Part IV: Problem-Solving

Chances are good that you think of your job “primarily as problem-solving.” If you’re a manager, you may think you spend the bulk of your time “putting out fires.” You may even consider all this effort an enormous distraction from your “real” job. The funny thing about problem-solving is that it is an inevitable responsibility in a world filled with uncertainty, but many people swing toward making problem-solving all of their job or none of it rather than putting it in its proper place.

What exactly is the proper place for problem-solving? Effective change leaders break down and solve the problems that inevitably arise, even when there is a clear vision, effective process, and strong, positive relationships. In other words, the proper place of problem-solving is filling in the gaps that arise after other key domains are addressed. It should not be the primary focus for leaders, but neither should the aim be to eliminate it entirely. The best place to begin in assessing your problem-solving skills is to honestly evaluate how much time you spend in this space. Is it taking more than half your time? Are you putting it off so much that problems are mounting up around you?

Strength in the problem-solving domain is about planning for and responding to the unexpected. That can include unknown contextual variables (e.g., market dynamics, historical challenges), unknown interpersonal variables (e.g., conflict, politics, personality clashes, low trust) and unknown situational variables (e.g., recent events, alternative priorities )—as well as interplay among any of the three of them. Another way to evaluate your current skill set in this area is to ask how often you’re able to break problems into their component parts and devise solutions accordingly. If you can take the step to name the problem, it can help head off future challenges of the same type.

Some problems emerge as complex webs of technical, ethical, and social issues, but many are far simpler. The first skill to master in the problem-solving domain is effective diagnosis of the real underlying problem: are you sure you’ve found the root cause and not simply a three-headed symptom? If you’re hearing about problems from one or two people, try to dig deeper and see for yourself, or ask more people to weigh in. It may be obvious, but listening is key here. Don’t let your drive for efficiency take you down the wrong path. If you haven’t yet spent time evaluating and improving your listening skills, press pause on problem-solving and start there first.

If you’re ready to deepen your problem-solving capability, here are the key skills great problem-solvers build:

  • Ability to responds effectively to unexpected challenges

  • Ability to break apart complexity and delegate solution-building

  • Ability to manage conflict constructively

  • Ability and inclination to move toward problems and take on hard conversations

  • Ability to overcome unexpected barriers to keep projects on track

  • Ability to make decisions appropriately, effectively, and efficiently

Because it can be exciting and introduce diversity into daily routine, problem-solving can easily take over otherwise organized efforts, including daily management and leadership. On the other hand, problems can appear as barriers to progress and sometimes highly organized leaders and managers see them exclusively as such rather than as opportunities to learn and refine process or even vision. The key to problem-solving is balance and intentional decision-making about when and how to attend to unexpected challenges.