The 4-Step Problem Solving Model

Problem solving models
Step 1: Problem identification
Step 2: Generating alternatives
Step 3: Evaluating alternatives
Step 4: Choosing a solution and developing an plan for implementation
Taking a break
Figure 1: The 4-step problem solving model

Problem solving models 

Most everyone has problems and most of the time.  Management can be described as problem solving.  Life also is a process of solving problems.  Our success in business and our success in life may be measured by ability to solve problems.  Problem solving is an important management skill.  It is also an important life skill.  Most of us will be asked at sometime or another to help a friend or colleague deal with a problem.  Some of us do this almost daily, in our own lives and in assisting our friends and family.  My purpose here is to assist you in developing a problem solving approach that will work for you in the kinds of situations and for the kinds of people you help. 

This is not meant to be a guide or help for professionals, but rather for the rest of us who are involved in problem solving with others on an infrequent or casual basis. It should also have value for managers who work daily with others in solving business and helping with personal problems.  The reality is that business and personal problems can not be divorced.  We all bring our baggage from home to work, just as we take our work problems home.

Problem solving is a topic in many management texts.  Often the process that management theorists propose  is complex.  The process may be suitable for the difficulty of business problems but not for counseling or helping someone with a personal problem.  Still, you may find it helpful to understand the business model because you may want to borrow some steps for your own personal model of problem solving.  Here is a seven step model proposed by Rasmussen (1979):

  • Clarify the problem
  • Suggest alternatives
  • List objectives
  • Establishing consequences
  • Establish priorities
  • Choose an alternative
  • Implement the chosen alternative
Therapists use problem solving to assist clients in dealing with their personal problems.  Egan (1998, p.32)  has developed a model that has three stages and three steps in each stage. 
Stage 1: Current Scenario
Blind spots
Stage 2: Preferred scenario
Change agenda
Stage 3: Action strategies
Possible actions
Best fit
I prefer a four-step problem solving model (see figure 1), partly because as a non-professional it is something I can easily remember and apply in a helping situation.  The four steps are: a) identifying the problem, b) generating alternatives, c) evaluating alternatives, and d) deciding on a  solution and an implementation plan. I borrow the the terms helper and client to describe the counselor and the person being helped.  The model can be used in numerous relationships: supervisor-subordinate, teacher-student, counselor-client, parent-child, friend-friend, nurse-patient, and therapist-patient, etc.   It can be used in many situations: performance appraisals, school and career counseling, health advisement, parent-child relationships, etc. It can be used with many kinds of problems: tardiness at work, alcoholism, homework, breakups, finances and debt, poor hygiene or eating habits, etc. 

As you look at this method and others, consider the steps which would fit your style and approach best.  Then practice your approach as people as you for help.

Figure 1: The 4-step problem solving model



One consideration in deciding what problem solving approach to use is determining who owns the problem.  If joint ownership exists as is the case in some business problems, then both the helper (who might be a manager) and client (the subordinate) are involved equally in all stages of the problem solving process.  However, if the problem belongs totally to the client, then the helper and the client play different roles throughout the problem solving process.  The helper facilitates the problem solving process, using listening and summarizing skills at each of the steps. Only during the second stage, with the client's permission,  does the helper get actively involved in the process by assisting in generating alternatives. 


Part of the helper's role is to clarify the problem solving process for the client.  The helper does this by summarizing the discussion in the previous stage and by suggesting how to proceed in the next stage. For example, at the end of stage 1, using a paraphrase,  the helper summarizes the problem that the client has identified and then suggests they go on to list alternatives for solving the problem.  The helper might also suggest that alternatives be listed on a board or sheet of paper. Similarly, at the end of stage 2, the helper summarizes the list of alternatives and suggests the client consider the pros and cons of each as a form of evaluation.  The helper might say, "Now that we have listed a number of alternatives, let's look at each of them and you determine how they fit best your situation and needs." At the end of stage 3, the helper again summarizes the discussion evaluating each alternative and then asks the client which of the alternatives he or she favors.  The helper summarizes the decision and then assists the client in developing a plan for implementation of the solution.

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Step 1: Identifying the problem

In the problem identification step the helper assists the client in describing his or her problem. To do this the helper may have to develop trust and an open communication climate, one in which the client is willing to open up and express feelings and thoughts about the problem.  In addition to telling the story (as set out by Egan (1998, p. 27) in his stage 1), the helper should assist the client in separating the key problem from the others and in identifying blind spots that prevent seeing the whole problem.

Typically we all have more than one problem we are dealing with in our lives.  Problems are extremely complex.  They are also inter-related.  One problem may be caused by another and be the cause for a third.  They all affect each other.  The key to solving the multitude of problems we face is to find the principal problem that if solved will help in solving the other problems.  This what Egan (1998, p. 27) calls leverage: choosing the right problems or opportunities to work on. 

During the problem identification stage the helper should assist the client in finding the one problem or set of problems that are key to all the other problems.  The person may not truly recognize what the key problem is and so throughout the problem solving process the helper may be trying to get the friend see blind spots that make it difficult to see the real problem (Egan, 1998, p. 27).  A person could have financial problems, marital and family problems, work problems, but the key problem might be an addiction to gambling. If a friend has a serious problem, like an addiction or serious depression that may lead to depression, he or she needs to work with a professional counselor.  That doesn't mean you stop talking to them, but you should encourage them to see a professional, even if it means setting up an appointment and taking them to it.

In addition to identifying the problem or problems, the helper encourages the client to express feelings and thoughts about the problem.  In this step it is important that the client identify the problem.  The helper's role is to assist in clarifying and identifying areas for further exploration and discussion.  Listening and summarizing skills are key to the helper's success in doing this.  The helper needs to be aware of listening responses that work and throw out the ones that don't.  Important skills are attending, following and reflecting or paraphrasing.  Besides learning to listen, the helper needs to use summarizing skills to help clarify and identify the problem as it is finally stated.  If the problem is not clearly identified, it is likely that a solution won't be found and worked upon. 

When the helper is satisfied that the problem has been clearly identified, he or she should restate the problem by summarizing or paraphrasing.  Then, the helper would suggest they move from problem identification to step 2: generating alternatives. 

Step 2: Generating Alternatives

During step 2, the helper can actively be involved in brainstorming by suggesting alternatives, if this is all right with the client.  Alternatives are suggested as tentative or possible solutions.  They should not be evaluated nor should a preference be given for the best alternative.  Evaluation and judgment tends to decrease the number of alternatives.  The goal here is to come up with as many viable solutions as possible. 

At most times advice tends to inhibit rather than encourage communication.  However, here because the advice is given within the context of brainstorming and is only tentative, it is all right for the helper to provide suggestions.  At other times it is not a good idea.

The helper may want to assist in generating alternatives by listing and organizing the alternatives on a sheet of paper or on a board.  In brainstorming you build upon the ideas that have already been generated and so it helps to have the ideas in front of you.  At the point that no more ideas are forth coming, the helper summarizes the alternatives.  This might actually help in bringing forth other ideas.  After summarizing the ideas, the helper suggests they go on to evaluating the ideas before deciding on the best solution.

Step 3: Evaluating alternatives

Because the client needs to take ownership for the solution and be committed to whatever alternative is decided, it is important that the client evaluate or make judgments among the various alternatives.  The helper again plays a clarifying role, by probing, summarizing or paraphrasing. The helper also assists in the evaluation process by suggesting a process for judging from among the alternatives.

A number of approaches could be used in evaluating alternatives.  The most commonly used approach is listing pros and cons (advantages or disadvantages).  This could be done on the same sheet as the alternatives were listed.  Another approach is to consider consequences for following a particular alternative.  Rasmussen (1979, pp. 35-39) suggests using an information matrix where alternatives are weighed against objectives.  This could also be done by considering the results of following a particular action.  Would it achieve the particular goal one is working toward?  Would it affect negatively relationships with others? A third approach is what Egan (1998, p. 30) describes as choosing the best fit.  "Help clients choose the action strategies that best fit their talents, resources, style, temperament, and timetable."  all or a combination of these approaches could be used in evaluating alternatives.

Finally, when all the alternatives have been considered, the helper should summarize the discussion and suggest that the client might be ready to choose the best solution.

Step 4: Choosing a solution and developing a plan for implementation 

This is the decision making step of the problem solving process. It's important that the client choose the solution. This assures commitment.  The helper assists, possibly by further clarifying the alternatives and reminding the client about the discussion during evaluating the alternatives.  Solutions are often less than perfect.  The helper may have to remind the client of this fact and assure the client that she has made the best decision given the situation and the alternatives that are available. 

After choosing a solution, the helper should assist the client in developing a plan for implementation. Developing a plan for implementation may require brainstorming of strategies for achieving the client's goals.  The plan does not need to be complex.  Instead it should be simple, and, where possible, broken down into steps.   It might be appropriate to identify times when the client should come back to discuss progress, possibly following the the various steps. 

As Egan (1998, p. 29) indicates, pursuing a particular direction "demands a great deal of work and often takes courage."  The helper's support both through encouragement and follow-up will help the client in keeping his or her commitment to solving the problem.

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The helper and client may decide during the stages of generating and evaluating alternatives that new aspects of the problem need to be identified and discussed or that some alternatives were not suggested.  In these situations it is appropriate to backtrack to previous stages to explore the problem further or to identify other alternatives.  Also, at the point of deciding on a solution, the client may realize that no suitable solutions have been discussed and they need to go back to identifying the problem and generating other alternatives. 

Taking a break

At any time during the problem solving process the client may want to take a break or even end the process all together.  Unless the counseling is a requirement of a court order or a part of discipline action at work, this is all right.  After all it is the client's problem.  Sometimes discussing the problem is enough and provides the client a feeling that he or she can deal with the problem without the helper's assistance.  Other times opening up provides a sense of relief and that is what the person needs.

When a suitable solution is not found, the problem solving process may be halted.  After a period of rest the problem may become clearer or a new solution may become evident.  The helper and client can get back together later to finish the problem solving process. 


1. Develop a problem solving model and practice using it.  Report back on your success.  Evaluate how well you did and suggest changes for another time.

2. Analyze the transcript of a problem solving situation.  (Several are located at this web site or you may choose to record and type your own helping interview with someone.) Use this guide to determine the steps the person used, the use of transition, and other skills.  Evaluate how effective the problem solving model was and make suggestions for improvement or change. 


Egan, Gerard. The Skilled Helper, 6th edition. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1998.

Rasmussen, R.V.  Problem-Solving Concepts and Procedures. Athabasca, Alberta: Athabasca University, 1979.

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Copyright 2001 by John R. Fisher