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2 Steps to Determine the Best Possible Solution to Any Problem If you want effective and efficient solutions for any professional or personal problem, start with defining the proper scope and criteria.

By Simin Cai, Ph.D. Edited by Chelsea Brown

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

How do we solve problems with multiple dimensions, and what is the easiest way to come up with the best possible solutions effectively and efficiently? Whether in our business or personal life, we are constantly forced to solve problems in order to grow, but we cannot factor every dimension of the problem into our solution. And so, we need to apply a methodology that leads to the best possible solution within a well-defined framework.

For instance, say we want to change all the light fixtures in our home. The first step is deciding what type of lights fit our budget and can accommodate our children's light sensitivity issues if these are our primary objectives. For some families, the budget may not be a major concern, and the light sensitivity issues may be for elders rather than children. We cannot search every shop in the world for the perfect light or ignore our priorities. For each small or large decision, like choosing the shortest route that goes through our child's school or prioritizing business needs when evaluating next year's budget, we need to look at the available resources and come to a decision that is suitable for everyone.

To start, we may apply the principle of problem-solving — brainstorming solutions. When we brainstorm, we need to come up with as many divergent ideas as possible, but not all of them may apply to the problem we're trying to solve. This is where scope and criteria come in.

Related: How the Best Entrepreneurs Find Simple Solutions to Complex Problems

Determining the scope

Before we have a discussion to address an issue in our businesses or personal lives, we must define our scope. Scoping a problem enables us to determine the purpose we are trying to serve, the constraints or limitations we may have (such as time and budget), the priorities we would like to set, etc., following our understanding of the start and end points of any challenge we face. In other words, it sets a boundary within which we can find an applicable solution. Setting the right scope brings the challenge into sharper focus, and with that focal point, we can now brainstorm as many divergent ideas as possible. They can be abstract, or they can be specific; it truly doesn't matter. At this point, it's more important to put as many ideas forward within that scope. However, we must not put any weight on or discriminate against any of the perspectives or ideas that come up as long as they are within the set scope. Brainstorming outside the scope may waste time and effort unless the necessity of modifying the scope becomes inevitable through the brainstorming session.

Defining the criteria

When a choice is to be made from the possible solutions developed during the brainstorming session, a criterion needs to be applied. That is how we differentiate or break the symmetry of the different perspectives. By taking the various viewpoints and applying parameters like the client's specifications, design limits, budget, profitability, time, etc., our options are narrowed down.

In some cases where more than one person is involved in making a decision, we may have to define a shared criterion. For instance, we may have the sales department of our business on one end of the boundary that wants growth without the worry of profitability. Growth may be fast, but we risk bankruptcy if the company's cash flow doesn't support it. At the other end is the accounting department that tries to maximize profitability in their understanding and wants to make a higher profit margin, but the growth rate may be limited by this requirement. At the end of the day, the business may achieve a higher profit margin but only on a smaller revenue base, which results in a limited profit in actual dollars. Both extremes are unhealthy for shareholder value, so we need to find a way for both departments to meet somewhere in the middle by setting up shared criteria that both parties can agree to, with a sharp focus on what the company needs to achieve for shareholder value.

As a possible solution, we can set the criteria of a minimum growth rate and a minimum profitability percentage, depending on the business type and our market position and benchmarked by our competitors and other players in the market. In these situations, the most important part is setting up a shared criteria between the sales and accounting departments. Ensure everyone is on the same page and is able to agree on the set criteria. From there, goals and priorities will be easily defined, and everyone can work together toward the agreed-upon objective.

Related: Creativity Is Your Best Problem-Solving Tool -- Here's How to Harness It

Deciding whether the choice was good or bad

How do we judge the "good" from the "bad" among all the possible choices that have resulted from our brainstorming? It's now quite simple, as we have a shared set of criteria to make the judgment. Using the example above, for instance, if the decision to hire more salespeople results in a high growth rate while maintaining profitability above the minimum in the criteria, then it's a good decision. If cutting travel costs helps improve profitability but hinders the growth rate below the minimum, then it is a bad decision.

You may use this same set of criteria to judge the request from manufacturing for facility expansion or the request from R&D to hire more engineers. Of course, when you find your end results having trouble staying above the minimum set target, even with your team's best efforts, you may have to modify your criteria or even your scope (such as how to change this situation rather than the original one) by restarting the process all over again.

Related: A 3-Step Leadership Guide to Creating a Culture of Problem-Solvers

Keep in mind, however, any choice among all the available options from brainstorming can be good under one criterion but bad under another. One choice of lighting can be good for children but bad for elders, or one business decision could be good for growth but bad for profitability measured in percentage. The ultimate goal is to find the best possible solution that covers the top priorities of the problem — and it starts with defining the proper scope and criteria. If you want to be effective and efficient in solving problems in your personal or professional life, I advise that you factor in these two keys to help you find and choose the best possible solution to your problem. The framework of this process is universal, which makes it applicable to any problem-solving scenario, from optical design to business development or anything else in between.

Simin Cai, Ph.D.

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

President & CEO of Go!Foton

Dr. Simin Cai is the Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Go!Foton – a cutting-edge company bringing innovation to the global photonics market.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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