So far in this series on problem-solving strategies we have defined the nature of a problem and explained that having an immediate solution is not the same as problem solving. Problem solving is a process and those who do it well typically employ five steps to reach possible solutions. The third step after 1) detecting/identifying a problem and 2) defining the problem is 3) generating possible options.

Now you know you have a problem and you’ve dug in to figure out what the real problem is by focusing on the antecedents and consequences in the work environment that surround specific behaviors. The third step is to generate possible solutions. The issue here is that a universe of possible solutions exists, but people have a propensity to ignore that universe and do the thing that worked before or the thing that worked most recently even if it doesn’t apply to the current situation.

As I have mentioned, it could be a good thing or a bad thing to refer to a previous problem-solving strategy. If somebody says, “I had a situation like this before and this worked. Let’s do this strategy!” they might be falling into habits of behaving. When we always try the thing that worked previously, we can miss opportunities to think outside of the box and try something different that could be a better fix for your current problem. In some cases, people tend to keep repeating things that don’t work or work only for a short while but don’t resolve all of the issues. So, it’s not necessarily a great idea to always use the same strategy that worked well in another situation. It’s good to have fresh eyes looking at the problem because the fresh eyes might never think to use the strategy that the primary person would have implemented.

Michael Watkins, author and expert on leadership, talks about using old strategies as being a problem particularly with newly promoted or newly hired leaders. They persist in using the same strategies that worked in their prior jobs when they were operating at a lower level or at a smaller scale even though their new problems require different strategies for success. Watkins talks about people who are “trying to do the job they used to have instead of the job they have now.” In behavioral terms we call this over generalization of the use of a problem-solving strategy. In other words, here’s a problem and it looks enough like a problem I have had before so I’ll use the same strategy. This leads them to respond to a surface similarity between the problems rather than responding to the critical difference between this problem and the one solved before.

When a person sees a problem and jumps in, saying, “Oh yes, I’m going to use that strategy!” they are demonstrating impulsivity or behaving automatically rather than systematically completing the problem-solving steps. If you really are going to be effective at problem solving, you can’t skip the generating of possible solutions stage. The critical action here is behaving variably. Don’t just try solutions that have worked before. Think of many options. Behave differently. It’s okay to think about why something you did before worked and to examine why it worked, but also think about whether you have those same conditions now before you try that strategy again. Use your mediating responses by prompting yourself to think about why other solutions might work better.

Think about using that strategy before and why it worked. If you really completed step 2—define the problem—you are in a position to determine if the cause of this new problem matches that of the previous problem. If you don’t have a good match, the problem-solving strategy that you previously tried isn’t as likely to work. Ask yourself, “Could I have generated this intervention strategy without doing a functional assessment of the cause?” If you were always going to apply this strategy without finding the functional determinant, then you are using a default strategy and hoping that you are lucky enough to have encountered the same problem as before.

Would you have generated this strategy anyway? Maybe you would have and it’s a great match or maybe you would have just because that’s your easy thing to do, your failsafe. A default strategy that a lot of leaders use is to cut costs. The reasoning is “if we cut costs it’s going to fix my problem because the bottom line is my problem.” But a bigger problem is causing the company to lose money, and just cutting costs could actually worsen the problem. Maybe you haven’t spent enough money to purchase the kind of equipment that enables employees to operate more effectively or efficiently. Maybe the equipment keeps breaking and we don’t fix it.  And you’re going to cut costs? Now you’ll be fixing the equipment even less frequently, so now you will lose more money. The default strategy is cut costs, but if you would have come up with that before you ever looked into why the company wasn’t able to function efficiently, you’re just winging it!

As a leader, develop the critical skill of questioning your own strategy before you implement it. That puts you in a position to actively think through the rationale. It could be that cutting costs might be a good strategy for this situation but you have to have a convincing rationale. This involves self-questioning and reflection. Don’t be so convinced by your own rationale without first holding your feet to the fire about whether you really dug in deeply enough to find the root cause.

Actively do things to make yourself behave more variably. Everybody falls into behavioral patterns. We eat the same breakfast every day even when countless breakfast options are available. We dine at the same restaurant. We do the same exercise routine. Humans tend to embrace a small set of options that are our go-to choices. With problem-solving, behaving variably is a good thing to do because it disrupts that automaticity of just plugging in the one fix that worked before. How do you get yourself to behave more variably? To begin with, leaders can set a rule to write down all their other thoughts except their fallback strategy when making a decision or adhere to the rule that they’re going to come up with ten other possible options before they even think about that fallback strategy.

You’re not eliminating your fallback strategy (because it could be a good one), but you’re going to consider other strategies as well. Another thing good problem solvers do is to name something they’d like to try if they had the resources. They don’t altogether dismiss options because they think they don’t have the money, the time, the people, or the widget. They don’t let that prevent them from having the idea.

If you have a good idea, you might have to backtrack from the big scope to a midpoint that matches your more current resources but it’s helpful to creative problem solving to say, “If we had or could do this, I think it would solve the problem.” Also, remember that your environment (your room, your office, your desk, items, sights, sounds) are associated with you doing things a certain way.  In the behavioral world we call this stimulus control. When you need to behave variably and differently, you need to blow up that stimulus control because it can shackle you to the things you did before to solve problems. Brainstorm in a new environment. Go to the conference room rather than your office. Have a meeting at a coffee shop to discuss a problem. Go somewhere that is different than the places you have been thinking before, because it disrupts some of that stimulus control and can potentially put you in a situation where you have different ideas and behave differently.

Another strategy to use is to notice things and people in the environment and use them as the stimuli to spark new ideas. Notice that person who seems bright, eager, and competent and who is doing his job well. Is there a slightly different, bigger, collapsed job, or integrated job that is reasonable to think he or she would succeed at doing? Is there a job that gives a great person more opportunity to do good things? Is there a position that integrates two tasks that are done separately and the fact that those two tasks are being done by two different people leads to fumbles on the handoff?

An analogy is you’ve got a great quarterback and you’ve got a great running back. The problem is when the quarterback goes to give the football to the running back the play falls apart. In modern college football these days we see a lot of success with quarterbacks who can take the ball up the middle themselves. They don’t have to hand it off. They just get that ball, tuck it in and are able to sometimes do that job of the running back. Look at people and what they do, at operations that are already in the environment, and ask, “Could I use their skills differently?” That idea might go on the board as one of your ten options before you let yourself return to your fallback solution. Do something different and prompt yourself to have a wide range of ideas before you just jump in and do one. To help yourself complete the problem-solving step of generating options, behave variably!

The next section in this series will discuss the fourth step of problem solving: defining and picking an option.