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The 4 most effective ways leaders solve problems.
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With as many problems as we are all faced with in our work and life, it seems as if there is never enough time to solve each one without dealing with some adversity along the way. Problems keep mounting so fast that we find ourselves taking short-cuts to temporarily alleviate the tension points – so we can move onto the next problem. In the process, we fail to solve the core of each problem we are dealt; thus we continuously get caught in the trap of a never-ending cycle that makes it difficult to find any real resolutions. Sound familiar?
Problem solving is the essence of what leaders exist to do. As leaders, the goal is to minimize the occurrence of problems – which means we must be courageous enough to tackle them head-on before circumstances force our hand. We must be resilient in our quest to create and sustain momentum for the organization and people we serve. But the reality of the workplace finds us dealing with people that complicate matters with their corporate politicking, self-promotion, power-plays and ploys, and envy. Silos, lack of budgets and resources, and many other random acts or circumstances also make it harder for people to be productive.
Competitors equally create problems for us when they unexpectedly convert a long-standing client, establish a new industry relationship, or launch a new product, brand or corporate strategy. Mergers & acquisitions keep us on our toes and further distract us from solving existing problems by creating new ones.
As Karl Popper , one of the most influential 20 th century philosophers of science, once eloquently stated, “All life is problem solving.” I’ve often contended that the best leaders are the best problem solvers. They have the patience to step back and see the problem at-hand through broadened observation; circular vision. They see around, beneath and beyond the problem itself. They see well-beyond the obvious. The most effective leaders approach problems through a lens of opportunity .
Leaders who lack this wisdom approach problems with linear vision – thus only seeing the problem that lies directly in front of them and blocking the possibilities that lie within the problem. As such, they never see the totality of what the problem represents; that it can actually serve as an enabler to improve existing best practices, protocols and standard operating procedures for growing and competing in the marketplace. They never realize that, in the end, all problems are the same – just packaged differently .
A leader must never view a problem as a distraction, but rather as a strategic enabler for continuous improvement and opportunities previously unseen.
When I launched my first venture in the food industry , we had a problem with the adhesion of the labels to the glass jar packaging of our products that affected nearly 20% of an initial shipment. As circumstances would have it, this was the first shipment to a new client that was “testing” our new products in 200 stores with an opportunity to expand our distribution to over 2500 stores nationally. Instead of panicking, we took a problem solving approach that involved multiple steps and resulted in a full-blown change management effort with our label supplier, manufacturer, trucking company and client. Rather than viewing this problem simply as a hurdle that could potentially lose us the client, we took proactive measures (and a financial investment) to show our new client that we were capable of not only solving the problem – but earning their trust by responding promptly and efficiently with a comprehensive step-by-step incident report that included our change management efforts.
This experience taught us many lessons about our company and helped us to avoid many unforeseen problems. The ROI from how we handled this problem helped open our eyes to many elements that were previously being overlooked – and in the long run it helped enable us to grow the business.
Whether you are a leader for a large corporation or a small business owner, here are the four most effective ways to solve problems.
1. Transparent Communication
Problem solving requires transparent communication where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed. I’ve seen one too many times how difficult it is to get to the root of the matter in a timely manner when people do not speak-up.
Yes, communication is a fundamental necessity. That is why when those involved in the problem would rather not express themselves – fearing they may threaten their job and/or expose their own or someone else’s wrong-doing – the problem solving process becomes a treasure hunt. Effective communication towards problem solving happens because of a leader’s ability to facilitate an open dialogue between people who trust her intentions and feel that they are in a safe environment to share why they believe the problem happened as well as specific solutions.
Once all voices have been heard and all points of view accounted for, the leader (with her team) can collectively map-out a path toward a viable and sustainable solution. As fundamental as communication may sound, don’t ever assume that people are comfortable sharing what they really think . This is where a leader must trust herself and her intuition enough to challenge the team until accountability can be fairly enforced and a solution can been reached.
2. Break Down Silos
Transparent communication requires you to break down silos and enable a boundary-less organization whose culture is focused on the betterment of a healthier whole. Unnecessary silos invite hidden agendas rather than welcome efficient cross-functional collaboration and problem solving.
Organizational silos are the root cause of most workplace problems and are why many of them never get resolved. This is why today’s new workplace must embrace an entrepreneurial spirit where employees can freely navigate and cross-collaborate to connect the problem solving dots; where everyone can be a passionate explorer who knows their own workplace dot and its intersections . When you know your workplace dot, you have a much greater sense of your sphere of influence . This is almost impossible to gauge when you operate in silos that potentially keep you from having any influence at all.
In a workplace where silos exist, problem solving is more difficult because you are more likely dealing with self-promoters – rather than team players fostered by a cross functional environment.. When you operate in a siloed environment where everyone wants to be a star, it becomes increasingly difficult to help make anything or anyone better. This is when problem solving becomes a discouraging task.
Breaking down silos allows a leader to more easily engage their employees to get their hands dirty and solve problems together . It becomes less about corporate politicking and more about finding resolutions and making the organization stronger.
3. Open-minded People
Breaking down silos and communication barriers requires people to be open-minded. In the end, problem solving is about people working together to make the organization and the people it serves better. Therefore, if you are stuck working with people that are closed-minded, effective problem solving becomes a long and winding road of misery.
There are many people in the workplace that enjoy creating unnecessary chaos so that their inefficiencies are never exposed. These are the types of people ( loafers and leeches ) that make it difficult for problems to get solved because they slow the process down while trying to make themselves look more important. Discover the lifters and high-potential leaders within the organization and you will see examples of the benefits of being open-minded and how this eventually leads to more innovation and initiative.
Open-minded people see beyond the obvious details before them and view risk as their best friend . They tackle problems head-on and get on with the business of driving growth and innovation. Close-minded employees turn things around to make it more about themselves and less about what is required to convert a problem into a new opportunity.
With this explanation in mind, carefully observe the actions of others the next time you are dealt a real problem.
4. A Solid Foundational Strategy
Without strategy, change is merely substitution, not evolution. A solid strategy must be implemented in order to solve any problem. Many leaders attempt to dissect a problem rather than identify the strategy for change that lies within the problem itself.
Effective leaders that are comfortable with problem solving always know how to gather the right people, resources, budget and knowledge from past experiences. They inspire people to lift their game by making the problem solving process highly collaborative; for them, it’s an opportunity to bring people closer together. I’ve always believed that you don’t know the true potential and character of a person until you see the way they solve problems.
Effective leaders connect the dots and map-out a realistic plan of action in advance. They have a strategy that serves as the foundation for how the problem will be approached and managed. They anticipate the unexpected and utilize the strengths of their people to assure the strategy leads to a sustainable solution.
Never shoot from the hip when problem solving. Avoid guessing. Take enough time to step back and assess the situation and the opportunities that each problem represents. Make the problem solving process more efficient by recognizing that each problem has its own nuances that may require a distinct strategy towards a viable resolution.
You know that you have great leadership in your organization when problem solving becomes a seamless process that enables the people and the organization to grow and get better. If problem solving creates chaos, you may have a serious leadership deficiency.
Problem solving is the greatest enabler for growth and opportunity. This is why they say failure serves as the greatest lesson in business and in life. Be the leader that shows maturity, acts courageously, and requires accountability. Applying each of these lessons can help you become a master problem solver. Each experience teaches us all new things. Embrace problem solving and the many unseen treasures it represents.
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Problem Solving: A Critical Leadership Skill
Today’s leadership responsibilities and roles aren’t limited to delegating and management. Instead, when it comes to effective leadership, problem solving is not only an important skill, but a crucial role for leaders to take on.
Faced with more complex challenges in business and the world at large, many leaders are embracing what some traditionalists may call anti-leadership. Instead of focusing primarily on managing their people, many leaders are fixing their attention on the problems at hand, and unintentionally leading people excited about the solutions they are striving for. Founder of the MIT Leadership Center Deborah Ancona and Executive Director Hal Gregersen have labeled this problem-led leadership , and are reporting an increase in this distinctive style.
Even on a smaller scale, problem solving is a critical component for leaders who must strive to eliminate barriers and challenges that can otherwise hinder their people’s or their business’ progress. In a Harvard Business Review study about the skills that influence a leader’s success, problem solving ranked third out of 16.
As a leader, you need to approach problem solving as an opportunity, with a broad perspective and a calm demeanor. And, you’ll want to arm yourself with a few critical approaches to hone your problem-solving skills.
How to Develop Problem Solving Skills
Identify and define the problem.
Implementing a solution too early may not fully address the problem. Instead, invest time in understanding and defining the scope and nature of the problem to generate several good solutions before taking action. Don’t confuse a generic label of the problem (for example, the sales forecast is wrong) with the real definition of the problem. To truly define the problem, you would need to indicate something like: I know our department anticipated twice the revenue shown in the forecast here, and only three salespeople are represented from a staff of 10. Then, you also need to identify when and what the resolution needs to be: In one week, I need the correct forecast available for a board meeting.
Analyze the Problem
You will also want to assess the degree to which the problem has affected the overall business. In the example above, perhaps the sales forecast report has impacted other departments in the company as well. Look for overall patterns and ask questions about who, what, when, where, why and how to understand the scale of the impact. The objective is to find the root cause to allow you to implement a permanent resolution instead of a temporary fix.
Data offers a fact-based perspective on a problem and can help you define the issue. Learn what types of data are available for you and how to interpret the datasets. And, be sure to translate your findings in clear and meaningful ways for stakeholders who can support resolutions.
You will need to cultivate good communication skills, to allow you to clearly and effectively relay the problem to key stakeholders. Then, you’ll also need to inspire the people who are supporting the solution to remain connected to the task until it is resolved.
Transparency is a key tenant of communication to ensure all aspects of a problem are understood. This is also critical when proposing solutions, as you need to understand different perspectives and concerns before implementing what you believe to be the right approach. Sometimes, this may entail keeping team members accountable for giving honest feedback, as not everyone feels comfortable sharing, particularly negative or dissenting opinions.
Finally, once you have a plan, you’ll need to communicate unambiguously to implement it.
Problem solving cannot be done well if leaders are change- or risk-averse – or worse, allowing team members to mask inefficiencies. You’ll need to be able to assess a problem outside of immediate, obvious details, and be open to taking risks to find a better, more innovative approach. Problem solving is best conducted when many people can contribute their best ideas and skills, and you’ll need to keep an open mind to hear from top talent and innovate ideas across the organization, and to take on a new perspective.
Once the problem has been identified and analyzed and you’ve brainstormed solutions, you’ll want to narrow down a few fully developed solutions. Presenting every idea on the list to stakeholders or clients can hamper decisions. With a narrowed list, you can design a long-term solution or two that consider the time, cost, and technology required to support the solution.
Learn From Mistakes
Mistakes are a natural part of growth and development, and fostering solid problem-solving skills will likely entail some errors along the way. But mistakes can provide learning opportunities and improve your overall process and approach – as long as you appreciate them as a learning opportunity. Even if you aren’t grappling with an obvious mistake, take time to reflect on the overall process and approach and determine if you would change anything to boost efficiency, creativity, or speed the next time.
Cultivating strong problem-solving skills is critical for leaders at any level and career stage, and starting now ensures as you advance, you’ll be fine-tuning this vital skill instead of trying to play catch up.
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Why Problem-Solving Skills Are Essential for Leaders in Any Industry
- 17 Jan 2023
Any organization offering a product or service is in the business of solving problems.
Whether providing medical care to address health issues or quick convenience to those hungry for dinner, a business’s purpose is to satisfy customer needs .
In addition to solving customers’ problems, you’ll undoubtedly encounter challenges within your organization as it evolves to meet customer needs. You’re likely to experience growing pains in the form of missed targets, unattained goals, and team disagreements.
Yet, the ubiquity of problems doesn’t have to be discouraging; with the right frameworks and tools, you can build the skills to solve consumers' and your organization’s most challenging issues.
Here’s a primer on problem-solving in business, why it’s important, the skills you need, and how to build them.
Access your free e-book today.
What Is Problem-Solving in Business?
Problem-solving is the process of systematically removing barriers that prevent you or others from reaching goals.
Your business removes obstacles in customers’ lives through its products or services, just as you can remove obstacles that keep your team from achieving business goals.
Design thinking , as described by Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar in the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , is a human-centered , solutions-based approach to problem-solving and innovation. Originally created for product design, design thinking’s use case has evolved . It’s now used to solve internal business problems, too.
The design thinking process has four stages :
- Clarify: Clarify a problem through research and feedback from those impacted.
- Ideate: Armed with new insights, generate as many solutions as possible.
- Develop: Combine and cull your ideas into a short list of viable, feasible, and desirable options before building prototypes (if making physical products) and creating a plan of action (if solving an intangible problem).
- Implement: Execute the strongest idea, ensuring clear communication with all stakeholders about its potential value and deliberate reasoning.
Using this framework, you can generate innovative ideas that wouldn’t have surfaced otherwise.
Another, less structured approach to challenges is creative problem-solving , which employs a series of exercises to explore open-ended solutions and develop new perspectives. This is especially useful when a problem’s root cause has yet to be defined.
You can use creative problem-solving tools in design thinking’s “ideate” stage, which include:
- Brainstorming: Instruct everyone to develop as many ideas as possible in an allotted time frame without passing judgment.
- Divergent thinking exercises: Rather than arriving at the same conclusion (convergent thinking), instruct everyone to come up with a unique idea for a given prompt (divergent thinking). This type of exercise helps avoid the tendency to agree with others’ ideas without considering alternatives.
- Alternate worlds: Ask your team to consider how various personas would manage the problem. For instance, how would a pilot approach it? What about a young child? What about a seasoned engineer?
It can be tempting to fall back on how problems have been solved before, especially if they worked well. However, if you’re striving for innovation, relying on existing systems can stunt your company’s growth.
Related: How to Be a More Creative Problem-Solver at Work: 8 Tips
Why Is Problem-Solving Important for Leaders?
While obstacles’ specifics vary between industries, strong problem-solving skills are crucial for leaders in any field.
Whether building a new product or dealing with internal issues, you’re bound to come up against challenges. Having frameworks and tools at your disposal when they arise can turn issues into opportunities.
As a leader, it’s rarely your responsibility to solve a problem single-handedly, so it’s crucial to know how to empower employees to work together to find the best solution.
Your job is to guide them through each step of the framework and set the parameters and prompts within which they can be creative. Then, you can develop a list of ideas together, test the best ones, and implement the chosen solution.
Related: 5 Design Thinking Skills for Business Professionals
4 Problem-Solving Skills All Leaders Need
1. problem framing.
One key skill for any leader is framing problems in a way that makes sense for their organization. Problem framing is defined in Design Thinking and Innovation as determining the scope, context, and perspective of the problem you’re trying to solve.
“Before you begin to generate solutions for your problem, you must always think hard about how you’re going to frame that problem,” Datar says in the course.
For instance, imagine you work for a company that sells children’s sneakers, and sales have plummeted. When framing the problem, consider:
- What is the children’s sneaker market like right now?
- Should we improve the quality of our sneakers?
- Should we assess all children’s footwear?
- Is this a marketing issue for children’s sneakers specifically?
- Is this a bigger issue that impacts how we should market or produce all footwear?
While there’s no one right way to frame a problem, how you do can impact the solutions you generate. It’s imperative to accurately frame problems to align with organizational priorities and ensure your team generates useful ideas for your firm.
To solve a problem, you need to empathize with those impacted by it. Empathy is the ability to understand others’ emotions and experiences. While many believe empathy is a fixed trait, it’s a skill you can strengthen through practice.
When confronted with a problem, consider whom it impacts. Returning to the children’s sneaker example, think of who’s affected:
- Your organization’s employees, because sales are down
- The customers who typically buy your sneakers
- The children who typically wear your sneakers
Empathy is required to get to the problem’s root and consider each group’s perspective. Assuming someone’s perspective often isn’t accurate, so the best way to get that information is by collecting user feedback.
For instance, if you asked customers who typically buy your children’s sneakers why they’ve stopped, they could say, “A new brand of children’s sneakers came onto the market that have soles with more traction. I want my child to be as safe as possible, so I bought those instead.”
When someone shares their feelings and experiences, you have an opportunity to empathize with them. This can yield solutions to their problem that directly address its root and shows you care. In this case, you may design a new line of children’s sneakers with extremely grippy soles for added safety, knowing that’s what your customers care most about.
Related: 3 Effective Methods for Assessing Customer Needs
3. Breaking Cognitive Fixedness
Cognitive fixedness is a state of mind in which you examine situations through the lens of past experiences. This locks you into one mindset rather than allowing you to consider alternative possibilities.
For instance, your cognitive fixedness may make you think rubber is the only material for sneaker treads. What else could you use? Is there a grippier alternative you haven’t considered?
Problem-solving is all about overcoming cognitive fixedness. You not only need to foster this skill in yourself but among your team.
4. Creating a Psychologically Safe Environment
As a leader, it’s your job to create an environment conducive to problem-solving. In a psychologically safe environment, all team members feel comfortable bringing ideas to the table, which are likely influenced by their personal opinions and experiences.
If employees are penalized for “bad” ideas or chastised for questioning long-held procedures and systems, innovation has no place to take root.
By employing the design thinking framework and creative problem-solving exercises, you can foster a setting in which your team feels comfortable sharing ideas and new, innovative solutions can grow.
How to Build Problem-Solving Skills
The most obvious answer to how to build your problem-solving skills is perhaps the most intimidating: You must practice.
Again and again, you’ll encounter challenges, use creative problem-solving tools and design thinking frameworks, and assess results to learn what to do differently next time.
While most of your practice will occur within your organization, you can learn in a lower-stakes setting by taking an online course, such as Design Thinking and Innovation . Datar guides you through each tool and framework, presenting real-world business examples to help you envision how you would approach the same types of problems in your organization.
Are you interested in uncovering innovative solutions for your organization’s business problems? Explore Design Thinking and Innovation —one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses —to learn how to leverage proven frameworks and tools to solve challenges. Not sure which course is right for you? Download our free flowchart .
About the Author
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Effective problem solving is one of the key attributes that separate great leaders from average ones
Top 10 Most Influential People in Leadership Consulting, 2022
Leadership consulting makes use of several strategies to accomplish the desired goal. A mentoring program may be implemented to allow department heads and supervisors to learn more about the management techniques used by upper-level managers. Today’s leadership responsibilities and roles aren’t limited to delegating and management. Instead, when it comes to effective leadership, problem-solving is not only an important skill but a crucial role for leaders to take on.
Problems are inevitable in the workplace, so developing problem-solving skills is helpful for management to learn how to identify problems as they arise and determine effective solutions. Studying different methods for problem-solving can help leaders prevent and approach difficult situations in a positive, relevant, and successful manner.
Understanding Problem-Solving: A problem well stated is a problem half solved
As a leader, you need to approach problem-solving as an opportunity, with a broad perspective and a calm demeanor. And, you’ll want to arm yourself with a few critical approaches to hone your problem-solving skills. Understanding your problem is half the solution.
Learning how to break down and solve complex problems is a core skill you need in today’s business world. A leader must never view a problem as a distraction, but rather as a strategic enabler for continuous improvement and opportunities previously unseen. Management demands action, not talk and collaborative analysis. Especially the kind of meetings that involves debate and discussion are seen as “just talk”. This is understandable considering the number of meaningless meetings most people experience, but debates and discussions are necessary to create a shared understanding of a problem.
Basic steps in problem-solving
- Build trust with your team so they feel comfortable talking to you if they’re struggling with a problem. If they’re concerned about repercussions from you, they may avoid sharing it with you.
- Because you’re already good at solving problems, you also may be tempted to solve them for your team. Instead, avoid the impulse to do it for them and work with them to address problems, along the way building their capability to do it themselves. Problems get solved better and faster at the lowest level possible, so work with people to develop problem-solving skills.
- As you grow as a leader, the size of your problems will grow too. It’s critical to continue to develop your process, ask the right questions, and get all the facts to find the best solutions.
Tips for Effective Problem-Solving
You’ll be able to solve problems in your role better as you grow in your industry-specific knowledge. Whether you are a leader for a large corporation or a small business owner, here are some effective ways to solve problems.
- Transparent Communication
- Be Open-minded To People
- Build A Solid Foundational Strategy
- Defining the Problem: In almost every problem-solving methodology the first step is defining or identifying the problem. It is the most difficult and the most important of all the steps. It involves diagnosing the situation so that the focus is on the real problem and not on its symptoms. Deeply understanding a problem through research, leads to better solutions. Research can include interviewing, reading books and emails, analyzing financial data, searching your organization’s intranet, and organizing your findings.
- Brainstorming: Creating a myriad of new solutions quickly. In group brainstorms, allow everyone to state ideas. Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem-solving with lateral thinking. It encourages people to come up with thoughts and ideas that can, at first, seem a bit crazy. Some of these ideas can be crafted into original, creative solutions to a problem, while others can spark even more ideas. Appreciate all input, and avoid criticism. Then, organize solutions into groups around common themes.
- Analyzing: Using disciplined thought processes to evaluate each possible solution. The ability to examine information or a situation in detail to identify key or important elements, their strengths, and weaknesses and use these to compile a persuasive argument, make recommendations or solve a problem.
- Managing Risk: Risk management in problem-solving is a critical skill required for construction and effective leadership at all levels. Anticipating and trying to avoid the downsides of key solutions. Your team can list potential risks, rate how likely each is, predict a date by which each might either happen or no longer be an issue, and think of ways to reduce those risks. Once risks have been identified, along with their likelihood and their impact on a situation or the organization, it must then be decided as to what the best way to manage each is.
- Deciding: Decision-making skills are important because they can help you to navigate a variety of situations that might come up at work. The ability to decide on a solution and move forward with it. After an appropriate amount of time, an analysis of possible solutions, and feedback from team members, a designated decider must choose and implement a solution.
- Managing Emotions: Emotional intelligence is all about how well you understand your own emotions and the emotions of others, and the ability to identify and manage them. Applying emotional intelligence to improve your and your team members’ ability to think clearly. This requires you to recognize emotions in yourself and others, manage feelings, and channel emotions into useful work.
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Problem Solving Ability
Definition: anticipating, analyzing, diagnosing, and resolving problems..
Leaders with an aptitude for problem-solving have the ability to analyze, diagnose and deal with problems effectively. Whether the problem is linear and “tame,” or nonlinear and “wicked,” adept problem solvers have a natural propensity to discover and help lead others to solutions. The leaders of tomorrow must learn to be collaborative problem-solving facilitators, instead of solitary master problem-solvers. Problem-solving ability is a multi-faceted competency that uses other skills discussed throughout the Leaders Are Clear Thinkers section, including conceptual thinking, planning and organization, and creativity. In this section you’ll discover resources and activities to sharpen your problem-solving skills.
Join our community to learn more about problem-solving skills, and to access resources and activities to help you along the way.
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A leader as someone who can look at the mistakes and failures of their past to help make a better decision in the future. As a result, they are unlikely to make the same mistake twice, and when the same problem comes along, they are more likely to solve it properly. Let's look at problem solving.
Problem solving is a form of thinking, often considered to be the most complex of all intellectual functions that a person can have. Problem solving is defined as a higher-order cognitive skill and it occurs in an organism if it does not know how to proceed from a given state to achieve a desired goal. There are several types of problems that can be exceedingly difficult to solve, and require the skills of a great leader or problem solver to handle them. Here are a few examples:
- Intransparency - This a problem where there is a lack of clarity of the situation. A good example of this is someone who owns a boat, but rarely is on the water, but now has to deal with a hurricane which they have never had to face before.
- Polytely - This is where multiple goals must be achieved. A good example of this is a person who has a business report due that must not only show how to cut costs, but also to do it without firing anyone, while allowing revenue to increase for the company.
- Complexity - This is a large number of items and decisions to take into consideration for the problem. An example of this is a situation where someone will be dealing with many complex factors at once, like a financial sheet, where they have to make it balance properly.
- Dynamics - This is a problem with time considerations. A military leader who is facing the onslaught of the enemy in five minutes needs to devise a plan quickly.
What makes problem solving so important to leadership? Well, the short answer is that without problem solving skills, a leader will not be able to solve the many problems they will face in their lifetime, from the mundane to the critical.
Problem solving is a lot like leadership; those who have it are both born with it and learn how to use it.
People may be born with a highly logical mind that allows them to assess situations quickly and determine the best course of action, but without the practice of using that in various situations, that skill can fade away. Like any talent, it must be honed and practiced to make it work properly.
Leaders often possess problem solving capabilities, but it is up to them to make those capabilities work properly. They need to be able to look at the problems they have faced in the past and to be able to use those experiences to figure out their current predicament.
For example, if a great military commander is on the high seas and he finds himself surrounded by three other ships, he has only a few options. He can flee, he can attack them one at a time, or he can use them against themselves. Now, say he has faced this situation once before and he attacked one at a time, only to nearly lose his ship before he fled. In this present situation, he can look at that past experience and realize that attacking one at a time is not the way to go. So, instead he uses his hopefully faster and more agile ship to go around the other ships and force them to fire at him, only to hit the ships of their fellow countrymen.
Therefore, by looking at the past situation, the military commander was able to know what not to do and reduce his three difficult choices to only two. This gave him much better odds.
Problem solving works like this. Thousands of years ago, as our species was first hunting big game, we probably chased after them as a group, only to have them outrun us. So, we learned from that and we decided to chase after game and send them towards other hunters, who could then take down the prey. Therefore, the problem solving worked by relying on past experiences to solve the problem.
Again, we see that supervision is associated with leadership, but not actually something leadership needs.
Also, people can be taught how to look at problems, how to assess them, and how to create the solutions that may be needed. School is an excellent example of this concept, where children are taught in math how to solve many different problems. In fact, tests in nearly every subject are completely dependent on problem solving.
- You need to look at all the elements of the problem first and understand the forces that are affecting the situation. This could be looking at enemy forces coming over the hill, figuring out which of your running backs is open, or perhaps it is looking at the variables in a math question.
- Next, you need to understand the causes behind the problem. Why are those troops charging at us, what is the other team doing to stop our player, how do these variables play into the math question?
- Understand the roles of those with you, and those against you. This may not apply to math questions, but it certainly applies to sports and war, and as a result many great leaders are lauded in these two avenues for their ability to problem solve.
- Last, evaluate the ability of those on your side, and those on the other side to affect the situation. You may think a barrage of arrows will stop the troops coming at you, but if you fail to think that the other commander thought of that and has his archers already firing, you may end up on the losing end of a battle .
This process shows just how a leader will problem solve in a situation. When we look at leaders in the past, people are astounded by their ability to solve problems that many would deem to be nearly impossible to solve. As well, we often see them going up against the odds and winning, in no small part due to their problem solving abilities. Let's look at historical leaders and see how problem solving played a role in their legendary achievements.
- Julius Caesar conquered a huge portion of Europe using his wits and the troops in his army with innovative methods.
- Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world by using problem solving techniques, including building a huge bridge to transport siege equipment across, just in order to take a small island.
- Boadicea defeated the Romans in London, despite being outnumbered, by using her knowledge of the terrain and her own problem solving skills, to her advantage.
- Gandhi looked at the problem of British occupation in India and came up with his own solution that would work given the dominance of the British: Non-violent resistance. Looking at the number of his people versus the number of the British, it was the clear solution.
- Epicurus routinely used problem solving to look at the world around him and devise solutions as to why the world is the way it is.
- Horatio Nelson's life was based on problem solving, overcoming the odds, and defeating the enemy with new and innovative methods.
When we look at the world of problem solving, it is clear to see why it is an important leadership characteristic. When there is a problem that needs to be solved, it is not up to the followers to find the solution, although a good leader will get their input on the matter. It is up to the leader to look at the problem, the information they have been provided, and be able to find a solution to it, using whatever information they have at their disposal.
Because planning is very important in problem solving, we also need to discuss planning here as well
This emphasizes the importance of planning. It means knowing the situation you are in, figuring out a way to get through it, and then, implementing that solution. Writers call it a plot outline, computer programmers call it a flowchart, leaders call it destiny or their grand plan, but no matter what, they all have the ability to plan to solve problems.
There may be problems that are immediate, like how to deal with an irate subordinate, or they may be more long term, like how to deal with climate change. It could be something personal for the leader, like planning their own march into the history books, or it may be a plan for someone else. Boadicea burned London down in the First Century, A.D. because Roman soldiers killed her husband and raped her daughters. She planned the attack and she executed it for personal reasons, but didn't do it alone.
Can You Lead Without Planning?
Some people believe that it is possible to lead people without planning a course of action. There are some who can do this, but they are not leaders, they are lucky. Those that are lucky look like great leaders because of the luck, but eventually luck catches up with them and turns from good to bad.
Planning is core to leadership. Even supervision needs planning. When a supervisor is showing someone how to work on a new piece of machinery, they need a plan of action to help them through the steps. They need to be able to start from the basics and progress through the difficult parts to teach the employee what they need to know about the machinery. They cannot just show them what it does and walk away.
Leaders need to plan because it shows those around them that not only do they calmly assess situations in looking for the best way out, but they do not simply go blindly into a situation, which in terms of war, can have disastrous consequences. When a leader shows that they have concern for their troops, the troops will follow them to Hell and back again.
How Do Leaders Plan?
Essentially, they plan like anyone else, they just do a much better job of it. The important thing that leaders do when they plan is that they look at the entire situation and then they determine the best course of action. Does this sound a lot like problem solving? It should, because as we stated earlier, it is an integral part of planning.
Here are some of the key things leaders do when they plan a course of action for themselves, and those around them:
- They look at the situation as a whole before they ever break it down to see the integral parts of the problem or goal.
- They talk to those around them to get their opinions. They may not follow the opinions, but a good leader always tries to understand what their followers and advisors think.
- They use their own 'gut feeling'. One of the most important things a leader has at their disposal is a gut feeling. This is their intuition and when a leader is planning a course of action, they always listen to it. If they have an uneasy feeling about a situation, they will not take that course of action and they will readjust their plan. For a leader, a gut feeling is one of their greatest tools.
- They look at the end result that they want to achieve and the situation that they are in at that time. Afterwards, they plan how to get from point A to point B in the best manner.
- Once they have decided on a plan, they go through with that plan and they do not waver from it. If you remember from Lesson One, we learned that sticking to your guns was a huge part of being a leader, and if a leader wants people to follow them, they should not flip-flop.
Leaders will plan in different ways, but the end result will always be the same. Either they will succeed, and then they will know that the plan they just implemented was the best for the job. Or they will fail, and they will then use that experience to determine how best to proceed when faced with the same situation in the future.
Planning for the Best
Chance Favors the Prepared
The above statement is a good way to look at how leaders think. They leave nothing to chance and they plan out every scenario that they can, so they will have the desired result. This then comes down to the next statement:
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
We all hope for the best, but very few of us plan for the worst. More often than not, people will hope the leaders around them will take care of that, and that is what separates leaders from the rest of the people. They prepare for the worst because they know that while they hope for the best, there is no guarantee that it will happen. When you don't get the best result, you don't want to be caught off guard.
The point is that a leader has to plan for the future and they have to plan for the best, as well as the worst outcome. This means that a leader does not only have one plan of action in their head, they have dozens, or more. Military commanders in the past had to plan their attack, and, at the same time, plan what to do if they were flanked by the enemy's cavalry. In addition, they also had to plan what to do if the enemy had forces hidden in reserve.
To be a great leader, you need to be able to problem solve. To be able to problem solve, you need to be able to plan.
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The Critical Leadership Skill of Creative Problem-Solving
There is a common misconception that leaders merely manage creative efforts; rather than become active participants in the process. Recent research indicates quite the opposite (Friedrich, Mumford, Vessey, Beeler, & Eubanks, 2010). Leaders, it seems, play a crucial role in the creative problem-solving process. The leadership skills they possess can significantly affect the quality of the innovative outcome. Consequently, as organizations increasingly depend on new products and processes to fuel their future, creative problem-solving stands as a critical leadership skill.
For leaders, the creative thought process is sequentially different than for individual contributors. Specifically, successful leaders initiate the process by soliciting and evaluating others' ideas for solving a particular problem. The clearer the problem to be solved, the easier for team members to produce potential solutions and a leader to evaluate the quality of those solutions. Seeing and clarifying problems, either solo or in collaboration thus becomes the first challenge to a leader’s creative skillset.
The second progressive task is identifying potential solutions to be analyzed and evaluated. Evaluating proposed solutions normally ignites the leader’s creative thinking and they begin to generate additional ideas, discover alternative perspectives, and redefine the original problem. Sharing their alternatives, insights, and additions stimulates team members to continue solution generation and development. At this phase, solution standards are appraised, potential solution outcomes predicted, old ideas revised and new ideas put forth by leaders and contributors collectively.
As potential and probable solutions surface, the third challenge for the leader becomes identifying and encouraging buy-in by the multiple stakeholders within the organization. As a result, the leader not only evaluates the potential logistical implications of solution implementation but also the social and political implications as well. Consequently, a leader needs to be skilled in evaluating creative ideas, as well as forecasting the varied outcomes associated with the different areas of the organization involved in the innovation.
A leader’s creative problem-solving skills vary, however, depending on the type of problem being solved. Evaluative and judgment skills are in high demand if the problem requires a process innovation. When the solution is intended to result in a product innovation, a leader’s skill in generating clear problem definitions and workable solutions will influence the ultimate success of the innovative outcome.
For an organization to grow and prosper, fresh products and efficient processes are constantly needed. What worked yesterday is not guaranteed to work tomorrow. Leaders with creative problem-solving skills have the ability to stimulate, challenge and inspire others to continually pursue prominent problems and devise creative solutions to feed future organizational growth and success.
Our guest blogger is Professor Dr. Paul Schempp , a professional speaker managed by The Persimmon Group Speakers Agency . Dr. Schempp directs a research laboratory at the University of Georgia where he has spent more than two decades studying the characteristics and development of expertise and human performance. Paul has dedicated his professional life to helping people reach their full potential through award-winning research, testing what it takes to achieve greatness.
He is the author of six books including the award-winning, 5 Steps to Expert: How to Go from Business Novice to Elite Performer .
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About the author: dr. paul schempp.
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6 Problem Solving Skills That All Leaders Should Work On
- Anouare Abdou
- January 3, 2023
Chances are, if you are a leader, you are also a pretty good problem-solver . You have come this far because you are proactive about finding solutions. You know how to think critically, strategize and execute. You foster collaboration in your team and make the most of the strengths of each team member. You lean on your communication skills to overcome challenges.
If you want to take your ability to solve complex problems to the next level, however, you’ll need to actively work on the specific problem-solving skills that differentiate great leaders from excellent ones.
“More than ever, leaders are facing highly complex, challenging situations that don’t have simple solutions. These include the intersection of employee mental health, diversity and equity expectations, supply chain issues, societal crises, and more,” according to Dr. Mira Brancu , award-winning leader, author, and consulting psychologist. “Employees and customers are expecting more from companies, and therefore the leaders that are needed today are those who have more than just technical expertise in their field – they also have the ability to solve complex problems.”
On that note, here are six problem-solving skills that all leaders should work on these days.
1. Calculating the critical path
Every leader should know how to calculate the critical path in a project, according to Christina Wallace , senior lecturer of Entrepreneurial Management at Harvard Business School, angel investor, and author of “The Portfolio Life: How to Future-Proof Your Career, Avoid Burnout, and Build A Life Bigger Than Your Business Card .”
Wondering what that even means? In project management, the critical path is the longest sequence of activities that must be completed to ensure a project is finished. Every project has a set of tasks and sub-tasks. Some of them can happen concurrently, while others need to happen in a certain sequence. Identifying all those activities and the dependencies between them allows you to calculate the critical path that leads to the project end date – in simple words, it lets you forecast how long it will take to wrap up your project while anticipating bottlenecks.
“If you’ve ever been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic while three lanes winnow down to one, you are familiar with the idea of a bottleneck and its frustrations. It’s the moment when too many things (cars, deadlines) are demanding the same resources at once (roadway, time on your calendar), creating congestion in the system,” says Wallace. Calculating the critical path helps prevent bottlenecks before they happen. Use a Gantt chart , a graphic that displays activities against time, to visualize the critical path of a project – most project-management platforms offer the option to create one. “Visualizing the bottlenecks gives you the opportunity to move things around, add in buffers or simplify processes to ensure your plan is not only feasible but also realistic,” adds Wallace
2. Sensitivity analysis
If you manage a budget, you’ll also want to know how to run a sensitivity analysis – a technique that tests how robust your predictions are.
“If the economy suddenly hits a recession, will that affect the demand for your work or the pricing power you have over your rates? Are there expenses that could see a sizable change, like the cost of living significantly increasing in a fast-growing city? What about one-off costs that you don’t regularly budget for? According to Wallace, ” do you have a plan to mitigate them?” are questions to ask yourself about your financial planning. The idea of a sensitivity analysis is to consider the assumptions built into your financial model – say, assuming that your team is going to hit certain targets– and assess the likelihood of those assumptions being wrong.
“A sensitivity analysis gives you the ability to consider multiple scenarios and understand how your financial plans may need to change if the future looks different than you anticipate,” says Wallace. No need to be a CFO to do this either – if you have a budget, you should unpack the assumptions involved in your plan.
3. Critical thinking
Speaking of assumptions, how often do you challenge your own biases and seek to look at problems in a variety of ways? It’s a crucial aspect of critical thinking – and critical thinking is a crucial aspect of solving problems. To flex your critical thinking muscles, you’ll want to look at issues from different perspectives.
“Critical thinking involves seeing an issue from many angles, zooming out to the big picture and zooming into the details and back, and being able to imagine the impact of making different decisions on multiple stakeholders before making a final decision,” says Brancu.
Practice this with every problem you solve and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at the solutions that you come up with and the opportunities that open up as a result.
4. Data gathering
Data gathering is another important problem-solving skill to work on. Knowing how to gather both qualitative and quantitative data to solve problems is key, according to Brancu.
“This involves taking the time to speak with critical stakeholders, and business data, and garnering other information to ensure that you are not missing anything important before making a decision. It helps you address your own blind spots,” she says. Gathering information about a challenge before making a move is not time wasted – it’s time gained down the line.
5. Leveraging advisors
Wallace says that leaders should build their own personal “board of directors” to solve problems more effectively. Leveraging your relationships in that way is an underrated but powerful problem-solving ability.
Your advisors should include a collection of folks that you go to for advice, introductions, a fresh perspective, or some hard truth, says Wallace. “They bring their experience, judgment, and network to the table, providing counsel, access, and feedback. Rather than looking for one mentor who can be all things for an indefinite period of time, you can seek out directors who may do a rotation on your board for a few years, maybe more, maybe less.”
To be clear, you don’t need to officially ask them to be part of your “board.” You simply have to make a point of connecting with them on a regular basis because you appreciate their experience and trust their advice. According to Wallace, you should seek to cover five key roles: a coach, a negotiator, a connector, a cheerleader, and a truth-teller. Turn to them when you’re unsure about how to move forward.
6. Change-management skills
Every leader should possess change-management skills when solving problems in this day and age. “Any decision that is made to address a problem needs to consider both the actual change that is required, as well as the people who would be affected. Most leaders overlook the impact and reactions of the people who are affected by any change, or they spend insufficient time considering how to involve different groups of people at different phases of a change process,” according to Brancu.
“As a result, the problem might get worse because the leader didn’t get buy-in, didn’t communicate the concern or plan sufficiently or didn’t sufficiently address concerns raised,” she adds.
If you become adept at change management, you’ll solve issues before they even happen. Talk about a useful problem-solving skill.
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