As an event planner, problem solving is a big part of your job. Focusing on getting things right on the day is vital to ensure your attendees have a great experience, but in the run up to an event, there are a huge number of moving parts and elements that – despite your best efforts – might not go according to plan.

From setting up the website to ensuring marketing campaigns are effective and ticket sales are on track, through to liaising with sponsors, suppliers and attendees, there’s a lot to keep track of. Then there are the problems that can’t be foreseen – weather, power cuts, transport strikes, and more. No matter how experienced and prepared you are, things go wrong and problems appear.

When a problem does arise it’s very tempting to jump straight into solving it.  That works for situations where the cause, and therefore the solution is straightforward, but often the actual cause isn’t obvious.  When we jump into solving these problems too early, there’s a huge risk we don’t fix it – and can even make them worse.

Here’s an example:

Situation: Ticket sales for my event are much slower than I expected.

Cause: I’m not spending enough money on marketing my event.

Solution: Spend more budget on Facebook Ads.

In this example, I’m jumping too quickly to assume the cause, without actually understanding if that really is what’s wrong. Perhaps my marketing budget is fine, but I’m targeting the wrong people.  Perhaps my tickets aren’t priced well.  And perhaps my event simply isn’t compelling enough…

In situations like these, it’s vital to take a step back and spend the time to understand the actual cause – not what we think it might be – before diving into problem solving.  Below, I’ll share two methods that will help you do that.

The 5 Whys

This sounds like the method your child uses to drive you crazy, but it’s actually a very simple and surprisingly effective way to analyse a problem and to peel away the layers surrounding it.

The benefits are that it’s incredibly simple, fast, and a great way to look at problems that are a bit fuzzy, particularly those where people are involved.

To use it, first write down the problem. This helps formalise, fully describe, and clarify the issue. It also helps ensure everyone agrees on the problem if you’re doing this in a team environment.

Then you simply ask the question “why?” 5(ish) times.  You may need more or less than 5 to get to the root cause, but you get the idea.  Here’s an example:

  • Problem: vegetarians at my conference complained that there wasn’t any vegetarian food available, even though we provided it.
  • Why did they complain about a lack of vegetarian options?  Because the attendees who didn’t have dietary restrictions ate the vegetarian food.
  • Why did they eat the vegetarian food?  Because there was no signage to indicate it was the vegetarian option.
  • Why was there no signage?  Because we didn’t ask the catering company to provide it.
  • Why didn’t we ask the catering company to provide it?  Because we didn’t hold a pre-event briefing meeting

This is a simple example, but it shows how effective this technique can be.  The final why leads to a statement (root cause) that you can take action on, and be confident it’s the right action. For the problem above, it would be very tempting to jump straight to the “obvious” solution: increase the quantity of vegetarian food.  But that would not solve the problem!  The solution here is to brief the catering company to provide signage, and to tell attendees which is the vegetarian option.

Fishbone diagrams & root cause analysis

Also known as cause and effect diagrams.  This method is a more visual way of getting to the root cause of an issue and works particularly well for more complex problems. Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify the exact problem. Define it as clearly as possible.  Write it down on the left hand side of a large piece of paper.
  2. Draw a horizontal line from the box, so that it looks like the head and spine of a fish.  This gives you space to develop your ideas.
  3. Brainstorm the main factors or categories that could be involved.  Not the solutions, but the buckets of related factors. For example: suppliers, venue, staff, technology, etc.  Draw a line off the “spine” for each factor, and label it with the theme.
  4. For each of these factors, brainstorm what the possible causes could be.  Add each of these causes as labels along the line for that factor.
  5. You’ll now have a diagram showing the problem, the main factors that may be involved, and all the possible causes that you can think of.

It should look something like the diagram below, although yours could be simpler or much more complex:

Problem solving fishbone diagram

Depending on how complex it is, the solution may now be obvious.  If it’s not, you can then investigate the most likely causes further.  That may involve doing customer research, looking at your data, talking to suppliers, etc.  But by laying everything down visually in a fishbone diagram, you can ensure you have the full picture at a glance. You can be thorough in identifying the actual problem – and solving the right one!