No matter what job you do, where you live or what goals you have in life, your success will likely be defined – at least partially – by your ability to solve problems.
Problem-solving is one of the most valuable and desirable skills in personal life and on the job market. A simple search of ‘problem-solving’ on indeed.com – the job market website, – shows more than 44,700 results. From Pickers and Packers to Change Management Directors – all these positions require ‘good problem-solving skills’ and all these positions will eventually be filled. Does it mean all successful candidates will be exceptionally good at problem-solving?
No matter what job you do, where you live or what goals you have in life, your success will likely be defined – at least partially – by your ability to solve problems. The bottom line is that we all have to problem-solve in our daily lives and – just like any other skill – the problem-solving can be learned and practised to perfection.
What is problem-solving?
No one will probably lose their job if we have to return to the grocery store to pick up that loaf of bread. The situation changes dramatically if we are trying to achieve maximum efficiency and profitability.
Problems arise in many ways, shapes and forms. Some are mundane, everyday problems – which turn to take or what to buy in the groceries store. Others are more complex and will require a lot of experience and resources – like flattening out the management structure of the blue-chip company. In very simplified terms, problem-solving is about making choices, every day; several times a day. The problem-solving skills are as useful for our everyday lives as much as they are for business decisions.
True, in greater or lesser degree we are all problem-solvers. But our problem-solving process is not always put to test, nor it is always crucial to make the only right decision the first time, every time. No one will probably lose their job if we have to return to the grocery store to pick up that loaf of bread. The situation changes dramatically if we are trying to achieve maximum efficiency and profitability, think of time pressure in business or professional sports.
“The more I practice, the luckier I get”
Like in professional sports, where we grow our muscles, we can grow our ‘creative muscles’ too and learn to use them for problem-solving.
Practice makes perfect so what can you do to enhance your problem-solving skills?
1. Focus on the solution, not the problem
Try one simple exercise: take your time to look around you and carefully notice all objects that are red. Now, close your eyes and try to recall all objects that are yellow. Chances are that you will struggle to recall any… isn’t it thought-provoking!?
Think how many opportunities you might have missed if you were focusing on the problem that is red and not the solution that is yellow.
Neuroscientists have proven that the more you focus on the problem, the less our brain is engaged in searching for solutions. Not only that, but our synaptic paths that could lead to the problem-solving are getting ‘pruned’ regularly, leaving you with even fewer chances to solve the problem.
It helps to first acknowledge and examine the problem and then shift the focus to finding a solution.
2. Adapt ‘5 Whys’ to clearly define the problem
It is believed that by repeatedly asking the question “why” on a problem, you can dig into the root cause of a problem, and that’s how you can find the best solution to tackle the root problem once and for all.
As a life coach, I would personally recommend avoiding question ‘Why’. The question ‘why’ can often elicit emotional excuses as opposed to the real reasons. Try one of the following instead:
- For what reason?
- For what purpose?
- What were the circumstances that led to such decision?
- Based on what information?
- What was I trying to achieve?
3. Look at your problem from a different point of view
We can all agree that the solution to our problem often lies somewhere just outside of our comfort zone or our usual train of thought – ‘thinking pattern’. Wouldn’t it be great to have the ability to change our point of view at will and look at our problem with the pair of ‘fresh eyes’? Well, it is actually not so hard.
Start by presenting and exploring the problem ‘through your own eyes’ and then look at it from the position of a third person. The more elaborate and unusual are the points of view, the more information you can gather about the situation.
Just a few suggestions below:
What would Richard Branson / Prime Minister / President / Queen of England say or do about this problem?
What would you think about this problem 10 years down the line?
What would your mentor do in this situation?
If your company was an entity, what would it have to say about this situation?
As you can see, the only limit here is your imagination. The trick is to associate yourself with chosen third position and speak as if you are them. This might seem as an awkward exercise to start with, but the more you practice, the easier it will become ‘trying a different hat on.’
4. List out as many solutions as possible – Walt Disney Model
Write down ‘all possible solutions’ without thinking how to edit your ideas. The process is similar to the ‘free writing’ exercise often used to overcome writer’s block.
Rest assured, you will have a chance to edit your ideas at a later date but at this stage, it is important to encourage creative thinking that can lead to finding unusual solutions.
Walt Disney is believed to have mastered this approach. It is said, that film producer and innovator used to break the brainstorming process into three distinct chunks. The dreamer – where he could fantasise without criticising, the realist – where more ‘meat on the bones’ was added on how to achieve certain ideas and the critic – where ideas were scrutinised, criticised and rejected if they weren’t ‘workable’.
Walt Disney, it is said, went even further. He moved from one room to another as he progressed with thinking stages. By doing this, he ensured that the three states have their own space anchors and didn’t add confusion to the process. The results of his creative work speak loudly in favour of such approach.
5. Use metaphors
Time is Money
A metaphor is a very powerful way to express big and complex process or idea in one or several words. Consider two metaphors below and how would they impact your decision-making:
“This business unit is a well-oiled machine”
“This business model is a dinosaur”
We are using metaphors in our daily life to describe our feelings or any abstract ideas. It comes naturally to us and it is perfectly natural to employ metaphors for problem-solving too.
As seen from the example above, two different metaphors will most likely result in different proposed strategies and thus, different outcomes. Start by exploring your metaphors related to the particular situation. Ask your team members how would they describe the situation in one word.
You can elaborate by asking a few questions, courtesy of reativethinking.net :
- What animal is like your problem? Why?
- How is your problem like a train/ refurbished house/ burger / etc? How are the components similar? How can the similarities and differences provide ideas?
- How is an iceberg like an idea that might help you solve the problem?
- If your problem were a lawn, what would the weeds be? How would you remove them?
- Why is a road map like your problem? What ideas can you get from a road map to help solve your problem? How about a GPS?
- What ways can you hear the problem? What does it sound like? What else sounds like that? How can those things inspire ideas?
- What are the similarities between a half-eaten, cold pizza and your problem?
- If your problem were a premiere league football team, what team would it be? Why? How would the team overcome its problems? Different personnel? Strategies? Game plans? Morale?
- What famous historical figure comes closest to resembling the essence of the problem? Why? How would the figure approach the problem? What ideas would the figure suggest?
6. Introduce rewards wisely
Introducing bonuses to reward people indicates to the brain that doing more of what you are already doing will bring reward.
We all know that various incentives and rewards are great motivators. The neuroscience says, however, that we should be careful with rewarding old behaviours.
As explained by Ian McDermott & Patricia Riddell, who are business coaches and trainers of Applied Neuroscience, “Introducing bonuses to reward people indicates to the brain that doing more of what you are already doing will bring reward. If we get an expected reward, we work harder to remember what we were doing so that we can do it more.
Lack of an expected reward increases the activity in the parts of the brain that look for flexible solutions to problems.
“On another hand, when no reward is forthcoming, the best thing to do is to change your behaviour and try something different so that there is a hope that you will be rewarded in the future. So, lack of an expected reward increases the activity in the parts of the brain that look for flexible solutions to problems.” Ian and Rachel further suggest in their Neuroscience Business Masterclass workbook: “This would suggest that during the change processes, organisations could benefit from changing their reward structure to randomly and publicly reward behaviours that advance the change agenda.”
This would suggest that during the change processes, organisations could benefit from changing their reward structure to randomly and publicly reward behaviours that advance the change agenda.