Three simple ways to tackle problems better as a leader

Chances are, by the time you read this blog today at work, you’ve already had to deal with a problem or two. Solving situations, diffusing disagreements, fighting fires. These are par for the course as a leader.

You might have encountered a big, strategic problem like how do we ensure our business is futureproofed when it comes to workforce numbers and skills? Perhaps it’s something more tactical, like how to have that tough conversation with your team member this afternoon about their performance gap. Either way, solving problems is part of your job description as a leader.

So, how can you get better at it?

Here are three simple yet practical ways to approach your next leadership problem.

1: Define the real problem.

In other words, don’t rush to solutions until you’re super clear on the actual problem you’re trying to solve. This seems blindingly obvious. But often, the first time an issue presents itself, it’s a surface symptom of a deeper problem. Or, if you’re solving the problem as a team, sometimes not everyone is on the same page as to what you’re even talking about in the first place.

I get it. Leaders love action. And there’s often subliminal yet powerful pressure on leaders to move at pace. Time is money and all that.

But often when I’m working with leaders, whether it be an executive team or in an executive coaching conversation, I notice a tendency to spend insufficient time exploring the issue or getting clear on the real problem.

We often skim over problem identification (and its cousin: identifying what success looks like if we solve it) and instead jump too quickly into generating ideas to solve what we think is the problem. You can end up missing key data points or, worse, just coming up with the wrong solution entirely.

And if your problem involves other people, listening to understand their perspective and ensuring they feel heard before you jump into action mode is a critical step if you want their buy-in. ‘What/who/why/how and what else’ questions are your friends when it comes to problem identification.

Here are just a couple of useful questions to help you – either individually, or with others – uncover the real issue.

  • What do we mean when we say X?
  • What might be underlying causes of X that we are missing?
  • How long has this been present? Where else are we seeing this? What are its effects?
  • What are several possible root causes for what we’re seeing here? (Go for multiple)

2: Don't stop at either/or decisions to solve your problem.

Chip and Dan Heath in their excellent book, Decisive, warn us to beware the binary. Research from their book shows that we get better outcomes when we choose between more than two options.

So if, when you’re in the idea generation phase of problem solving, you notice you’re choosing between only two options, generate some more. Widen your options.

  • “Is there a third option? Or a 4th? 5th even?”
  • “Is there any way we can do both A and B in some form? Can we combine elements of either?”

3: Look at it from different angles.

We all have biases that cloud our objectivity. And if you’re a team around the table tackling a problem, and you all look and think the same, the risk of bias increases.

Looking at a problem from different angles and perspectives (and even from a timeline perspective, looking at it from a point in the future) can help you zoom in and zoom out. In fact, both the quantity and quality of solutions we can come up with is directly proportionate to the different focal points of your problem-solving efforts. A study on the effect of multiple-perspective thinking on problem solving found that people with higher ‘multiple perspective thinking scores’ were able to define problems from more perspectives and generate more solutions. Multiple perspective thinking improved their problem-solving performance.

To put this into practice:

  • Do a pre-mortem. Not many of us want to consider our greatest failing, but this project management exercise invites just that and offers a view from another angle. Imagine that this decision or solution has failed and work backwards from that point to determine the potential pitfalls. This can be helpful for navigating the coming twists and turns.
  • Bring all key stakeholders impacted by this decision into the room, even just metaphorically. Ask, “what would our customers/employees/shareholders/community/suppliers say? What is their perspective on this?” Even better, if it’s a big problem with big consequences, actually get them in the room and hear their perspective.
  • Who else has faced this problem? It might be a person, another organisation or even another industry. What can we learn and apply from their experience?

Problem solving is everyday territory for a leader. Even if that’s a role in which you thrive, we’ve all got blind spots or natural tendencies that these strategies can help us improve on. All of us stand to benefit from getting crystal clear on what we’re working to solve, opening up more options and possibilities and varying our perspective.

Try these out. I’d love to hear where you’ve used one of these strategies and found them helpful – or share your tips for better problem solving.

Leave a comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.