Ideas and Approaches for Better Problem Solving
By Meredith Summers Posted November 2, 2017
Problem-solving likely consumes much of your time both personally and professionally. In fact, it's not unusual to get stuck just trying to decide how to approach a problem. Should you employ a "Pros and Cons" list? Should you solicit feedback from a variety of people with experience? Is it just a matter of the best ROI? While it's true that solutions can arise from the most unlikely places, those discoveries are often too few and far between to count on. If you find yourself running out of ways for dealing with the multitude of decisions you have in front of you, it's time to add a few more techniques to your arsenal.
Re-frame the Problem
People aren't always primed to see what's really going on right in front of them, which is often why experts advise you to really prioritize this step. Let's say you want to see more of your employees coming to meetings on time, so you start implementing penalties for showing up even 30 seconds late. You might think the problem is that your employees aren't committed to their jobs, but the truth is your employees feel like the meetings waste their time and disrupt their schedules. Instead of talking to you about it, they subconsciously show up to meetings late. Re-framing the problem means you see both of the real issues at hand: you're calling too many unproductive meetings and your employees don't feel comfortable talking to you.
Know When It's Your Problem
No matter the hierarchy in your office, you're probably used to being hit with a number of different problems all day long. From how much time to spend talking to your friend in the break room to how you can increase company revenue by 25% in a single quarter, your brain is constantly working to make decisions. The more you get involved with other people's problems, the less time you'll be able to give your own. If you're a manager who's used to taking care of your employees every time they come running to you, then your real problem may be coddling those underneath you. The more you let other people develop their own skills, the more you'll come to rely on and trust your team.
It's easy to get in your own head when you have to a difficult problem to solve, especially if you dread the idea of taking the time to bring everyone up to speed. But effective leaders are constantly communicating with their teams, keeping them in the loop about the major challenges without getting side-tracked by minor details. (If you don't feel your colleagues will have anything useful to say, then you've discovered the real problem in the organization.) Once you've got everyone on the same page, you can start pooling together resources that may help. The key is to make those resources as diverse as possible which you won't be able to do if you go it alone.
Take a Break
Problem-solving often involves a lot of creativity to really get right, and the mind isn't always up to that kind of challenge. Regardless of what your office hours happen to be, your problem-solving skills don't care about what time it is. Taking breaks can feel like it will lead to a wasted day, but they don't have to be. The longer you stare at the problem, the more likely it is that your brain will hit a wall. When your mind is in a diffuse state, it activates a number of regions in your brain. When it's in a focused state, it can only hone in on one particular thing. This is why so many people don't see the underlying sources of the problem and fail to identify it in the first place.
Prepare for the Worst
Defining the problem may be one of the most difficult things you do, and no matter how hard you try, you may end up getting it wrong. But you can minimize the damage if you've already thought of the natural consequences of the action you do choose. At some point in the late 1800s or early 1900s, India's ruler decided to give people a reward for killing the dangerous cobra. For every dead cobra brought in, the killer of the snake would get some cash. But this led to people breeding cobras to kill them and collect the bounty, ultimately creating more snakes in the country. The Cobra Effect is now given to solutions that manage to do the opposite of their intended effect. Had the leader considered the idea of how people would react to his incentives, he may have gone through with it anyway. But he might have at least put a deadline on his offer.
Set a Time Limit
Counterintuitively to pretty much everything else said here, problems do need solutions at some point. Too much brainstorming can land you in the weeds without a prayer of getting out. You just have to accept the fact you'll never be 100% sure you made the right decision. This is often a hallmark of the best leaders: they find a personal balance between thinking and overthinking. Plenty of people get to where they are by being focused on action. They're the "bring me solutions" people who tell their team to stop whining and get to work, and they never stop to doubt themselves. But often, these leaders are not set up for long-term success. They may think their methods are infallible or revolutionary when really they just happened to get lucky. Those who don't want to understand problems find that when times move on, they're unable to move along with them. They also find that their 'act first, think later' policy eventually catches up with them.