Everyone who has been a manager or business leader has had a moment where they’ve run up against a problem that truly feels unsolvable. It’s just one of the things that happen when leading teams of people, dealing with clients, managing finances, and handling all of the other millions of big and little challenges that come up on a daily basis. Fortunately, during my career as a CEO and Founder, I’ve managed to uncover some reliable strategies for solving problems – big and small – even when they seem unsolvable.
- Question everything. Yes, this one seems counterintuitive. Won’t “questioning everything” potentially lead to more problems? Probably, and that’s actually a good thing. Chances are the unsolvable problem you have is actually the result of a larger root problem that you might not even know you have. The best way to get to the bottom of the core issue is to take it apart and examine all the parts of the whole. Then, once you’ve looked at everything individually, you can start to solve things bit by bit, put them back together, and then that unsolvable problem you thought you had might not even be there anymore.
- Bring in fresh eyes. Sometimes when we’ve been looking at a problem for too long, we actually become blind to the solutions. The solutions do exist, but because we’re so deeply embedded in the problem, we can’t see them. The best way to handle this is to bring in fresh eyes. Present the problem to someone else, maybe even someone very junior or new to the organization, and don’t fill their heads with all of your ideas or preconceptions. Just let them view the problem on their own and see what they come up with. Chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
- Kill your darlings. Every creative knows not to get too attached to their work. Attachment breeds blind spots and it’s no different when you’re a business leader. People are creatures of habit and we tend to get very attached to “the way we’ve always done things,” thereby upholding the status quo. Doing this is a surefire way to get stuck, and it makes problems seem much more unsolvable than they actually are; so be brave. Be willing to kill the processes or ideas that you’ve grown most fond of. At Thrillworks, we implement a three month expiry date to all meetings; once that three month mark has been reached we appraise the value of the recurring meeting and either approve continuation or we eliminate the redundancy. The lesson here is: take a hard look at your processes and eliminate what’s no longer yielding results. What you come up with in their place could be exactly what you need to solve the most daunting problems you’re facing.
- Treat your team as equals. Not pretending to always be the smartest in the room can, in fact, play a pivotal role in empowering your team to make decisions without you. Often, leaders are called into problem solving when issues come to a standstill, but this can backfire and create a “bottleneck” to solving complex problems, especially when leaders are too busy or high-level to fully grasp the specific nuances of a given situation. In fact, the greatest solutions are formed from building off the ideas of others and having different viewpoints contribute to a greater perspective. This team communication can be fostered with two crucial directives: one, the leader needs to feel like the team will stay within the scope as they learn to solve larger problems (frequent check ins will correct trajectory), and two, the team needs to know that making a mistake or getting it “wrong” isn’t the end of the world. Leadership must accept errors with empathy and understand that sometimes best efforts don’t always correlate with the intended result.
- Prescribed process: Hard work isn’t all that is required. If you do not have a repeatable process that produces results, you’re counting on individual contributors. If they go away, the results go away, therefore, you need a repeatable process in place. This process should incorporate the ability to pivot and make adjustments if you see problems arise while working toward a solution. Often when we are examining a stated problem, the real issue is not what is primarily put forward – it is an extension of a deeper issue. The faster a team can hone in on the root cause of the stated problem, the faster you can deliver a solution that is not just a band-aid but rather a prescribed remedy.
Written by Jay Bousada.
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