You’ve taken all of the steps in the problem-solving process except the last one—evaluating the outcome of the option you tried.

An important part of becoming a better problem solver is being willing to learn from your own successes but also your mistakes. If you’re okay with that and you work in an environment in which one mistake doesn’t result in termination, then you develop more confidence in trying different strategies. When you learn from successes and mistakes, every choice provides some future benefit. You either learn what not to do again or you learn how to execute a strategy ever more successfully.

The most common downfall of executing this step is avoiding information that suggests your strategy didn’t work well. Naturally people tend to avoid this type of information because it hurts the ego. When we resort to avoidance behavior, negative reinforcement is at work. You might hear that you’re not perfect.  Oh my gosh, you ought to already know you’re not perfect! Yet you still carry that notion around (“I don’t want to find out that I made a mistake”) even if you don’t openly express it to yourself or others. Well, the only thing that is guaranteed is that everybody makes mistakes. You’re just hoping to never have to face yours.

So how do you prompt yourself to hear about your mistakes or your less-than-perfect efforts? Hopefully, there will be relatively few of them, but when they do occur, try to view them as meaningful and salient lessons learned. The sooner you become more objective, the sooner you can dig into why what you thought was a good idea didn’t work as well as it could. Being honest and forward-looking is critical in this step as well as creating an environment where people will be honest with you. This is difficult because a lot of people don’t want to provide feedback up the line to a supervisor. They’re afraid, because a lot of leaders don’t want to hear that they’re not doing something well. Even if you frame information in a positive way or as something that could be better, that’s aversive to some leaders and they respond harshly to feedback or disagreement —thus, the creation of yes-men.

Good leaders can openly ask, “Who’s going to be the one that will give me three good ideas about how we can do better next time?” Good leaders are good problem solvers because they can state, “Give me the gift of a little thing that we can tweak. That idea doesn’t harm me by proving I’m not perfect; it helps me by making me more perfect next time.”  As a leader, I’m a whole lot less worried about the stuff I didn’t get quite right in the past and a lot more worried about how I am going to do a better job in the future.  In sales, a popular saying is, “always be selling.” In problem-solving that would translate to “always be looking forward to improvement” rather than looking back in a self-protective way. You can look back but only in a way that informs your forward action. This step of problem solving is not about blame, it’s about determining the behavior we could have done differently or better.

By now, I hope that this discussion of the five steps to better problem solving has highlighted the fact that most effective problem solvers are also great leaders.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in official positions of leadership, though they often are. It means that effective problem solvers tend to progress more rapidly in any endeavor, and even in singular efforts, they can prompt themselves to behave toward success.

In summary, great problem solvers excel at each of the five steps. 

  1. They notice the small and nuanced indicators of problems, 
  2. they dig deep to find the determinants of a problem,
  3. they behave variably and generate new strategies for new problems,
  4. they select wisely and are confident enough to take action when the critical information is known, and
  5. they evaluate honestly and learn from mistakes as well as successes.