Let’s cut right to the chase – the biggest problem all leaders face is problem solving itself. The job of every leader is to avoid, minimize or altogether eliminate problems. When the inevitable problems do arise, it’s a leader’s job to turn said problems into opportunity. The issue is this; most leaders are woefully inept when it comes to problem solving.
Pick any leadership challenge and it boils down to a problem solving issue – nothing more, nothing less. Issues surrounding talent, finance, public policy, operations, strategy, social purpose, execution, competition, litigation, etc., are simply problems to be solved.
What I’ve expressed thus far seems like little more than common sense, but the issue is a very real one. Surely leaders are good problem solvers right? In many cases the answer is sadly no. The problem of problem solving has become a lost art.
Creating the right environment and framework for developing outstanding solutions is very rigorous, demanding work that many leaders don’t have the time, resources, or patience for. They demand a solution and end-up settling for any solution. They take the path of the cheap, easy solution instead of refusing to accept anything other than the right solution.
The fact is far too many leaders don’t even recognize they have a problem until the media asks them to comment on it, leadership teams are fractured, corporate cultures become toxic, revenue hurdles are missed, market share is lost, valued employees seek employment elsewhere, a strategy is proven to be flawed, a product becomes obsolete, or brand falls into decline.
Much of our world today suffers from an overdose of Band-Aids when what we need are cures. We either accept a bubble gum and bailing wire solution or go to the other extreme of just throwing money at a problem and calling it a solution – can anyone say healthcare.gov? But I digress…
Another complicating factor is leaders often work on the wrong problems, for the wrong reasons, and at the wrong times. Sometimes this is simply due to a lack of perspective or understanding. However some leaders will frequently avoid the hard, complex problems in order to look good solving the simple ones. The harsh reality is it takes both insight and courage to tackle the really big issues and many leaders simply lack one or both.
When you break it down, problem solving is a competency. It’s a skill to be developed like any other. But the one aspect that makes problem solving more complex than other leadership skills is that the best solutions are rarely created in a vacuum, and rarely do they come from the leader themselves.
To the chagrin of many, the purpose for leaders developing sound problem solving acumen is not to solve the problem by themselves, but to identify, recognize, and understand the problem so they can lead others in developing the best solution.
A leaders job isn’t to be the smartest person in the room, but to fill the room with the smartest, most creative, and most capable people. It’s when the leader gets out of the way that the real magic happens. Truly great solutions have little to do with who is right, but everything to do with having the resources and clarity of thought to focus on what is right.
I recently accepted a Senior Fellowship at the Gordian Institute, which focuses on solving wildly complex commercial, government and social problems. What I’ve learned in my short association with the Gordian Institute is how little I really know. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life helping people work through complex problems, but when you have the opportunity to step beyond yourself and to apply adaptive creativity and structured diversity of thought and experience to a problem, truly remarkable outcomes become the norm and not the exception.
For those of you looking to improve your problem solving skills, start by placing any solution under the lens of the following 15 filters:
- Framework: Solutions should be generated within the vacuum of a singular methodology, but a solid framework for decisioning that encompasses the best of a variety of methodologies.
- Advantage: If the solution doesn’t provide a unique competitive advantage it should at least bring you closer to an even playing field. That said, the best initiatives don’t level the field, they tilt the field in your favor.
- Alignment: Any solution should preferably add value to existing initiatives, and if not, it should show a significant enough return on investment to justify the dilutive effect of not keeping the main thing the main thing.
- Unexpected: The best solutions come by examining areas that lie beyond the norm. Take your thinking beyond status quo, beyond usual and customary.
- Simple: Whether the solution is intended for your organization, vendors, suppliers, partners or customers it must easy to use. Usability drives adoptability, and therefore it pays to keep things simple.
- Validate: Just because solution sounds good doesn’t mean it is, and just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You should endeavor to validate proof of concept based upon detailed, credible research. Put the solution through an intensive risk/reward and cost/benefit analysis. Solutions that aren’t stress tested will normally break down when you can least afford them to.
- Contingency: Nothing is without risk, and when you think something is without risk, that is when you’re most likely to end-up in trouble. All initiatives surrounding solutions should include detailed risk management provisions.
- Realistic: Adopting a solution should be based upon solid business logic that drives corresponding financial engineering and modeling – not the other way around. New projects always take longer and cost more than originally planned. Be careful of high level, pie-in-the-sky projections.
- Accountability: Any solution should contain accountability provisions. Every task should be assigned and managed according to a plan, and all of this should occur in the light of day. Solutions void of transparency aren’t solutions – they’re future debacles.
- Measurable: Any solution being adopted must lead to measurable objectives. Deliverables, benchmarks, deadlines, and success metrics must be incorporated into the plan.
- Timing: It must be detailed and deliverable on a schedule. While good solutions are flexible and evolving they must get off the drawing board and be placed into action. A successful solution cannot remain in a strategic planning state. It must be actionable through tactical implementation.
- Integrated: Solutions need to be incorporated into strategic initiatives and not constitute disparate systems. They should be incorporated into integrated frameworks that eliminate redundancies, and build in tactical leverage points.
- Evolving: Solutions should contain a road-map for versioning and evolution that is in alignment with other strategic initiatives and the overall corporate mission. No road map signals an incomplete solution and will also likely equal quick obsolescence.
- Intersections and Adjacencies: Solutions must be seen in the present but with an eye toward the future. Solutions that fail to leverage adjacent or intersecting opportunities have not been built to maximum potential.
- Champion: Senior leadership must champion any new solution being adopted. If someone at the C-suite level is against the solution, it will likely die on the cutting-room floor.
Bottom line – if you want to be a better leader you must become a better and more courageous problem solver.
Follow me on Twitter @mikemyatt
Originally Published on Forbes