Use the IDEAL problem solving model to ensure you are solving the right problem, says Lindsay Taylor

At times, being an Assistant can be extremely challenging. If you’re the ‘go to’ person when things go wrong then you can feel under immense pressure to deliver and “save the day”.

So how do you go about keeping your cool and doing exactly that? How do you work your magic when your Director says “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions”?

Here’s how: You need to combine both logical and lateral (or creative) thinking and ensure your underlying mindset is one of constant learning.  You need to ensure you’re working on the right problem to start with and as an IDEAL you need to follow a “step by step” process.

The Problem with Problem Solving

Ironically there’s an age-old problem with problem solving. And it’s this – sometimes you may not be working on the right problem to start with.  Very often we will work on finding a solution (and sometimes a “quick fix”) to a problem without identifying the root cause – in essence we haven’t identified the real problem.  We are working on solving the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause of the problem.

Let me give you an example.  One of my fondest memories of “work experience” during my secretarial training days was helping at a family legal firm based in a quaint listed building in the historic St Giles neighbourhood of Oxford.  I remember vividly witnessing one of the Partner’s assistants placing a bucket under the leaking roof on the stairwell as a solution to a leaky-roof problem.  A quick fix.  But the real problem was the roof needed a complete overhaul as the building’s listed status threw up challenges in infrastructure.  Every time it rained and the bucket made an appearance the root cause of the problem got more serious as water seeped into the rafters….

The IDEAL Problem Solving Process

One of the easiest, and most memorable processes to follow is this –  the IDEAL model.  Ironically (again) I had some problem finding the originator of this model so my apologies to him/her/them for not citing and attributing this fantastic strategy!

This model will keep you on track to ensure your problem solving is robust and effective – and that you don’t miss any of the crucial stages of the process.

I = Identify the problem

Pay heed to “the problem with problem solving” so you ensure you are working on the cause of the problem, not the symptom(s).  It is good practice to seek out problems to solve so you are truly embracing continuous improvement.

D = Describe the potential solutions and strategies

Use logical and lateral (creative) thinking.

E = Evaluate your identified strategies and solutions

What are the likely outcomes when applying these strategies?  Imagine you have applied those strategies – which one(s) are the best in this situation?  Think about the pros and cons of your identified strategies.

A = Act on your selected strategy or strategies

L = Look back and evaluate   

Logical Problem Solving

Logical problem solving, as its name implies, follows a logical sequence – you clearly move from one related thought to another and base your analysis on factual data and information.   Find out:

  • What is fact here?
  • What do I already know?
  • How and where can I find out the data and information I need?
  • Who would be able to help me?

Lateral (or Creative) Problem Solving

Lateral thinking is attributed to Dr Edward De Bono.  It involves thinking “outside the box”.  Recently I saw a quote that extended this to “thinking as if there is no box” which amused me.  Using imagination and considering problems from different perspectives will ensure you step away from the factual, logical mode of thinking.

Here are some examples of creative exercises that increase your lateral problem-solving capabilities:

Random ideation

Open a book or magazine, close your eyes and pinpoint a word.  How does this word relate to your problem?

Comparative Sensory overload

Pick an object and consider how it looks, feels and sounds. How does this object compare to your problem?

“A problem shared is a problem halved” (or at least quartered in this case….)

Sit in a circle with at least 3 others.  Each person writes their problem on a piece of paper and gives it to the person on their right to add a solution to.  Carry on passing the problem sheets around until yours is returned containing different solutions.

Step into my shoes

Imagine being someone else.  What would they be thinking about this problem?

Try thinking like:

  • Ghandi
  • Your mother/father
  • Your son/daughter
  • Your younger self
  • A customer
  • A colleague
  • A team member
  • The President/Leader of your country
  • Someone you don’t particularly get on with……

Create a Mind map

Mind Maps are a creative graphic technique.  They originated in the 1960s by Tony Buzan.  According to the following are the steps to making a Mind Map – give it a go and have a look at the visual on their website.

  1. Start in the centre of a blank page turned sideways. Why? Because starting in the centre gives your brain freedom to spread out in all directions and to express itself more freely and naturally.
  2. Use an image or picture for your central idea. Why? Because an image is worth a thousand words and helps you use your Imagination. A central image is more interesting, keeps you focussed, helps you concentrate, and gives your brain more of a buzz!
  3. Use colour throughout. Why? Because colours are as exciting to your brain as are images. Colour adds extra vibrancy and life to your mind map, adds tremendous energy to your creative thinking, and is fun!
  4. Connect your main branches to the central image and connect your second- and third-level branches to the first and second levels, etc. Why? Because your Brain works by  It likes to link two (or three, or four) things together. If you connect the branches, you will understand and remember a lot more easily.
  5. Make your branches curved rather than straight-lined. Why? Because having nothing but straight lines is boring to your brain.
  6. Use one key word per line. Why? Because single key words give your mind map more power and flexibility.
  7. Use images throughout. Why? Because each image, like the central image, is also worth a thousand words. So, if you have only 10 images in your mind map, it’s already the equal of 10,000 words of notes!”

Reverse brainstorming

According to this is an effective method which combines brainstorming techniques and reverse psychology.  It is a step by step process defined by Mindtools as follows:

  • Clearly identify the problem or challenge, and write it down.
  • Reverse the problem or challenge by asking, “How could I possibly cause the problem?” or “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”
  • Brainstorm the reverse problem to generate reverse solution ideas. Allow the brainstorm ideas to flow freely. Do not reject anything at this stage.
  • Once you have brainstormed all the ideas to solve the reverse problem, now reverse these into solution ideas for the original problem or challenge.
  • Evaluate these solution ideas. Can you see a potential solution? Can you see attributes of a potential solution?”

Check out Edward De Bono’s 6 thinking hats!

Something to be learned from every situation

In my book “A-Z Pearls of Wisdom for Executive PAs” I share with you my belief that hindsight is a wonderful thing.  We can learn from every and any situation as long as we take the time to consider and unlock our learning.  By asking specific questions based on our experience, we can identify developmental feedback and useful advice that can be beneficially applied in the future. In essence, we are completing our IDEAL strategy by “looking back and evaluating”.

We can ask: 

  • How can I use my experience of this situation to help me/my team/my organisation in the future?
  • What do I know now that I didn’t know before?

When faced with a similar situation again:

  • What will I do differently?
  • What will I do more of?
  • What will I do less of?
  • What will I stop doing?
  • What will I start doing?
  • What will I continue doing?

Combine your logical and lateral (creative) thinking with a mindset of continuous improvement to ensure you are the IDEAL problem solving aficionado.  No problem!


Lindsay Taylor is the Director of Your Excellency Limited. A former EA herself, she appreciates the challenges and diversities of the role. Lindsay is a preferred training provider with The Institute of Administrative Management (IAM), one of the oldest ... (Read More)

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