A smart problem solving approach might prove as practical and essential a leadership tool as any you can think of. Because one way or another, problems will arise in your business.
In this post, we’ll look at:
- The value of a well thought-out problem solving approach
- A typical (and problematic) problem process
- A vision-driven approach to problem solving
- The important nuance that’s not part of this approach
- How to skip “how.” (And why you should.)
I’ve never heard of a business person who hasn’t encountered problems. Nor have I heard of a business leader who wished he or she could deal with more of them. Most of us don’t like or desire problems in our professional or personal lives, right?
The Value of Intentional Problem Solving
As much as problems are inevitable, they can also present powerful opportunities for growth. In fact, 7 unique forces get unleashed in times of adversity, so there’s great potential in how you approach leadership in difficult times.
In light of all this, forward-thinking leaders are big on problem solving. Many seek out team members who show a strong problem solving approach. And many also focus—often with great outcomes—on teaching, encouraging, and cultivating proactive problem solving attitudes in their employees.
Furthermore, people who solve problems often become like heros. After all, who doesn’t like the guy who can efficiently or effectively fix something that’s broken—whether that thing is a leaky faucet or a messy company balance sheet?
The Process of a Problem
To see this more clearly, let’s take a look at an example of a typical problem solving approach:
Step 1: Awareness of the Problem
The first step in problem solving is becoming aware that a problem exists.
Let’s take a familiar-sounding example: a senator recognizes a budget crisis on the horizon.
Step 2: Sharing of the Problem
Often, the next step is to unload the problem by discussing it with others. (In many cases, discussing it ad nauseam.)
For our example, let’s say our politician shares her concerns with some colleagues on Capitol Hill.
Step 3: Idea Sharing & Problem Expansion
Often as a result of or in tandem with Step 2, thoughts and solutions begin to percolate.
Some of these ideas are likely valid and helpful, of course. But they carry with them various degrees of potential complexity, as all solutions do. And those complexities quickly become the focal point. You know the drill:
“What if we did X?”
“How would we do that? And what if Y happens when we do?”
Turning back to our example, as our politician’s fellow lawmakers respond by sharing their own ideas and concerns on the looming budget crisis and its potential solutions, the problem seems to mount. With each proposed solution comes potential complication, all of which gets mentally piled onto the original problem.
So what do we have now? A larger perceived problem, dressed in the disguise of many possible solutions.
Step 4: Dilution & Distraction
As each person comes up with new what ifs, additional dimensions get added to the problem’s landscape, thereby diluting focus on the original problem—not to mention the vision for it resolved.
It’s important to note that while focus has been diluted, the impact of the original problem has likely not lessened a bit.
In politics, this type of dilution is so typical that many of us voters can easily recognize it. Which is why I chose politics for my illustration; it’s an easy example to imagine, and one we’ll likely see lived out in the future, so we can learn more as we watch and consider different approaches.
Let’s wrap that example up now:
While our politicians and pundits discuss and debate an array of possible “solutions” to the budget crisis—and the problems with each one—the budget crisis itself still exists, just as it did at the beginning of the news cycle.
In fact, it’s probably getting worse. And too much time is passing.
The Worst-Case Scenario
Now, much of this actually represents a relatively healthy evolution of the problem. In fact, many issues should undergo a certain mulling process as they ripen enough to be addressed.
But if we continue down this path, the problem will become increasingly diluted and nagging, until all parties get stuck in the rut of repeating the issue and focusing on the myriad negative outcomes it could potentially produce.
At that point, the ensuing steps get ugly:
- As reiterations progress and the problem remains unsolved, people salt their descriptions with more and more urgency and worry, creating disaster scenarios.
- About this time, folks begin to think about blame: Who is to blame? Can I be blamed? (Those who choose this path have unwittingly eliminated any chance of becoming part of the solution.)
- Meanwhile, a brave few problem solvers are still seeking a solution. But much of this effort is greeted with negativism and recitation of the problem in its full and unwieldy complexity.
A Different Problem Solving Approach
Although the problem in our Capitol Hill example is quite complex—as are its various potential solutions—at the heart of it, the first answer to what went wrong is in fact quite simple.
Way back in the beginning, the politicians never envisioned the problem solved. They never got together and got clear on the ultimate goal—not the path to the goal, not the ideal solution—but what the world would look like with the problem in the rear-view mirror.
I encourage my clients to do this. And usually, it represents a very different problem solving approach. Different and powerful.
Added bonus: the recommendation is straightforward and easy to communicate to your team. It goes like this:
Before the ugly steps kick in, create a positive vision of the problem solved.
Take note: this is not a vision of the solution. Focusing on solutions quickly leads us to ask how, but this tool deliberately skips over that question.
Why Skip How?
By focusing on how to solve a problem before defining your vision of the problem solved, you’re setting yourself up for frustrating and unnecessary challenges. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without that picture on the top of the box—the one that shows you what the final image should look like.
Without the big picture to guide you along the way, you’ll have a much harder time getting the right piece into the right place, because you’ll never have a clear idea of exactly what you’re looking for.
How to Skip How
There’s more than one way to tackle this.
In some cases, a leader needs to map out the positive vision of the problem solved on his or her own. At other times, it’s important to encourage buy-in on the vision. Let’s look at an approach for this latter scenario:
Get the team together and ask each person to spend a few days thinking about the problem in a new way.
First, insist that they immediately stop looking for causes or blame.
Then, ask them to write down a description of what your world looks like once the issue has already been fixed. (Give them the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle.)
The first few times you try this approach, you’ll notice that your team keeps reverting to the how question.
- “But how will we make that happen?”
- “Sure, that sounds great. But how will we get there?”
This is a natural reaction, because most of us are oriented to solve problems by thinking about actions rather than outcomes. (Action is essential! But it’s not step #1.)
As your people learn to skip how, be patient. It will likely take some time and practice. As a leader, train yourself to listen for how—or bring in an outside perspective to monitor the conversation and keep you on track.
When how comes up, simply remind your people that at this point, you’re only drawing the picture. How will come later, but it has no place in your envisioning.
Once you’ve clearly mapped the vision of the problem solved, you can proceed with that future picture in hand. Your next steps might include
- Listing possible paths to that vision
- Evaluating the potential value and efficiency of each path
- Selecting a path or paths to try
- Documenting the actual value and efficiency of your selected solution(s)
With practice, you’ll find that a whole new climate emerges when you start with a vision of the no-problem future.
Freed from the early shackles of how, your creative people will be more enabled to dream up revolutionary outcomes.
And those dreams will help your solvers reframe their approach, allowing them to pursue new directions as they eventually tackle the important how steps…at just the right time.
Let me know how it goes.