Karl Popper, one of the most influential 20th-century philosophers of science, eloquently stated, “All life is problem solving.” I’ve often contended that the best leaders are the best problem solvers – problem solving is the essence of what leaders exist to do. We must see well beyond the obvious and approach problems through a lens of opportunity.
But as leaders, our goal must also be to minimize the occurrence of problems – which means we must be courageous enough to anticipate them, tackle them head-on before circumstances force our hand and stop them from happening again. We must be resilient in our quest to create and sustain momentum for the organization and people we serve. We must have the patience to step back and see the problems at hand through broadened observation and circular vision – to see around, beneath and beyond the problem itself.
Leaders who lack wisdom approach problems linearly and only see the problem that lies directly in front of them. As such, they never see the totality of what the problem represents and that it can actually serve as an enabler to improve existing best practices, protocols and standard operating procedures for growing and competing in the marketplace. The realities of the workplace also make problem-solving far more complicated: politicking, self-promotion, power plays, ploys, and envy get in the way of our courage. Silos, lack of budgets and resources and constant distraction make it harder for people to be productive in executing solutions.
Here are the four most effective ways to cut through all that and solve problems.
1. Communicate Transparently
Problem solving requires transparent communication where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed, listened to and safe from judgment and repercussion. When you value transparency and promote honest and direct feedback at that level, you empower people to break down silos and build bridges to strengthen communication, clarity and understanding and trust – the cornerstones of problem-solving.
Don’t ever assume that people are comfortable sharing what they really think. Sadly those involved in problems too often do not express themselves. They fear that will threaten their job and/or expose their or someone else’s wrong-doing. Leaders thus must facilitate open dialogue between people who trust their intentions and feel that they are in safe environments to share why they believe the problems happened as well as specific solutions.
2. Break Down Silos
The traditional workplace is about the business defining the individual. It promotes silos and misalignments. In fact, organizational silos are the root cause of most workplace problems and are why many of them never get resolved. In these environments, people are usually viewed as costs, not investments and it is near impossible to solve problems when your people feel like that. At best, you are dealing with self-promoters, rather than team players.
The new workplace creates competitive advantage by putting people at the center of our growth strategies and breaking down those silos that invite hidden agendas rather than welcome efficient cross-functional collaboration. Breaking down silos allows leaders to more easily engage their employees to get their hands dirty and solve problems together. It embraces an entrepreneurial spirit that becomes less about corporate politicking and more about finding solutions for growth.
3. Find Like-Mindedness in Differences
Transparency and breaking down silos require open-mindedness – so much so that we see like-mindedness and strength in our differences. We need diversity of thought to do this: the ability to appreciate the difference in others and see things differently to break free of old templates – to shift and grow rather than get too comfortable in what we are doing. By finding like-mindedness in people through their differences, we solve problems differently too, with everyone tackling problems together from their unique perspective.
Sounds great, right? But know there are many people in the workplace that enjoy creating unnecessary chaos so that their inefficiencies are never exposed. These are the types of people (loafers and leeches) that make it difficult for differences to be valued and thus problems to get solved because they slow the process down while trying to make themselves look important. Instead, strive to discover the lifters and high potential leaders who can lead to more innovation and initiative.
4. Connect the Dots
Effective leaders who are comfortable with problem-solving always know how to gather the right people, resources, budgets and knowledge from past experiences and connect the dots to create new solutions, map out realistic plans of action and manage and create opportunities. They inspire people to lift their game by making the problem-solving process highly collaborative and bring people closer together. To do this effectively, however, leaders must take enough time to step back and assess the situation and the opportunities that each problem represents to create sustainable solutions.
For example, in my first venture in the food industry, we had a problem with the adhesion of the labels to the glass jar packaging of our products that affected nearly 20% of an initial shipment. This was the first shipment to a new client that was “testing” our products in 200 stores with an opportunity to expand to over 2,500 stores nationally. Instead of panicking, we took a problem-solving approach that involved multiple steps and resulted in a full-blown change management effort with our label supplier, manufacturer, trucking company and client. Rather than viewing this problem simply as a hurdle that could potentially lose us the client, we took proactive measures (and a financial investment) to show our new client that we were capable of solving the problem. We earned their trust by responding promptly and efficiently with a comprehensive step-by-step incident report that included our change management efforts.
In the end, remember: Problem solving is the greatest enabler for growth and opportunity. This is why they say failure serves as the greatest lesson in business and in life. Be the leader that shows maturity, acts courageously, and requires accountability. Applying each of these lessons can help you become a master problem solver.