a flurry of ideas. This usually takes the form of blurting them out at each other – but there are better, more structured ways to capture ideas. 

Generating ideas in a structured way gives you time and space to think, as well as building on others’ ideas. The result means more thorough and refined ideas, over a back of the napkin sketch that the loudest person in the room decides is the best thing to do.

Idea-generation tactics for problem solving:

  • Mind Map – Get your brain on to paper, so you can start to form ideas for the methods below.
  • Crazy Eights – Eight ideas in eight minutes
  • Reverse Brainstorm – Come up with ways to make the problem worse, then reverse it to get the solution
  • Round Robin – Generate an idea, then have the person next to you build on it
  • Storyboard – Turn your idea into a sequence of events to understand how it might actually work in reality

Once you have a suite of ideas, you’ll want to review them and try some evaluative tactics.

If you have a lot of ideas, you might want to prioritise the most promising ones to take forward with a decision tactic such as Priority Map or Blind Vote.

4. Evaluate the ideas to ensure they’re robust

Kick the tyres of your idea to make sure it's robust

Once you have a shortlist of ideas it can be tempting to go with the one that appears most promising. If time is of the essence, and it’s low risk – it might be the right call to just try it out.

However, it’s vital to evaluate ideas for solutions that may be more costly or complicated. Kick the tyres, so to speak.

Evaluating ideas gives you the confidence that your promising idea truly is promising, and is worthy of taking forward to the next stage: prototyping and implementation.

Evaluation tactics for ideas:

  • Idea Beetle – a set of questions that help you assess if your idea is robust before you progress with it
  • Rose, Thorn, Bud – a way to review the good, the bad and the potential of an idea
  • SWOT Analysis – articulate an idea’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats

If you still have a lot of ideas, you might want to prioritise the most promising ones to take forward with a decision tactic such as Priority Map or Blind Vote.

5. Make a plan to test or implement the solution

Work backwards from your goal

Now you should have one or two (or more!) evaluated, robust and promising ideas that you want to try out to solve the problem.

Whether you need to work out how to prototype and test the idea, or go ahead and implement the solution right away – you need a plan.

To work out a plan, use the Sticky Steps tactic, which mentally starts you off at having the solution implemented or prototype tested, then works backwards to today in order to see what steps you need to take.

Once you have a solid plan, create accountability by creating a list of tasks to do, and assigning them to people with a deadline. You can do this with the Who, What, When tactic.

2 thoughts on “How to run a problem-solving workshop”

  1. Hi
    I’d love to know approx about how long it should take to run one of these workshops.
    If you could include that in your very helpful summaries – I think that would be very helpful to plan and market these types of servies.

    Appreciate all you do!


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