Project Management

Project Management

Problem solving is one of the most essential skills in life. Yet we do it sub-consciously many times each day without really thinking about it. When parking the car, for example, so that another embarrassing dent doesn’t appear in the newly repaired rear door. Or when cooking

Sometimes, we have to solve problems consciously. Regardless of who we are or what we do, challenges crop up almost daily to test our resolve. How we deal with such challenges often determines what paths our lives take from then on.

In dealing with a problem, the aim is to achieve a particular result. Consider what steps must be taken to achieve that result given the parameters posed by the problem.

While problems come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, this section gives you a rough idea of how to solve one in a general sense.

1.     What is the problem exactly? Perhaps there isn’t one. It just appears that there is because someone else says there is. The first step is to clarify the issue by approaching it in a clear and logical manner. Once you think you have done this, write the problem down in as few words as you can in the form of a ‘problem statement’.

2.     Do you understand the issue? You need to know the components of the issue – which aspects are vital to a solution and which are less important. It helps to write these down. Just scribble them randomly on a page as they come to you. Only then, put boxes around those you consider to be ‘underlying causes’ and circles around those you think might be ‘effects’ or ‘symptoms’. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Once you’ve broken down a problem into its constituent parts in this way, sort through any cause and effect relationships and link them together by drawing a line between them. As the increasing number of lines make the paper look like a messy Modigliani, look for patterns. Basically, you want have a good grasp of what is going on.

3.     Plan a strategy. After you have a good grasp of the problem, a number of options will begin to raise a number of possible solutions in your head, with the lines on the paper mapping out simple relationships between cause and effect.

4.     Execute your strategy. Once you’ve outlined logical steps toward your desired result, take action. If you are dealing with an issue such that conditions change upon execution, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your strategy. If things do not happen as you expect, approach any new developments in the same logical manner in which you approached the original problem. This is important. You must make a critical decision as to whether or not your plan warrants alteration.

5.     Evaluate the results. Upon seeing your plan through, consider the result. Was there an error in planning or execution? Did new parameters present themselves? If the parameters have changed then a new strategy is necessary. Several attempts may be necessary to solve the issue.\


If attempting to solve a problem in a group:

1.     Set the scene: clarify objectives; introductions

2.     Define the problem: outline the issues; identify what is already working well

3.     Identify underlying causes: why are these ‘issues’ and not just an expression of alternatives

4.     Generate solutions: discard what doesn’t work; maximise what works well

5.     Agree action: who will do what, by when, and how.


There are many ‘models’ for solving problems. Here is a selection:

Abstraction: solving the problem in a model of the system before applying it to the real system.

Analogy: using a solution that solved an analogous problem.

Brainstorming: (especially among groups of people) suggesting a large number of solutions or ideas and combining and developing them until an optimum is found.

Divide and conquer: breaking down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems.

Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove (or, in some contexts, disprove) the assumption.

Lateral thinking: approaching solutions indirectly and creatively.

Reduction: transforming the problem into another problem for which solutions exist.

Root cause analysis: eliminating the cause of the problem.

Trial-and-error: testing possible solutions until the right one is found



It is said that the art of diplomacy is “telling people to go to hell in such a way that they enjoy the ride.”

So it is with negotiation. Any Coordinator will spend much of each day getting people to agree to things that they would prefer not to. The art in achieving this is to start each sentence and even each observation with a positive, and then add the more difficult or more negative bit at the end.

As an example, when attempting to explain to the livelihoods working group that fodder for goats cannot be a priority when there isn’t either the food or the logistics capacity to feed the human population immediately after a disaster, the negotiation might start along the lines of:

“We recognize absolutely the importance of livestock to the resilience and sustainable recovery of this population, and, being aware that FAO are the acknowledged experts in this matter, will do everything possible to work with you in bringing this to the government’s attention. However, the priority right now is to enable the short-term survival of the livestock owners …”

The other ‘art’ is to know your audience, and know what not to say. Each stakeholder has their ‘pet hate’. Mentioning it will only rile and create a negative mood which makes attaining agreement that much harder.

In their classic text, ‘Getting to Yes’, Roger Fisher and his fellow authors describe four principles for effective negotiation. They also describe common obstacles to negotiation and discuss ways to overcome them.

They explain that a good agreement is one which is wise and efficient, and which improves the parties’ relationship. Wise agreements satisfy the parties’ interests and are fair and lasting.

“The reason you negotiate is to produce something better than the results you can obtain without negotiating.”

Principled negotiation provides a better way of reaching good agreements. Four principles of negotiation are suggested and these can be employed effectively in resolving almost any type of dispute. These principles should be observed at each stage of the negotiation process.

The process begins with the analysis of the situation or problem, of the other parties’ interests and perceptions, and of the existing options. The next stage is to plan ways of responding to the situation and the other parties. Finally, the parties discuss the problem trying to find a solution on which they can agree.

Their four principles are:

Separate the people from the problem: People tend to become personally involved with the issues and with their side’s positions. And so they will tend to take responses to those issues and positions as personal attacks. Separating the people from the issues allows the parties to address the issues without damaging their relationship. It also helps them to get a clearer view of the substantive problem. There are three basic sorts of people problems.

  • First are differences on perception among the parties. Since most conflicts are based in differing interpretations of the facts, it is crucial for both sides to understand the other’s viewpoint. The parties should try to put themselves in the other’s place. The parties should not simply assume that their worst fears will become the actions of the other party. Nor should one side blame the other for the problem. Each side should try to make proposals which would be appealing to the other side. The more that the parties are involved in the process, the more likely they are to be involved in and to support the outcome.
  • Negotiation can be a frustrating process. People often react with fear or anger when they feel that their interests are threatened. The first step in dealing with emotions is to acknowledge them, and to try to understand their source. The parties must acknowledge the fact that certain emotions are present, even when they don’t see those feelings as reasonable. Dismissing another’s feelings as unreasonable is likely to provoke an even more intense emotional response. The parties must allow the other side to express their emotions. They must not react emotionally to emotional outbursts. Symbolic gestures such as apologies or an expression of sympathy can help to defuse strong emotions.
  • Communication is the third main source of people problems. Even when the parties are speaking to each other and are listening, misunderstandings may occur. To combat these problems, the parties should employ active listening. The listeners should give the speaker their full attention, occasionally summarizing the speaker’s points to confirm their understanding. It is important to remember that understanding the other’s case does not mean agreeing with it. Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

Focus on interests rather than positions: Good agreements focus on the parties’ interests, rather than their positions. ‘Positions’ are things that have been decided upon, while ‘interests’ are what caused these ‘positions’ to be so decided.

Defining a problem in terms of positions means that at least one party will “lose” the dispute. When a problem is defined in terms of the parties’ underlying interests it is often possible to find a solution which satisfies both parties’ interests.

The first step is to identify the parties’ interests regarding the issue at hand. This can be done by asking why they hold the positions they do, and by considering why they don’t hold some other possible position. Each party usually has a number of different interests underlying their positions. And interests may differ somewhat among the individual members of each side. Once the parties have identified their interests, they must discuss them together. If a party wants the other side to take their interests into account, that party must explain their interests clearly. The other side will be more motivated to take those interests into account if the first party shows that they are paying attention to the other side’s interests. Discussions should look forward to the desired solution, rather than focusing on past events. Parties should keep a clear focus on their interests, but remain open to different proposals and positions.

Generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement: Parties may decide prematurely on an option and so fail to consider alternatives. The parties may be intent on narrowing their options to find the single answer. The parties may define the problem in win-lose terms, assuming that the only options are for one side to win and the other to lose. Or a party may decide that it is up to the other side to come up with a solution to the problem.

The authors also suggest four techniques for overcoming these obstacles and generating creative options.

  • First it is important to separate the invention process from the evaluation stage. The parties should come together in an informal atmosphere and brainstorm for all possible solutions to the problem. Wild and creative proposals are encouraged. Brainstorming sessions can be made more creative and productive by encouraging the parties to shift between four types of thinking:
    • stating the problem
    • analyzing the problem
    • considering general approaches, and
    • considering specific actions.
  • Parties may suggest partial solutions to the problem. Only after a variety of proposals have been made should the group turn to evaluating the ideas. Evaluation should start with the most promising proposals. The parties may also refine and improve proposals at this point.

Participants can avoid falling into a win-lose mentality by focusing on shared interests. When the parties’ interests differ, they should seek options in which those differences can be made compatible or even complementary. The key to reconciling different interests is to “look for items that are of low cost to you and high benefit to them, and vice versa.”

Each side should try to make proposals that are appealing to the other side, and that the other side would find easy to agree to. To do this it is important to identify the decision makers and target proposals directly toward them. Proposals are easier to agree to when they seem legitimate, or when they are supported by precedent. Threats are usually less effective at motivating agreement than are beneficial offers.

Use Objective Criteria: Decisions based on reasonable standards makes it easier for the parties to agree and preserve their good relationship. The first step is to develop objective criteria. Usually there are a number of different criteria which could be used. The parties must agree which criteria is best for their situation.

Criteria should be both legitimate and practical. Scientific findings, professional standards, or legal precedent are possible sources of objective criteria. One way to test for objectivity is to ask if both sides would agree to be bound by those standards. Rather than agreeing in substantive criteria, the parties may create a fair procedure for resolving their dispute. For example, children may fairly divide a piece of cake by having one child cut it, and the other choose their piece.

“Power in a negotiation comes from the ability to walk away.”

There are three points to keep in mind when using objective criteria:

  • First, each issue should be approached as a shared search for objective criteria. Ask for the reasoning behind the other party’s suggestions. Using the other parties’ reasoning to support your own position can be a powerful way to negotiate.
  • Second, each party must keep an open mind. They must be reasonable, and be willing to reconsider their positions when there is reason to.
  • Third, while they should be reasonable, negotiators must never give in to pressure, threats, or bribes. When the other party stubbornly refuses to be reasonable, the first party may shift the discussion from a search for substantive criteria to a search for procedural criteria.



Critical Path Analysis (CPA) is a project management tool that:

  • Identifies the individual activities that make up a larger project.
  • Shows the order in which activities have to be undertaken.
  • Determines which activities can only take place once other activities have been completed and shows which activities can be undertaken simultaneously, thereby reducing the overall time taken to complete the whole project.
  • Highlights when certain resources will be needed.

In order to construct a CPA, it is necessary to estimate the elapsed time for each activity – that is the time taken from commencement to completion. Then the CPA is drawn up a based on dependencies such as:

  • The availability of labour and other resources
  • Lead times for delivery of materials and other services
  • Seasonal factors – such as dry weather required in a building project

Once the CPA is drawn up, it is possible to see the critical path itself – this is a route through the CPA, which has no spare time or ‘slack’ in any of the activities. In other words, if there is any delay to any of the activities on the critical path, the whole project will be delayed unless changes are introduced to bring the project back on track.

The total time along this critical path is also the minimum time in which the whole project can be completed.

CPA is helpful because it shows the likely impact on the whole project if no corrective action is taken. It also highlights where slack is available elsewhere which means it might be possible to switch staff from another activity to help catch up on the delayed activity. As a rule, most projects can be brought back on track by re-allocating existing resources or by paying overtime.

The key rules of a CPA

  1. Nodes are numbered to identify each one and show the Earliest Start Time (EST) of the activities that immediately follow the node, and the Latest Finish Time (LFT) of the immediately preceding activities.
  2. The CPA must begin and end on one ‘node’ – see below
  3. There must be no crossing activities in the CPA
  4. Each activity is labelled with its name eg ‘print brochure’, or it may be given a label, such as ‘D’, below.
  5. The activities on the critical path are usually marked with a ‘//’ or are coloured red.

In the example below

  • The Node is number 3
  • The EST for the following activities is 14 days
  • The LFT for the preceding activities is 16 days
  • There is 2 days’ slack in this case (difference between EST and LFT)
  • The activity that follows the node is labelled ‘D’ and will take 6 days


CPA is a planning and project management tool. Whilst it can help ensure a project is completed as quickly as possible, and resources used as efficiently as possible, it does depend on the accuracy of the information used.

Just drawing up a CPA will not in itself ensure a project runs to plan; most projects encounter some delay or something unexpected, so managers need to use tool such as CPA to monitor the project and take swift action to rectify any problems.

These days, businesses use a software package such as Microsoft © Project ® to draw up and manage a CPA.

For further information:
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

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