Executive Education

The 9 Critical Problem Solving Behaviors Your Team Must Know

Great companies solve hard problems well. Whether it’s a customer’s problem or an obstacle standing in the way of growth, finding effective solutions is what separates the best from the also-rans. It’s a challenge best tackled when there are skilled problem solvers throughout the ranks to address tough problems autonomously and efficiently wherever they arise.

Developing this capacity is a powerful business strategy for any CEO: Great problem solvers improve the company’s value without capital, broad change management, or top-down direction.

To improve their problem solving capacity, many CEOs invest significantly in recruiting elite, expensive talent. But it’s also worth looking at your current team. They may have what it takes to become great problem solvers, and they already know your organization.

Help them develop great problem solving behaviors by having more accomplished problem-solvers coach them through the process, or letting them loose on a hard problem in the business. Another approach: kick-start their development with a training workshop.

Here are the 9 critical behaviors they need to know:

  1. Stop guessing. Stop taking stabs in the dark and just trying things out. When your business encounters a hard problem, people will want to come up with solutions immediately and try them out. But each of these solutions is a guess, and your business may be wasting valuable time and money on implementing sub-optimal solutions. Coach your team to stamp out guessing wherever they see it.
  1. Smell the problem. Many problem solvers spend their time around a conference table, discussing or brainstorming. Help them step away from their desk and get out into the field. They should spend time up-front using their natural sense and tools at their disposal to understand the nature and pattern of the problems they’re solving. When they adopt this behavior, they’ll solve some problems of more moderate difficulty right away. For hard problems, it’s a critical step to finding an elegant solution.
  1. Embrace your ignorance. Most people try to solve problems using the knowledge they already have. But it’s what they don’t know that matters, not what they do. Your team may be afraid of saying “I don’t know” in order to protect their reputation as experts. However, great problem-solvers embrace their ignorance. They ask questions others might find stupid. This behavior shatters old assumptions you have about the problem, so your team can look at it with fresh eyes.
  1. Know what problem you’re solving. Often, people work on the wrong problem entirely by making some implicit assumption about what’s causing it. This often occurs out of haste and an excitement to get on with it. But when assumptions are baked into a team’s definitions of a problem, it leads them away from a solution. Great problem-solvers take the time to define the problem accurately and objectively. Instead of jumping to conclusions, they take careful measurements. They invest the time observing until they know exactly what’s wrong. Teach your team this behavior, and save wasted time and heartache.
  1. Dig into the fundamentals. To solve hard problems, your team needs to learn how the process works, including the basic science behind it: every process and problem obey the laws of science. Understanding that science is critical to discovering what’s causing the problem. Many people shy away from this behavior, intimidated by the apparent complexity of the system or science behind it. Help your team break through this fear and dig in: they’ll be amazed at what they learn.
  1. Don’t rely on experts. Too often, businesses delegate problem solving to internal and external subject matter experts. While experts are critical to understanding a complex system and its underlying functionality and science, they may not be as well positioned to solve your problem. The best problem-solvers always view experts as collaborators rather than saviors, and drive the search for solutions themselves. Get your team the experts they need, but hold your problem solvers accountable for getting the result themselves.
  1. Believe in a simple solution. For many, it’s comforting to believe that the solution to a complex problem will be just as complex. Some of your managers may even inadvertently discourage simple solutions with a “How could it have taken so long to solve this?” Coach your managers to encourage and reward simple solutions to tough problems as a result of great problem solving. Additionally, don’t let them settle for expensive, capital-heavy solutions: reward them for finding simple solutions that directly address the root cause of the problem.
  1. Make fact-based decisions. In the obsession with finding consensus, many businesses let facts take a back seat to harmony. Making a decision that’s based on opinion, a vote, an authority, or any other subjective system is a form of guessing about what to do next. You can help by insisting on using only facts to make a decision about a problem. Coach your team to relentlessly verify what they are told, and check data streams to ensure that what they’re seeing represents reality.
  1. Stay on target. When a serious problem emerges in the business, you may see your team work hard to develop a list of as many potential causes or solutions as possible, so they can test all of them. This approach will waste time and resources. A hard problem has hundreds or thousands of potential root causes; it’s unlikely the true root cause will be in that long list. Help your team avoid this trap by coaching them to focus on finding ways to eliminate groups of possible root causes, by focusing on what directly controls the problem. This will greatly accelerate their progress.

Developing great problem solvers in your company is a winning strategy on multiple fronts. It avoids the costly compromises organizations have to make when they can’t solve hard problems, such as cumbersome workarounds and expensive patches. It fosters a can-do approach — and the skills to back it up — that can be mentored throughout the ranks. And the good news is that problem-solving behaviors can be taught to anyone.

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Nat Greene
Nat Greene is the co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers. Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School's Owner/President Management program.