When faced with problems, we may be guilty of making decisions and coming up with solutions too quickly. Who can blame us? The process of crossing off items on our perpetual to-do list creates a dopamine hit. But at what cost? Are these solutions effective or are we trying to place a temporary band-aid on a perpetual, recurring problem?
When posed with solving a problem, Albert Einstein believed in the following approach: if you have 1 hour to come up with a solution, 55 minutes should be spent thinking about the problem, and only 5 minutes spent on the solution.
In this blog, we examine three effective problem-solving tactics; after all, the ability to effectively solve problems and lead others to do the same is a skill you’re likely to require for some time to come!
Tactic 1: Making effective decisions
Problem solving by its very nature is the practice of identifying an issue, finding causes, asking questions and coming up with viable solutions. Choosing which solution depends on your capacity to make timely and high-quality decisions, based on the whole picture.
We can’t possibly be confident in making quality decisions if we don’t have a strong grasp of the context. Reports and spreadsheets, which we often defer to, are really just concrete, two-dimensional versions of reality. For example, data tells us how often a machine breaks down on an assembly line. The decision here may be to replace said machines more frequently. However, when considering the context of those machines, it may demonstrate how a machine is dirty, covered in oil and has not been properly maintained. Your decision and related solution may differ quite substantially – and have a better impact on revenue – if you looked at the bigger picture.
Sometimes, gaining information about context is not as simple as the above example, and this is where giving credence to your intuitive wisdom comes into play. Learn more in our blog Effective Decision Making in Leadership: A Science or a Feeling?
Tactic 2: Begin with the end in mind
In his popular read, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephan Covey suggests that we should begin each day, task or project with a clear vision of the desired destination and therefore direction. A useful technique to use is the classic fishbone diagram. Essentially, when facing a problem, look at the potential factors causing your problem. Instead of jumping straight into a solution, map backwards to how you arrived at the problem initially.
Let’s consider an example: a law firm is struggling with employee engagement. We might want to consider how difficult it is for the team to work from home given the new normal of hybrid-style work environments, how well software and computer equipment supports group work, how effective the business is at creating opportunities for people to connect with their colleagues, how well messages from the leadership team reaches the rest of the business, and what cultural norms and expectations are applicable to working from home.
Looking at the desired outcome (improved employee engagement) and working backwards will likely allow you to instigate a more robust solution to the problem. Conducting this exercise may reveal information such as all meetings are virtual, some employees have poor Wi-Fi connection, some may not have the luxury of a home office and may suffer distraction, work hours are unclear, the leadership team has not done a good job of providing information about the business and feelings of isolation all culminate to a general lack of connection. The solution to improve employee engagement may then be multi-faceted, perhaps creating mandatory days that everyone attends the office, meetings become in-person encounters and budget is offered to each employee to invest in their at-home workspace.
Tactic 3: Frame the problem appropriately
Problem statements may be challenging to get right because it’s easy to assume the symptoms are the actual problem that needs resolving. A well-framed problem statement opens up conversation and an assessment of what the real obstacles are. A bad problem statement closes down alternatives. Let’s consider an example:
- Problem statement 1: Our law firm demands more of our solicitors’ time.
- Problem statement 2: Our law firm demands more effective use of our solicitors’ time.
The two statements are very similar, but vastly different. Statement 1 is not really a problem at all – it’s a solution. The only possible responses include either recruiting more solicitors or asking the current team of solicitors to commit more time.
However, with statement 2, it’s unclear what the solution is. This is a good thing because it encourages us to think critically. We may begin to ask questions like, ‘What metric are we using for billable hours?’.
In the UK, many firms continue to rely on billable hours as the foundation to monitor individual performance and revenue forecast. However, this metric perpetuates the idea that time reflects value. A solicitor with a modest target of 1400 billable hours per year will need to account for about 6 hours of billable time per day. The result leaves around 1 hour per day for traditional core work (business development, admin, billing, CPD, supervision, 1:1s, performance reviews, diversity and inclusion work and team meetings).
We may then uncover a far deeper problem at play: these solicitors are at serious risk of burn-out because they notoriously work long hours to account for the non-billable work they do for the business. Framing the problem, as in our second example, challenges us to look at the more effective use of solicitors’ time. What technology could be employed to support their admin intensive tasks? What metrics could be considered that more appropriately measures value to the business?
If you see that your problem statement only has one solution, go back to the drawing board. Begin with observable facts, not just opinions, judgements or interpretations.
“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple and WRONG” (H.L. Mencken).
The above-mentioned tactics may not guarantee a solution, but they will certainly provide you with a far better strategy when problem solving.
Do you need to improve the problem-solving capabilities in your business? Blackmore Four are an independent Essex-based consulting company, offering specialist advice, leadership insight and tailored solutions to businesses looking to improve business performance. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.