The 4 Most Effective Ways Leaders Solve Problems
With as many problems as we are all faced with in our work and life, it seems as if there is never enough time to solve each one without dealing with some adversity along the way. Problems keep mounting so fast that we find ourselves taking short-cuts to temporarily alleviate the tension points – so we can move onto the next problem. In the process, we fail to solve the core of each problem we are dealt; thus we continuously get caught in the trap of a never-ending cycle that makes it difficult to find any real resolutions. Sound familiar?
Problem solving is the essence of what leaders exist to do. As leaders, the goal is to minimize the occurrence of problems – which means we must be courageous enough to tackle them head-on before circumstances force our hand. We must be resilient in our quest to create and sustain momentum for the organization and people we serve. But the reality of the workplace finds us dealing with people that complicate matters with their corporate politicking, self-promotion, power-plays and ploys, and envy. Silos, lack of budgets and resources, and many other random acts or circumstances also make it harder for people to be productive.
Competitors equally create problems for us when they unexpectedly convert a long-standing client, establish a new industry relationship, or launch a new product, brand or corporate strategy. Mergers & acquisitions keep us on our toes and further distract us from solving existing problems by creating new ones.
As Karl Popper, one of the most influential 20th century philosophers of science, once eloquently stated, “All life is problem solving.” I’ve often contended that the best leaders are the best problem solvers. They have the patience to step back and see the problem at-hand through broadened observation; circular vision. They see around, beneath and beyond the problem itself. They see well-beyond the obvious. The most effective leaders approach problems through a lens of opportunity.
Leaders who lack this wisdom approach problems with linear vision – thus only seeing the problem that lies directly in front of them and blocking the possibilities that lie within the problem. As such, they never see the totality of what the problem represents; 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. They never realize that, in the end, all problems are the same – just packaged differently.
A leader must never view a problem as a distraction, but rather as a strategic enabler for continuous improvement and opportunities previously unseen.
When I launched 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. As circumstances would have it, this was the first shipment to a new client that was “testing” our new products in 200 stores with an opportunity to expand our distribution to over 2500 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 not only solving the problem – but earning their trust by responding promptly and efficiently with a comprehensive step-by-step incident report that included our change management efforts.
This experience taught us many lessons about our company and helped us to avoid many unforeseen problems. The ROI from how we handled this problem helped open our eyes to many elements that were previously being overlooked – and in the long run it helped enable us to grow the business.
Whether you are a leader for a large corporation or a small business owner, here are the four most effective ways to solve problems.
1. Transparent Communication
Problem solving requires transparent communication where everyone’s concerns and points of view are freely expressed. I’ve seen one too many times how difficult it is to get to the root of the matter in a timely manner when people do not speak-up.
Yes, communication is a fundamental necessity. That is why when those involved in the problem would rather not express themselves – fearing they may threaten their job and/or expose their own or someone else’s wrong-doing – the problem solving process becomes a treasure hunt. Effective communication towards problem solving happens because of a leader’s ability to facilitate an open dialogue between people who trust her intentions and feel that they are in a safe environment to share why they believe the problem happened as well as specific solutions.
Once all voices have been heard and all points of view accounted for, the leader (with her team) can collectively map-out a path toward a viable and sustainable solution. As fundamental as communication may sound, don’t ever assume that people are comfortable sharing what they really think. This is where a leader must trust herself and her intuition enough to challenge the team until accountability can be fairly enforced and a solution can been reached.
2. Break Down Silos
Transparent communication requires you to break down silos and enable a boundary-less organization whose culture is focused on the betterment of a healthier whole. Unnecessary silos invite hidden agendas rather than welcome efficient cross-functional collaboration and problem solving.
Organizational silos are the root cause of most workplace problems and are why many of them never get resolved. This is why today’s new workplace must embrace an entrepreneurial spirit where employees can freely navigate and cross-collaborate to connect the problem solving dots; where everyone can be a passionate explorer who knows their own workplace dot and its intersections. When you know your workplace dot, you have a much greater sense of your sphere of influence. This is almost impossible to gauge when you operate in silos that potentially keep you from having any influence at all.
In a workplace where silos exist, problem solving is more difficult because you are more likely dealing with self-promoters – rather than team players fostered by a cross functional environment.. When you operate in a siloed environment where everyone wants to be a star, it becomes increasingly difficult to help make anything or anyone better. This is when problem solving becomes a discouraging task.
Breaking down silos allows a leader to more easily engage their employees to get their hands dirty and solve problems together. It becomes less about corporate politicking and more about finding resolutions and making the organization stronger.
3. Open-minded People
Breaking down silos and communication barriers requires people to be open-minded. In the end, problem solving is about people working together to make the organization and the people it serves better. Therefore, if you are stuck working with people that are closed-minded, effective problem solving becomes a long and winding road of misery.
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 problems to get solved because they slow the process down while trying to make themselves look more important. Discover the lifters and high-potential leaders within the organization and you will see examples of the benefits of being open-minded and how this eventually leads to more innovation and initiative.
Open-minded people see beyond the obvious details before them and view risk as their best friend. They tackle problems head-on and get on with the business of driving growth and innovation. Close-minded employees turn things around to make it more about themselves and less about what is required to convert a problem into a new opportunity.
With this explanation in mind, carefully observe the actions of others the next time you are dealt a real problem.
4. A Solid Foundational Strategy
Without strategy, change is merely substitution, not evolution. A solid strategy must be implemented in order to solve any problem. Many leaders attempt to dissect a problem rather than identify the strategy for change that lies within the problem itself.
Effective leaders that are comfortable with problem solving always know how to gather the right people, resources, budget and knowledge from past experiences. They inspire people to lift their game by making the problem solving process highly collaborative; for them, it’s an opportunity to bring people closer together. I’ve always believed that you don’t know the true potential and character of a person until you see the way they solve problems.
Effective leaders connect the dots and map-out a realistic plan of action in advance. They have a strategy that serves as the foundation for how the problem will be approached and managed. They anticipate the unexpected and utilize the strengths of their people to assure the strategy leads to a sustainable solution.
Never shoot from the hip when problem solving. Avoid guessing. Take enough time to step back and assess the situation and the opportunities that each problem represents. Make the problem solving process more efficient by recognizing that each problem has its own nuances that may require a distinct strategy towards a viable resolution.
You know that you have great leadership in your organization when problem solving becomes a seamless process that enables the people and the organization to grow and get better. If problem solving creates chaos, you may have a serious leadership deficiency.
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. Each experience teaches us all new things. Embrace problem solving and the many unseen treasures it represents.
By Glenn Llopis