5 Steps to Problem Solving

by Ben Levitan

Here is a way to solve problems that I wanted to share since everyone encounters challenging situations and opportunities. This tool was developed at Bridgewater Associates, a highly unique Hedge Fund.   

I should start by saying that the 5-step process is not a universal tool – there are many situations where being directive (e.g. telling someone what to do or following the instructions that have been given) is more appropriate. 

With that caveat, here is a process that I think works best when one is doing problem-solving.  

5-step process is as follows:

1.      Choose the goals 

2.      Identify the problems that stand in the way of achieving the goals 

3.      Accurately diagnose the problems that stand in the way of the goals 

4.      Design a plan that gets around the problems and “on to” the goals 

5.      Do the plan and continue to assess everything in light of the goals 

A few thoughts to keep in mind as you navigate this process: 

Don’t act without thinking – take the time to plan the work 

Try not to blur the steps together e.g. don’t rush to the plan after you identify a problem or barrier 

This is not a linear process – it is iterative.  Check your plan against your goals, problems and problem diagnosis 

Each step requires different talents or strengths – you likely don’t have all the strengths or talents to do all 5 steps well – seek out (and offer) help 

Goal-setting requires choosing and prioritization – and rejecting alternative good goals for more difficult, better goals 

Creating a design is like writing a movie script in that you visualize who will do what over time to achieve the goal 

As you achieve the goals you will become better at setting bigger and more challenging goals. It will get easier over time. 

Don’t tolerate problems and don’t attack people who don’t tolerate problems 

One final and critical thought: Good work habits/DOing the work is vastly underrated. Disciplined, hardworking and proactive people are the Critical Success Factor of any successful company. 

I encourage you to try the 5-step process, share your learnings, and help others as they use it to solve problems.