Solving problems is something that all living creatures do. Specific skill sets make adults good problem solvers. These skill sets can be learned and are almost always exhibited by effective leaders. Really effective problem solvers do certain things that put them into a better position to succeed regardless of the challenges they encounter.
Simply and colloquially we can describe a problem as the “stuff that occurs that we wish didn’t happen but that we need to address, especially when we are not sure what to do.” Second, a problem is a situation that compels you to try something and make choices about what’s likely to resolve the situation, given what you already know. Thirdly, based on my experiences in the clinical world, in higher education, and now as an executive, a problem can also be any environment that foments unhappiness, unproductivity, and potential for loss. The outcome of a negative environment may not have happened yet, but that condition sets up many potential, undesirable consequences. Effective leaders and problem solvers recognize aspects of the work environment that could lead to problems. This awareness puts them in a position to make change before issues escalate. Any of these types of problems should lead to a leader engaging in problem-solving.
B.F. Skinner defined problem solving as any behavior that, through the manipulation of variables, makes the solution of a problem more probable. Many people think that problem solving is producing the solution, but this is too simplistic. If you can readily produce a solution without engaging in an analytic process, the situation isn’t really a problem. It wouldn’t actually meet the definition of a problem because it would be a situation for which you have an immediate response. Problem solving is what you do when you don’t have an immediate strategy at the ready that is likely to be successful.
Good problem solvers are able to generate their own stimuli to supplement the existing environment and spark good ideas. For example, when you ask other people for ideas, you engage in one behavior that leads to access to new ideas that vary. Similarly, when you prompt yourself to “stop and think before you act,” you increase the likelihood that you will now have multiple potential actions to consider as a richer pallet from which to choose a solution. Skinner called this strategy prompting and probing your own behavior. A person might ask themselves questions; or prompt themselves with statements like, “Don’t fly off the handle. Don’t respond yet. Think about why this is occurring.” People who recognize that they do not have an immediate response that is likely to work are in a position to be more successful because they can avoid mistakes associated with hasty action and can instead do something that gives them options.
If you respond quickly and don’t really have an effective solution, you might even worsen a problem. We call that impulsivity. Conversely, if you fail to try anything at all because you don’t have a solution, the problem will almost certainly worsen and expand to additional issues. Inaction rarely fixes things. Effective problem solving is a balance of taking action, but taking action that involves mediating, problem-solving behaviors. You do something, but that something is an intermediate step that makes the discovery of a solution more probable.
Typically, children can learn problem-solving strategies such as, “Group these things together” or “Think of and imagine a time when this occurred before.” The dilemma is they will often not use the strategy until someone prompts them to do so. When they’re in a slightly different situation than before, they often need prompting again. The same thing sometimes happens with adults. An interesting finding in behavioral research regarding problem solving is that most people know about a problem-solving strategy but when they encounter a problem, they fail to apply that strategy.
Even adults in their workplaces need prompts to engage in problem solving, especially when they’re in a changed context such as a new job or a promotion. These change- heavy situations can produce problem-solving repertoires that are fragile due to a couple of common patterns. First, the leader may fail to recognize the problem or falsely assumes that the problem is similar to one that they have encountered in their prior company or job. Second, the leader may be too likely to use a strategy that worked in a similar situation without realizing that there is a barrier that will make that strategy less effective in the new context. We are all likely to do things that have worked before due to “reinforcement.” Sometimes this trips us up if we don’t first engage in problem solving or if we fail to realize there’s a problem to respond to. The best response strategy is to apply systematic problem solving as the behavior that gets reinforced (i.e., always do this in future situations) rather than some specific action that might work if you get lucky.
Systematic problem solving is often broken into a five-step process.
The process is a valuable one, but can be executed really well or really poorly. People who consistently do an amazing job at problem solving are effective leaders and they behave differently than ineffective leaders at each step. Great leaders engage in their own problem solving, coach others to do so as well, and reinforce problem-solving efforts of everyone around them leading to better solutions that occur earlier in the lifecycle of the problem. In this series on problem-solving, I will expand on each of the five problem-solving steps and share the behaviors that are practiced by excellent problem solvers.
It’s easy to detect something that has already blown up into a crisis. In a business setting, that crisis might be terrible turnover, a tragic on-the-job accident, or hemorrhaging financial losses. It’s more difficult to detect the subtle indicators of a problem coming down the road or a condition that’s likely to produce a problem even if things are going well now. Often the subtle indicators are the lack of something. I call this skill of detecting the subtle indicators and problem-producing environments nuanced noticing. The people who can do that have a huge advantage, because they can course-correct before they ever get to that thing that we call a problem. Are your hackles rising soon enough in response to the precursors to a problem? Are people behaving in ways that are likely to produce problems? Are you no longer seeing people smile in the office, or infrequent use of safety processes? Detecting subtle environmental changes and precursors to problems makes you a much better problem solver because it starts the process early and gives you more solution options to avoid bigger negative outcomes and cascading issues.
Let’s say a leader, supervisor, manager, or business owner recognizes a lack of communication between people that should be communicating frequently and effectively. Perhaps the leader notices that the communication frequency or communication style changes: “I used to get e-mail from you four to six times a week and now all of a sudden, it’s once every other week.” Why is that?
A valued employee is taking a lot of time off; a direct report seems to have less work to do or suddenly seems to have a whole lot of work to do. Maybe someone is underperforming due to a distraction in their home life or a change in their job and their job satisfaction is dropping. If there’s not a clearly evident reason why these changes are occurring, that reason still exists and needs to be identified and targeted before negative outcomes occur. Those subtle changes indicate that there’s a problem for someone somewhere, and eventually someone will behave in a way that produces problems for others. As a leader or manager, if I notice and respond effectively to these subtle signs of discontent, I don’t have to worry about somebody suddenly quitting, leaving me in the lurch and desperate to replace them. If I notice and respond early, I won’t have to discover that an employee has completed tasks incorrectly leading to lost income, an unsatisfied customer, or an on-the-job injury. These kinds of insightful observations or nuanced noticing are likely correlated with other behaviors of great leaders that keep something that is “starting to be a problem” from ever becoming a big problem.
Great leaders also create systems and environments that readily detect and report the small problems up the line so that the big ones never develop. The optimal environment is one in which employees recognize subtle things that could become problems and report them and never hide problems that are already occurring. So a great leader detects subtle changes and also teaches people below them in the system to detect those changes and to feel good about reporting situations rather than fearing that they’re going to be labeled a complainer. This step involves teaching other people to detect small changes and identify things and behaviors that are missing. Think of it as a yellow alert system cueing you to investigate further. Importantly, that leader has to reinforce and praise people for noticing those things and coach them on how to report them positively like “Hey, I think I found something interesting that we should think about” rather than negatively “I hate that these people are doing this.” These reports up to a leader give the leader the opportunity to help others determine the right questions to ask to ferret out potential or existing problems. Many times leaders punish the behavior of pointing out problems, because they view it is as “now I have one more problem to solve.” But the reality is that they already have that problem and knowing about it means that they can avoid ten more large problems that they would have if people aren’t bringing them the small ones early. The best leaders do two things really well in this first step of problem solving: they notice the subtle and they create an environment where bringing precursors to a problem or an existent problem to the boss’s attention is reinforced.
Defining the problem is about figuring out what the real problem is. It’s easy to think that the outcome produced by the problem is the problem. For example, “our turnover is too high,” seems like the problem so the solution is “keep hiring and investing a lot of money in training” or “pay people more.” In fact, that turnover is just the most salient ill effect of a deeper issue. The likely deeper issue is that the work conditions are so non-optimal that any other opportunity is an improvement for 60 percent of the workforce. That’s a big problem! Now is the time to identify the root cause of the problem rather than just the symptom or later effect. A wise leader will ask “what is it about those work conditions that are so non-optimal?” Maybe the job is harder, the physical environment is worse, OR the manager is less positive than what they might encounter in a different job or with a different company. Those become the things to change for future success rather than just continuing to hire into a non-retaining environment that has little to do with the pay structure.
In business these are called root causes, but in the behavioral world we call them functional determinants. They are the reasons why the problem occurred rather than the impact of the problem that you are seeing head on. In defining the problem, the critically different thing that really good problem solvers do might be called digging to the right depth. Good problem solvers are adept at figuring out how far down they need to track to find those functional determinants—the source of that problem. Doing so puts them in a position to figure out the bigger root cause of the original problem and possibly many other problems including those that have not yet surfaced.
A human resources person, for example, might think the company’s turnover is higher than the national average. The default problem is that the company needs to decrease turnover. The HR person doesn’t really know why turnover is so high, or what the functional determinants are, but decides to pay people more and to post a positive reinforcement board. The approach here is to use default strategies that probably won’t hurt even if they don’t get to the real issue. What are the chances these default strategies will work? That is hard to predict because this approach might work if the strategies have something to do with the actual cause of the turnover problem and pay differential was the real problem. If that was not the problem, you will just end up paying people more every day until they leave the company and you create new problems with the bottom line—more wasted time and money.
It’s easy to think that a person’s behavior is the problem: this person comes to work late or these people leave early. However, that behavior occurs in an environmental context. The behavior is preceded by an antecedent and followed by a consequence that leads to that behavior seeming like a good option or maybe the only option that will make things better. Figuring out the likely antecedent or the prior consequences that people have encountered for their specific behavior is a lot more important than focusing on the behavior.
Here’s an example. You’ve got a team of people and they feel like their boss doesn’t listen to them because, in the past, bringing up even a small issue resulted in negative consequences. He tells them they are complainers and argues with them rather than listening and exploring possible solutions. So if seeking help is punished and the problem comes up again, the consequences have been such that they keep their mouths shut about problems. The antecedent to this situation is something ongoing that is bad so the person knows there is a problem and change is needed. However, the consequences to reporting the problem in the past have also been negative and haven’t resulted in solutions. The only available behaviors or strategies that seem like they would work are hide the problem, try something to solve the problem myself even if I don’t have any good ideas, or leave the problem behind by getting a different job and a boss who might want to help me.
The problem isn’t that this person left their job or that this person started hiding problems. That’s the behavior that’s occurring now. The real problem is that the supervisor or manager in that context punishes people bringing problems forward and that supervisor is going to do the same thing with the future employees that are hired to replace the ones that just left. It’s going to be more of the same and new problems are going to arise because new problems will be hidden.
Problem solving is enhanced when we focus more on the antecedents and the consequences that are occurring than the behaviors. Define the real problem and tailor your solution based on that root cause. Leaders who do this make a much bigger impact with their problem-solving efforts. Think of the Five Why’s strategy that Toyota put forward. You’ve always got to ask at least five questions beginning with “Why . . .?” The first thing that you think is the problem is probably not the real problem. You have to look deeper; then look deeper again.
Ask more questions and ask them about the right things. Don’t just dwell on the basic question, “Why does this person not do it right?” but seek out the specific antecedents and/or consequences of the environment that lead to this person thinking that bad options are their only options.
The real issue is how to figure out those causes. Some of the things that great leaders and great problem solvers do are create environments where people feel that they can speak up in a respectful way with all levels of the hierarchy as potential listeners. I don’t have to only talk to the person right above me or complain, complain, complain to my peers. I can go up two or even four levels and talk about an issue without fear of repercussion, because the environment is one where people know how to positively report concerns without attacking others. That is, if you wish something were a little better in your work environment, you can make that suggestion in a positive manner: “It sure would be great if there were different lighting in our workspace, because I get headaches by the end of the day” rather than “I hate this place! It’s like a cave and I can’t get anything done!”
Create those environments where people feel like their bosses will listen to them and teach them to talk in a way that gets people to listen. The best leaders, as problem solvers, get all sides of the story. They look for multiple sources of information to give them a better idea of the deeper down cause of a problem. They’ve stopped looking at the behavior as the problem and they start asking those questions that give them the full picture of the causes of the problem. Great leaders define the real problem by investigating the environment in which the problem occurs and collecting data and information to help understand the real problem before taking action.
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!
So you identified your problem, dug deeper and found the root cause, behaved variably and came up with some good ideas. In the fourth step of problem solving, you must evaluate these ideas and then choose one, beginning with a pro/con analysis. After you complete the pro/con analysis, you’ve either got to pick one of your possible solutions to the problem or decide that you have to come up with better options.
Probably the most common downfall during this point of the problem-solving process is what is often called analysis paralysis. At this stage people tend to start making statements such as, “I need to get more information or data or do more research to be able to make a decision.” This might be the case or it might just be a lack of confidence in the strategy, the strategy execution, and/or fear that the boss will freak out if the solution is not perfect. Now you might recognize why the lead-in title of this series is “Nobody’s Perfect!” Seeking perfection always leads to negative reinforcement. Seeking perfection means that people avoid trying a new solution because it might not work. Doing so actually leaves the original problem in place and it also often adds the second problem: the team becomes demoralized because of the non-action.
Not only is the original problem still here, the second problem is that the boss doesn’t try to solve problems. He asks tons of questions and then doesn’t do anything to make things better. What’s more demoralizing than that? (And you may be that boss!) What is the cure for analysis paralysis? Again, we must prompt our own behavior starting with asking the question, “Why am I reluctant to try this option?” If the answer is, “because it might not work,” well guess what? That’s the answer to everything, so that’s a non-answer. That is no longer a viable response.
You can’t know exactly how a strategy will work out, but if you can achieve a reasonable level of confidence about the soundness of your choice, you can take action. If it doesn’t go perfectly, you’ll do a second level of problem solving and you’ll fix that too. Go ahead and take action! Ignore that faulty rule about being certain that a solution is going to work before you try anything. What you’re doing now does not work, so there’s a zero percent chance that doing nothing is going to make things better. Decide which of your options beats doing nothing most substantially and with the least amount of risk.
A good problem solver and a good leader is sagacious (discerning, far-sighted, exercising good judgment) and has a threshold level of confidence and bravery. All of those words are general labels for the behavior of making a reasonable decision and acting on it. After arriving at this point in the problem-solving process, you have to possess enough confidence to take initial action without waiting for perfect confidence. So someone who is too anxious, too perfectionistic, and too worried about making a mistake, is likely to fail at this critical juncture of the problem-solving process.
To be more effective at problem solving, people need to use information and data to list the pros and cons and then try to predict the possible outcome of all of the options. What’s the best possible and what’s that worst, most ridiculous thing that could happen? Try doing a pro/con analysis on doing nothing. People often fail to acknowledge that not taking any action is doing something. It’s keeping the problem intact as is! There are clear downsides to that and usually no clear upsides.
Granted, sometimes it is important to collect more data especially if you know exactly what data would sway your decision one way or another. However, if you’ve got a couple of good options to choose between, you should evaluate the risk of harm due to a delay for more data against the benefit of collecting more information to aid your choice-making. If you can collect critical-determinant data that will allow you to pick between two options that would work for different situations, then it’s likely worth waiting, because then you increase your likelihood of success. If that extra data isn't really going to shift the balance between the two options, then it might just be that you’re stalling so that you don’t have to risk not being perfect.
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.