In spring 2021, I am teaching two sections of English 3151, “Writing in the Professions.” I have taught the course many times before, but this is the first time I have taught it entirely online, so I had to redesign it quite a bit. It is essentially a business and technical writing course, heavy on workplace genres such as memos, emails, letters and reports. I resurrected it from oblivion in order to make English majors who did not want to teach more employable. It has become quite popular, not only among English majors, but for students in majors as diverse as nutrition and philosophy.
According to former students, it actually has helped them get jobs in diverse fields.
In addition to all the memos and emails (more on this here), the course has two major research projects. One is a rhetorical analysis of public documents associated with a scandal. I discuss this assignment in a previous post.
The other project is a “Recommendation Report.” In this project, students define a problem, gather information, develop criteria for evaluating approaches, choose the best approach, and discuss implementation. This is a common writing task in many work environments. In some cases, the writer is asked to do the research and the analysis, but leave the selection of the best course of action to the decision-maker. This is a clear example of an inquiry-driven assignment.
The recommendation report is a very rational approach to problem solving. The thinking process can be used to address everything from family difficulties, to the problems of businesses, organizations, and communities. It is what our politicians should be doing instead of jockeying for partisan advantage.
If you do a search on “problem solving” on the internet, you will find lots of different systems, sometimes offering contradictory advice. Often these systems are designed for business managers or military officers. Even the US Army’s seven-step system has different steps in different presentations. What follows is a distillation of what I consider the best and most flexible advice from many sources, based on my experience as a Writing Center director. It is also available as a handout for students.
Note that this process could easily be turned into a teaching module that might last about three weeks.
1. Define the Problem
Before you can solve a problem, you have to define it. Ask yourself the following questions, which are somewhat based on the journalistic pentad: who, what, when, where, and why (sometimes known as “the five W’s”).
- Why do you, or others, think there is a problem?
- When and where is it happening? (How long has it been going on? Where was it first noticed?)
- With whom is it happening? (Note: Don’t jump to blaming individuals. People may be making mistakes because of bad equipment, bad information, a bad system, or other factors beyond their control. Also, if people think you are trying to assign blame, they may be less open about talking about the problem.)
- What is the scope of the problem? (How big is it? How many people does it affect? How many parts of the organization?)
- Who has authority over the problem? Who should you present your solution to?
- Could there be more than one problem? What are other possibilities?
2. Gather information
Some say “You can’t solve a problem without understanding the cause” (McNamara), while others say, “If ever there was a time-waster in problem solving, it has to be the search for the cause of the problem” (Nikols). Nikols explains, “the concept of cause is frequently relevant, but its usefulness depends on the kind of problem being solved. It’s not relevant all the time and, for some problems, it’s never relevant.” The bottom line is not to get fixated on finding causes if they are too complex because of multiple variables, or are simply beyond your power to address.
- What are the facts?
- What do people affected by the problem think?
- What assumptions do they make about the problem that might be questionable? Are any decision-makers influenced by political views or ingrained thinking that might cloud their judgment?
- What are some possible causes? Is the problem caused by technology (or lack thereof), policy, procedure, scheduling, people, or some other factor?
- What potential causes and solutions to the problem do you find on the internet?
- What have other people done in the past to address similar problems? Were they successful?
- Considering your research, should you re-evaluate your definition of the problem?
3. Develop Criteria for Success
To evaluate possible solutions and make a case for one of them, you need to have a list of criteria that the solution must meet.
- What does an ideal outcome look like? What is the end goal of the problem-solving process?
- What limitations exist in terms of costs and resources?
- What standards must the solution meet in terms of physical space, capabilities, and other qualities?
- Can you answer “Yes” to all of the following questions (These are deliberative stasis questions from ancient Roman rhetoric, but they are quite applicable here.)
- Is it legal?
- Is it expedient? (Is action necessary and will it work?)
- Is it possible?
- Is the anticipated effect positive? (Will it produce honor, happiness, satisfaction, or other positive effects for those who implement it? This is an important factor in persuading decision-makers to accept your recommendation.)
- If more than one solution meets these criteria, how will you make a decision?
3. Identify possible approaches
Some experts avoid the term “solution” in favor of “approach” because some problems can only be addressed or improved, not solved. The military tends to use “Course of Action,” abbreviated as COA.
- List approaches that people involved in the situation offered.
- List approaches that appeared in your research.
- Brainstorm for alternative approaches to the problem. (Brainstorming is collecting as many ideas as possible, then screening them to find the best idea. Do not pass any judgment on the ideas— just write them down as you hear them.)
- Considering your evaluation criteria, select a short list of the best possible approaches and compare them. Try not to be biased in favor of a particular solution. Be as objective as possible.
4. Select an approach to resolve the problem
When selecting the best approach, consider:
- Which approach satisfies the most criteria in your evaluation scheme?
- Which approach is most likely to achieve the desired outcome?
- Which approach is the most realistic to implement in terms of time and resources?
- What is the extent of risk associated with each alternative?
- Which approach do you think has the best chance of being acceptable to decision-makers? Can you make a case for it if you have to?
5. Plan the implementation of the best alternative
- What will the situation look like when the problem is solved?
- What steps should be taken to implement the best alternative to solving the problem?
- What resources will you need in terms of people, money and facilities?
- How much time will you need to implement the solution?
- Who will primarily be responsible for ensuring implementation of the plan?
- How will you know if the approach is successful?
An important aspect of this step in the problem-solving process is continual observation and feedback.
The assignment asks students to identify a problem at “a company, an organization or an institution with which you are connected.” University students often write about their part time jobs on campus or with local retailers. High school students might write about their schools, or clubs they belong to, or their jobs. Then they go through the problem-solving process. At the end of the process they prepare the report and a PowerPoint to present it.
I link to some sample reports to use as models. There is a lot of useful material on David McMurray’s Online Technical Writing site. He provides an overview of recommendation reports and numerous examples. I often discuss the sample report on “Fire Ant Control” with my students. I note that if “Use a natural product that does not damage the environment” were added to the criteria, a different recommendation would be made.
As an assignment, the Recommendation Report has many advantages. It is a research project with practical, real-world outcomes. It is a common workplace genre. It is flexible, adaptable to problems great and small. It unfolds in stages, so it is easy to monitor students’ progress over time. And finally, it models a rational approach to problem solving that includes fact-finding, critical thinking, and engagement with the needs and opinions of other stakeholders.
If more people had these abilities, the world might become a better place. Or at least a more rational one.
McMurray, David. “Recommendation and Feasibility Reports.” Online Technical Writing. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
McNamara, Carter. “Problem Solving and Decision Making.” Free Management Library. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.
Nikols, Fred. “Ten Tips for Beefing Up Your Problem-Solving Tool Box.” Distance Consulting. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.
Smith, Miles Anthony. “The Ultimate Problem-Solving Process Guide: 31 Steps and Resources.” Initiative One Leadership Institute. 6 Dec. 2017. Accessed 18 Jan. 2021.