Problems are life’s ingenious habit of tossing a curly one in our path, just when things are going smoothly or when they couldn’t be worse.
In business, people often adopt a very black and white approach to solving problems; too often, business rewards those who appear to “get things done” and fail to recognise that the problem re-manifests because systemic issues lying beneath the surface have not been addressed. In effect, they removed the stingray gliding towards the company, when suddenly a Great White snaps its jaws, unleashing more panic and confusion.
If you’re intent on solving a problem, opportunities may well arise but for the moment, you need to exercise scrutiny and caution. What can you do?
Identify and clarify the issue or problem
Be clear what the problem actually is. In The Power of Self Discipline, Brian Tracy suggests taking time to identify the true nature of a problem rather than leaping to conclusions. If you don’t get to the root of the problem, he says, it reappears in different ways.
Understand and respect all stakeholder interests
Involve the relevant parties or stakeholders, and seek their input, making it clear that solutions don’t necessarily rest with you alone. Some will also challenge the way you’ve defined the problem and this can be very useful. There is always more than a single definition of the problem.
Consider the options
List and evaluate possible options — the more possible solutions you come up with, the more chance you have of getting it right.
Determine your path and set your deadline
It may be one or more options — that is, make a decision or at least set a deadline for how you will go about tackling the problem. Sometimes you won’t be able to wait for a perfect solution to the problem, in which case you’re better off proceeding with what’s doable, and breaking the scale of the problem down as you go.
Document specific plans
Describe the course of action and those involved. Assign responsibilities for tackling the problem — it shouldn’t be down to you alone (some problems are very knotty, and self-empowerment mantras won’t necessarily kick goals for you).
Know the back-up plan
Things don’t always work, so have a back-up plan. Or consider what will happen if there are delays. Monitor and evaluate — this means setting a measure for the solution you arrived at. If it didn’t work, you need to be clear about what parts worked and why and what didn’t work.
Go back to step one if the solution did not succeed
The above is a useful method of nutting out issues as they arise, but as everyone knows, a series of problems has the potential to overwhelm. Here’s where a valuable psychological insight comes to the fore. “A leader must never view a problem as a distraction, but rather as a strategic enabler for continuous improvement”. That’s from Forbes magazine’s Glenn Llopsis.
Llopsis believes that handled with maturity, accountability and courage, problem-solving becomes a seamless process for people and their organisations to grow. His four steps for transforming a problem to a longer-lasting solution are:
- Encourage transparent communication. Leaders need to encourage people to speak freely and feel they can do so without losing their jobs. Very often problem-solvers are the quiet doers in organisations, who may be unable to get their teeth into solving a dilemma because there’s a grandstanding meerkat nearby who believes that the only brains in the room belong to him/her. The meerkat could be their manager, and therefore people remain silent about the true causes of a problem. Leaders can override this by inviting all input, making it clear that everyone will be listened to and their participation valued.
- Break down silos. Because silos invite hidden agendas, says Llopsis, rather than efficient cross-functional collaboration. Realise the importance of talking and sharing ideas with people from other disciplines and departments.
- Understand the power of open minds. Llopsis says open-minded people drive innovation and are willing to take risks whereas those with closed minds turn things around to make it more about themselves. When you’re next confronted with a problem, see where the open and closed minds reside within your organisation. Clue: the closed minds will often create chaos to disguise their inefficiencies, thereby slowing down the process of getting problems solved.
- Develop a solid strategy. Effective problem solvers don’t shoot from the hip, says Llopsis — they know how to gather the right people, resources, budget and draw on their past experience. They indeed perceive opportunities, but plan carefully and with input from others. They have a good idea of where they want to get to, can spot the nuances between different situations and personalities, and map realistically to reach their destination.
Learn from experience and develop a love of solving problems. Often through the anxiety, challenges and pain we experience growth, change and innovation. Choose to make it a positive experience.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on SmartCompany.