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Problem Solving: A Critical Leadership Skill

Today’s leadership responsibilities and roles aren’t limited to delegating and management. Instead, when it comes to effective leadership, problem solving is not only an important skill, but a crucial role for leaders to take on.

Faced with more complex challenges in business and the world at large, many leaders are embracing what some traditionalists may call anti-leadership. Instead of focusing primarily on managing their people, many leaders are fixing their attention on the problems at hand, and unintentionally leading people excited about the solutions they are striving for. Founder of the MIT Leadership Center Deborah Ancona and Executive Director Hal Gregersen have labeled this problem-led leadership, and are reporting an increase in this distinctive style.

Even on a smaller scale, problem solving is a critical competency for leaders who must strive to eliminate barriers and challenges that can otherwise hinder their people’s or their business’ progress. In a Harvard Business Review study about the skills that influence a leader’s success, problem solving ranked third out of 16.

As a leader, you need to approach problem solving as an opportunity, with a broad perspective and a calm demeanor. And, you’ll want to arm yourself with a few critical approaches to hone your problem-solving skills.

How to Develop Problem Solving Skills

Identify and Define the Problem

Implementing a solution too early may not fully address the problem. Instead, invest time in understanding and defining the scope and nature of the problem to generate several good solutions before taking action. Don’t confuse a generic label of the problem (for example, the sales forecast is wrong) with the real definition of the problem. To truly define the problem, you would need to indicate something like: I know our department anticipated twice the revenue shown in the forecast here, and only three salespeople are represented from a staff of 10. Then, you also need to identify when and what the resolution needs to be: In one week, I need the correct forecast available for a board meeting.

Analyze the Problem

You will also want to assess the degree to which the problem has affected the overall business. In the example above, perhaps the sales forecast report has impacted other departments in the company as well. Look for overall patterns and ask questions about who, what, when, where, why and how to understand the scale of the impact. The objective is to find the root cause to allow you to implement a permanent resolution instead of a temporary fix.

Use Data

Data offers a fact-based perspective on a problem and can help you define the issue. Learn what types of data are available for you and how to interpret the datasets. And, be sure to translate your findings in clear and meaningful ways for stakeholders who can support resolutions.

Communicate

You will need to cultivate good communication skills, to allow you to clearly and effectively relay the problem to key stakeholders. Then, you’ll also need to inspire the people who are supporting the solution to remain connected to the task until it is resolved. 

Transparency is a key tenant of communication to ensure all aspects of a problem are understood. This is also critical when proposing solutions, as you need to understand different perspectives and concerns before implementing what you believe to be the right approach. Sometimes, this may entail keeping team members accountable for giving honest feedback, as not everyone feels comfortable sharing, particularly negative or dissenting opinions.

Finally, once you have a plan, you’ll need to communicate unambiguously to implement it.

Be Open-Minded

Problem solving cannot be done well if leaders are change- or risk-averse – or worse, allowing team members to mask inefficiencies. You’ll need to be able to assess a problem outside of immediate, obvious details, and be open to taking risks to find a better, more innovative approach. Problem solving is best conducted when many people can contribute their best ideas and skills, and you’ll need to keep an open mind to hear from top talent and innovate ideas across the organization, and to take on a new perspective.

Develop Solutions

Once the problem has been identified and analyzed and you’ve brainstormed solutions, you’ll want to narrow down a few fully developed solutions. Presenting every idea on the list to stakeholders or clients can hamper decisions. With a narrowed list, you can design a long-term solution or two that consider the time, cost, and technology required to support the solution. 

Learn From Mistakes

Mistakes are a natural part of growth and development, and fostering solid problem-solving skills will likely entail some errors along the way. But mistakes can provide learning opportunities and improve your overall process and approach – as long as you appreciate them as a learning opportunity. Even if you aren’t grappling with an obvious mistake, take time to reflect on the overall process and approach and determine if you would change anything to boost efficiency, creativity, or speed the next time.

Cultivating strong problem-solving skills is critical for leaders at any level and career stage, and starting now ensures as you advance, you’ll be fine-tuning this vital skill instead of trying to play catch up.

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