The SPALTEN Problem-Solving Methodology as a Decision Making Tool in Project Management

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Developed by Felix Dressel.


Problem solving and decision making are essential parts of project management.[1] With the model of Burke and Barron these two parts are put in context to each other and connections can be visualized. Throughout both processes in project management, key actions can be defined which enable the project manager to generate solutions and narrow them down before making a decision.[2] [3]

The SPALTEN problem-solving methodology provides a similar approach. Originally published to improve problem-solving in product development, SPALTEN is universally applicable to any sort of problem, also in other areas of expertise.[4] By gathering and analyzing the given situation as well as by creating, rating, and selecting possible solutions, the method provides the user a step-by-step approach for problem solving.[5]

This article describes the approach of the problem-solving methodology SPALTEN and puts it in the context of Burke and Barron's model of problem solving and decision making in project management. Here, the focus is on how the processes in project management look like, what the SPALTEN methodology and how it can be applied in the context of Burke and Barron’s framework. Finally, the article shows what steps the SPALTEN process contains, which methods can be used and where the limitations are.


Contents

Overview

Problem Solving and Decision Making in Project Management

Figure 1: The processes of Problem Solving and Decision Making in Project Management (inspired by [2] and [3])

In the process of project management, the successful realization of the projects often depends on the ability to make the right decision when problems are encountered. As Burke and Barron state: “A project is often just a big problem that needs to be solved.”[2] While such a problem might often be seen as an obstacle, it also provides an opportunity through which the current situation can be improved. To address a problem and to make a decision the project manager needs a system to identify the problem as concrete as possible and to come up with creative solutions.[1] [2]

The processes of the identification of problems and the decision making of different solution possibilities are often connected. On one side, the problem-solving process focuses on concretely defining the problem and coming up with different solutions (divergent). On the other side, the decision-making process has to consider all the different solution possibilities by taking into account the surrounding situation and ensuring that the selected solution solves the problem as comprehensive as possible (convergent). These two sides are visualized in Figure 1.[2]

During the whole process, actions have to be carried out which build upon each other. During the problem-solving process, the actions are:[2]

  • 1. Define Objectives: The starting point of the problem-solving process: The goals and objectives of the project are defined, against which the problems and opportunities have to be evaluated.
  • 2. Identify Problems and Opportunities: Identify and define the problems and opportunities encountered during the project.
  • 3. Gather Information: Gather all relevant data and information to create an overview of the current situation.
  • 4. Solve Problem: Create a list of possible solutions which have to be evaluated and weighted in further steps.

The decision making starts where the problem-solving ends which is often supported by decision-making techniques.[1] After identifying multiple solutions, the following actions are:[3]

  • 5. Identify Need for a Decision: What decisions have to be made? Who has the authority to make them?
  • 6. Gather Information: Gather all data and information which are relevant for the decision.
  • 7. Make Decision: Decide on the best possible solution.
  • 8. Implement Decision: This includes the presentation of the decision, its justification, and further steps for the implementation.

To ensure, that the solution was implemented successfully a feedback tool has to be installed. If the problem is not resolved, further measures and actions might be required by the project manager.[3]

The SPALTEN Problem-Solving Methodology

Figure 2: The SPALTEN problem-solving process (inspired by [4] and [5])

The SPALTEN problem-solving methodology was first published in 2002 by Albers et al.[4] The methodology is not limited to a certain topic or area of expertise but can be adapted in condition and complexity to any problem, which allows to approach a problem universally. The term SPALTEN (spalten (German) = to split) was designed and structured as an acronym representing its different steps. As presented in Figure 2, the steps are:[5]

  1. Situation Analysis (Situationsanalyse)
  2. Problem Containment (Problemeingrenzung)
  3. Alternative Solutions (Alternative Lösungen)
  4. Selection of Solutions (Lösungsauswahl)
  5. Consequences Analysis (Tragweitenanalyse)
  6. Make Decision and Realization (Entscheiden und Umsetzen)
  7. Recapitulate and Learn (Nachbereiten und Lernen)

Each of the seven working steps can be conducted and supported by a set of suitable methods. This process helps the user to gather and analyze the given situation as well as to create, rate and select possible solutions. SPALTEN also enables to divide complex problems into smaller ones, which makes it easier to manage one big problem and work out a solution for this. For this, each of the working steps can be carried out as a separate SPALTEN process, which is also shown in Figure 2.[5]

Decision Making with the SPALTEN Methodology

Figure 3: The SPALTEN methodology in the framework of Problem Solving and Decision Making in Project Management (inspired by [2], [3], [4] and [5])

By the definition of Burke and Barron, an optimal decision can be made only after considering the processes of problem solving and decision making first.[2] [3] When applying the SPALTEN methodology to this framework, most of its steps can be categorized to the two processes (Figure 3):

  • Problem Solving: With the working steps of Situation Analysis, Problem Containment and Alternative Solutions, a high variety of possible solutions is generated (divergent). At the same time, the methodology ensures that the solutions fit to the previous defined problem(s).
  • Decision Making: With the following steps, Selection of Solutions, Consequences Analysis and Making Decision and Implementation, SPALTEN narrows down the possibilities, supported by individually defined criteria (convergent). Before a final decision is made, also possible risks and opportunities are analyzed. To avoid the risks or support the opportunities and to ensure a successful implementation, a plan must be made which lists future tasks and responsibilities.

By carrying out these six steps, a core problem can be identified, and an optimal solution can be developed on the basis of which an optimal decision can be made. In addition to problem solving and decision making, SPALTEN also gives the user the possibility to ensure long lasting success. With its last step, Recapitulate and Learn, the results are documented in the right way and feedback is collected. This improves future executions of the methodology.

How to use SPALTEN

The SPALTEN problem-solving methodology is separated into seven working steps. Additionally, between every two steps, the problem-solving team can be adapted to the respective demands, and an information check has to be carried out. The problem-solving team can be adapted to align the skills of the team members with the demands of the tasks. One way to acquire new competences for a certain step is to consult additional experts for specific tasks. However, the team can also be reformed completely if necessary, to ensure that the required skills for the different steps are covered. Similar to the problem-solving team, also the present information has to be reconsidered continuously. Each step builds upon the one which came before, and therefore, all necessary information must be available before moving forward in the process. Throughout the whole problem-solving methodology, a continuous idea pool guarantees that no information is lost. This pool can be accessed any time by the team members to add new ideas or adapt and regroup existing ones.[5] [6]

Situation Analysis

The basis of SPALTEN is the Situation Analysis. The process starts with a detailed collection of all information regarding the current situation. This high amount of collected information must also be structured and documented in the same step. The goal is to completely assess the situation and decide on a problem-solving approach.[5]

To analyze the current situation and collect a high variety of problems, classical techniques such as Brainstorming or Brainwriting can be used. The benefit of Brainwriting in the case of SPALTEN is, that all the ideas are written down during the process already. This simplifies the documentation and also takes into account the opinion of others involved. However, in both techniques it is important, that no ideas are judged to get the widest possible range of problems. In that way, an optimal basis for the next step, the problem containment, can be provided.

Problem Containment

The Problem Containment aims to describe the problem based on the collected information of the previous step. The previous structure is narrowed down by e.g., grouping the relevant information by common attributes or connections. The problem containment aims to identify the cause(s) for the deviation between the targeted and the actual state. Both states are to be described as concrete and precise as possible. The result of this step is a prioritized list of root problems. Ideally, only the most important problem is addressed in the following steps.[6]

An example for a hands-on approach is the Affinity Diagram. To organize a high amount of information, the steps of the diagram gather and sort them into logical groups before headers for each of them are created. This process is repeated to create groups and subgroups including all the available information. Also Multi-Voting can be used to structure and prioritize the high amount of information. The project manager decides on the number of votes and iterations before the voting starts. This can be combined with the Affinity Diagram to first group and then prioritize all the available problem information.[1]

Alternative Solutions

After the core problem has been defined, possible solutions are generated in the step of Alternative Solutions. The result is a high variety of possible solutions. While the solutions aim to cover the problem as comprehensive as possible, they also have to be formulated as concrete as possible to fit to the defined problem. Again, the amount of information increases. Usually, a high creativity is required for this step, which can be supported by specific creativity methods.[5]

The Impulse Image Technique is a simple method to support creative thinking and the generation of creative ideas. With a randomly chosen image, the team has to combine the defined problem with what is shown on the picture. A direct relation between the image and the problem is not required. For example, a bridge can be applied to a solution which connects two areas of expertise.[7] A more unusual but creative approach is the Headstand Method. It is conducted by reformulating the goals of the project by turning them into the exact opposite. The team collects activities which would prevent the project from being successful and how not to achieve the goal. After sorting and grouping the negative ideas, they are turned back into positive ones which describe how to successfully complete the project. [8]

Selection of Solutions

The Selection of Solutions builds upon the high variety of solutions from the previous step. First of all, decision criteria have to be defined and weighted, on which the possible solutions can be compared. The definition of selection criteria must be based on the specific problem situation which was defined in the step of problem containment. The amount of information decreases by focusing on the most promising solution.[6]

With the Six Thinking Hats Method a team can objectively select from a high variety of possibilities. Thereby, the different solutions are evaluated from the point of view of six different roles which each inherit a different set of characteristics and values. During the discussion, the challenge is to only argue from the point of view of the role without including personal opinions. The characteristics and values of the roles can differ on the area of application. Different variations exist where e.g., the roles are defined by characters of the Star-Trek universe in the Star-Trek-Evaluation.[9]

Consequences Analysis

With the previous steps a root problem has been defined and the most promising solution has been selected. Now, the Consequences Analysis allows to evaluate the risks and chances of the solution before it is carried out. With the help of methods, predictions can be made which reveal critical consequences whose cause can be determined before they occur. Based on this, actions can be defined to prevent risks and guarantee opportunities.[5] [6]

The introduction to a Risk Analysis can be another iteration of Brainstorming. Especially uncertain future risks can be uncovered while at the same time, the whole team can relate to the ideas of the others. A more structured overview can be provided by a Cause-and-Effect Analysis in the form of a Fishbone Diagram. Here, causes can be sorted and grouped by the identified effect, especially if the outcome is very likely or even known beforehand.

Make Decision and Realization

After the optimal solution has been identified and possible risks have been taken into account, the step of Make Decision and Realization aims to realize the selected solution. For this, realistic tasks have to be formulated and assigned to the corresponding team members. The result is a well-structured plan which includes e.g., to-dos, due dates, responsibilities, etc., all based on minimizing the identified risks and increasing possible opportunities.[1] [5] [6]

As described in the overview of this article, the decision-making process directly links to the preceding problem solving. This is based on all the available information regarding the identified problem and the developed solution(s). When deciding, it is especially important, that the decision is supported by the necessary power in the organization and that a plan for the implementation is already defined.

Recapitulate and Learn

The final step is Recapitulate and Learn. Based on the continuous improvement process, the total knowledge is documented and stored for future reference (especially the identified problems and developed solution possibilities). This gives the team and other members of the organization the chance to keep track of the results. It also provides the possibility to reflect upon the performance throughout the whole problem-solving process.[6]

To ensure a lasting benefit of the whole process, the documentation has to include the results of the different steps, which are: All the identified problems, the core problem, all the developed solution possibilities, the most promising solution, and the implementation plan. An additional Feedback Capture Grid can be used to collect the feedback of everyone involved and organize it by the categories of positive feedback, improvement potential, open questions, and new / left-over ideas.[10]


The Limitations of Decision Making with SPALTEN

In summary, the SPALTEN problem-solving methodology is a proven tool. It enables a team to analyze the current situation, to identify and narrow down a range of problems and to develop and narrow down possible solutions. These results then support the decision making and implementation while also taking into account the documentation and feedback. With the possibility to adapt to nearly every situation, the methodology also works when only some of the steps are carried out. For example, an engineering team can conduct the first four steps while the consequences analysis and decision are made on a higher power level.

Originally, the methodology was developed for product development. In this area it has already been applied successfully multiple times.[11] However, it has not yet been used to a sufficient extent in project management. The implementation and success of SPALTEN as a decision support tool in project management still needs to be evaluated in a professional environment.


References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Project Management Institute. 2017. A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide). 6th Edition. Newtown Square.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Burke, Rory, and Steve Barron. 2014a. "Problem Solving". In Project Management Leadership: Building Creative Teams, Second Edition, Eds. Rory Burke, and Steve Barron, 317–336Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Burke, Rory, and Steve Barron. 2014b. "Decision Making". In Project Management Leadership: Building Creative Teams, Second Edition, Eds. Rory Burke, and Steve Barron, 337-349Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Albers, A., M. Saak, N. Burkhardt, and D. Schweinberger (Eds.). 2002. "Gezielte Problemlösung bei der Produktentwicklung mit Hilfe der SPALTEN-Methode."
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Albers, Albert, Nicolas Reiß, Nicola Bursac, and Jan Breitschuh (Eds.). 2016. "15 Years of SPALTEN Problem Solving Methodology in Product Development."
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Albers, A., M. Saak, N. Burkhardt, and M. Meboldt (Eds.). 2005. "SPALTEN PROBLEM SOLVING METHODOLOGY IN THE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT."
  7. Aerssen, Benno van, and Christian Buchholz. 2021a. "Impulse Image Technique." https://www.ask-flip.com/method/10. Accessed: 20 February 2020.
  8. Aerssen, Benno van, and Christian Buchholz. 2021b. "Headstand Method." https://www.ask-flip.com/method/9. Accessed: 20 February 2020.
  9. Dirlewanger, Arno, Monika Heimann, Horst Geschka, Carsten Deckert, Klaus Stanke, Joachim H. Böttcher, Manfred Damsch, Eduard Hauser, and Hans-Rüdiger Munzke. 2016. "Jahrbuch der Kreativität 2014." Norderstedt: Books on Demand.
  10. Aerssen, Benno van, and Christian Buchholz. 2021c. "Feedback Capture Grid." https://www.ask-flip.com/method/351. Accessed: 20 February 2020.
  11. Saak, Marcus. 2006. "Development of a concept and of a prototype for a computer-aided tool for the efficient employment of the problem solving methodology "SPALTEN"." Karlsruhe


Annotated bibliography

Project Management Institute. 2017. A guide to the project management body of knowledge. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

This book represents the standard of the Project Management Institute (PMI). It is a key source for project management but also considers the context of portfolio management in some chapters. The book contains various principles and processes of project management but also provides a closer look on specific methods and techniques, e.g., for decision making.


Burke, Rory, and Steve Barron, eds. 2014. "Project Management Leadership: Building Creative Teams, Second Edition." Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

In the book "Project Management Leadership: Building Creative Teams", Rory Burke and Steve Barron take a closer look at the connection of project management and project leadership. For this article, chapters 23 (p.317-336) and 24 (p.337-350) are the focus. Here they analyze the processes of problem solving and decision making. Characteristics are evaluated as well as interconnections between the two topics.


Albers, Albert, Nicolas Reiß, Nicola Bursac, and Jan Breitschuh (Eds.). 2016. "15 Years of SPALTEN Problem Solving Methodology in Product Development."

Although the SPALTEN problem-solving methodology was first published in 2002 (in German), this article (in English) from 2016 provides the ideal overview. It sums up the environment, development, characteristics, and implementation. Additionally, it evaluates the use of the methodology over the first 15 years.


Aerssen, Benno van, and Christian Buchholz. 2021. "The Florence Innovation Project (FLIP)." Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.ask-flip.com/.

The Florence Innovation Project (FLIP) by Benno van Aerssen provides a large database for creativity and innovation methods. Through its website, it is possible to access a well-structured collection of methods and tools suitable for various purposes. In the framework of this article, such methods are especially interesting, when applying the SPALTEN steps in practice.

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