What’s your biggest problem with problem solving?
I’ve been asked many questions recently about how leaders at all levels can more effectively solve problems — not just the ones that they have ownership for — but also how to engage and support others to solve problems and achieve goals.
Three ways to solve more problems
In this article and video, I share three problems with problem solving and offer three ways that you — as a leader of coach — can more effectively solve problems.
Below you’ll learn how:
🎯 Problem solving is about recognizing that there ARE problems, welcoming “bad news”, and leading with a “no problem is a problem mindset.”
🎯 It’s about understanding the real problem — not just the messy problematic condition you are experiencing. It’s about thinking deeply & helping others do the same.
🎯 And it’s about coming up with possibilities & helping other tap into their creativity come up with ideas to solve problems.
This video was also posted on LinkedIn and has generated many comments. What do you think?
Three problems with leading for problem solving
As I elaborate on in the video, I’ve observed three challenges arise for leaders wanting to create a culture of learning, achieve goals, and help others solve problems.
Of course, problem solving is also about conducting experiments in the Study-Adjust-Plan-Do #SAPD cycles — which I’ve talked about in past posts such as not jumping to solutions and starting with studying — and continuing with reflection, studying, and learning along the way.
1 – Problems are not visible
One of the first problems with problem solving often is that we don’t even know that there’s a problem, and that this stems back to a cultural environment where we reward success and people are afraid of bringing forward failures or problems or mistakes along the way.
They don’t want to bring forward “bad news” that we are having problems.
So, the first problem with problem solving is that we’re not asking for bad news first.
We’re not seeing “no problem being a problem.”
The very first thing is that we have to acknowledge that there are problems — yet many times they are invisible.
One of our responsibilities as leaders in an organization — or I’d even liken this to being a parent in a family — we need to draw forth “bad news” and create a culture and environment where people feel comfortable for bringing forward their problems, issues, challenges, and concerns.
And the first step to doing this is asking for bad news and problems and saying “thank you” to people when they highlight things that are not going well.
(Check out this episode of the “My Favorite Mistake” podcast hosted Mark Graban where Isao Yoshino shares the story of a huge problem he created and how his leaders not only didn’t blame him, they thanked him for highlighting the problem in the working conditions).
2 – The presenting pain point or issue is not the actual problem
The second problem with problem solving is that we need to understand what the actual problem before we move into solution idea generation.
Usually, what’s brought forward is not the real problem.
It’s a messy problematic presenting condition and we have to unpack that to really understand it.
And was the target (what should be happening) even clear from the beginning?
Problem = target – actual
That’s one of our roles as a leader — to be clear on what’s the target or what actually should be happening — what’s actually happening — and what’s the gap or the problem between where we need to be and where we actually are?
(Check out this article where I talk about this simple problem equation and how leaders can lead daily improvement and support problem solving at all levels).
Only once the actual problem is defined, should we dive into identifying possible causes that are impacting that problem and really clarifying what the real actual problem is, not jumping to solutions as I talked about in past videos and articles, but really understanding what the actual problem is.
3- We jump to solutions rather than countermeasures to test
And then third, we need to generate ideas for how to solve the problem, rather than starting with a solution in mind and not creatively exploring multiple possibilities.
Generating countermeasures — because our ideas are not solutions until they have been tested and validated — in not about jumping to solutions, as I highlighted in a recent video post, but rather is coming up with creative ideas of things that we could try and can try.
A leader doesn’t have to have all the answers
One of the challenges that many leaders have in wanting to ask for bad news or ask about problems is that they perceive the burden of having to take on all of the problem-solving responsibility for those problems.
That isn’t the leaders role.
Of course, a leader needs to take on complex issues that are outside of someone’s else’s span of control, to remove barriers, and to provide support to their people.
But problem solving is not about the leader — or YOU — having to have all of the answers or taking on the burden of solving all the problems in an organization.
The Leading to Learn Framework
As I describe in Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, at leader’s purpose is threefold:
1) set the direction (providing a clear challenge or target),
2) provide support (helping others develop competence & confidence in solving problems & achieving goals)
3) develop yourself (to be a more intentional and effective leader).
Leadership is about setting that direction — having clarity of targets or goals, or what should be happening — and then providing the support so that people can solve problems and come up with or generate ideas.
And, of course, this means we always have to look at how we can improve ourselves to more effectively do both.
Your role as a leader is to create an environment where people can bring problems and issues forward, that they can clarify what the actual problem is, and that they know that they have the support to solve the problems either within their span of control — or if they’re bigger challenges where barriers can be removed or help can be provided.
So what are some countermeasures to these problems with problem solving?
Here are three countermeasures I recommend at getting better at solving problems in your organization — to solve more problems, engage more people AND achieve organizational goals
1- Welcome bad news to make the invisible visible
Ask for problems and issues — make them visible — and then asking better and more effective questions to help other people think more deeply about the problems that they have ownership for. Consider:
- How do you make the thinking visible?
- How do you ask questions that help deepen other people’s problem-solving capabilities?
- Once you understand what the problems and challenges are, do we you grant responsibility to people to solve problems at appropriate levels in the organization?
2 – Clarify the actual problem
How do we start from a place of curiosity rather than certainty of the “answer”? Ask yourself and your team:
- What are the challenges that we have?
- What should be happening?
- What’s actually happening?
- What’s the actual problem?
- What is causing the problem?
3 – Generate creative possibilities for “solutions” to test
Ask questions to help your team generate creative ideas that we can start taking action on to solve and close the gap of the problem. Have a mindset of experimentation.
Learn your way forward through the Study-Adjust-Plan-Do cycle.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear from you! What do you think? What are your other problems with problem-solving?
More resources to support your practice of problem solving
- Read the bestselling book that I wrote in collaboration with Isao Yoshino: Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn
- Dive into the Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn Workbook to deepen your understanding of the Leading to Learn framework and how a leader supports problem solving
- Check this article to learn more about 3 problem-solving tools & when to use a problem-solving A3.
- Watch some webinars about the book such as this and this
- Listen to podcasts such as My Favorite Mistake and Gemba Academy
- Read some blog articles and videos that further explore this topic include The Real Meaning Of Kaizen