by Steve Rouse

The recent incident of the giant Ever Given cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal reminded me of the importance of effective problem-solving – problems, quite literally, don’t come much bigger than that!

The world of work is full of problems – giant ones, small ones, annoyingly persistent ones that just don’t want to go away and keep popping up. We all need to be good problem solvers, but to be really great problem solvers we need the right mindset, the right strategy and the right tools.

The outcome mindset

Do you see problems as a problem? Many of us do, and therein lies the problem! This is a "problem" orientation. When we see a "problem", it gets us down, we feel anxiety and often react unconstructively – either by ignoring it or reaching for the first solution that comes to mind.

The "outcome" mindset is an alternative. If we focus on the outcomes we want to see, rather than the problem that’s blocking us, we feel energised and are more likely to take positive action.

Try re-framing your problem as a challenge, or even an opportunity! We all love a challenge, and opportunities are exciting – certainly much more exciting than a problem.

Getting out of the solution trap

When we encounter a problem, our brains often fall into a trap – they look for what’s familiar and often confuse a new problem with an old one we’ve encountered before. "It’ll be that!" we cry, implement an old solution to the old problem, and get all surprised when it doesn’t work.

The key to avoiding the solution trap is to use a structured approach, like the problem-solving cycle below:

problem solving strategies

Getting to the root of the problem

I recall working with one energy client who had a recurring problem. A hoist kept cutting out and, each time it happened, they called the site engineer to do a quick fix. This happened about 14 times over a year and, every time, they called the site engineer in. 

I heard the Head of Engineering say at a meeting, "Anyone of you could redesign this mechanism in 15 minutes on the back of an envelope!" – but no one had.

Think of your own work: it’s likely you waste time having to quickly fix recurring problems. It’s called "single-loop learning" and it happens because we often don’t get to the bottom of why the problem is occurring in the first place – the so-called root cause. We act like a thermostat – waiting for the temperature to drop before switching the heating on again... and again... and again...

Once we address the root cause, we can often stop its symptoms from recurring – this is called "double-loop learning".

Problem-solving in a VUCA world

We live in a world of ever-accelerating change and digital transformation, often referred to as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Leaders play a key role in enabling their people, teams and organisations to successfully navigate this environment, and a key element of this is their approach to problem-solving.

Professor Keith Grint thinks that leaders have to change their approach to problem-solving. Too often, leaders put themselves in the role of answer-givers – responding to requests with a "do that" or "do this" approach. The mistake here is two-fold:

Firstly, it encourages treating complex, or "wicked", problems as simple, or "tame", ones. Grint points out that many problems in modern digital organisations are far from simple and may have no single solution – in fact, they may have no solution at all, just opportunities to move forward.

Secondly, adopting this approach means that organisations become dependent on their leaders for answers and people don’t learn to think for themselves.

Grint suggests leaders need to ask more questions rather than give answers, encouraging, empowering and coaching their people and organisations to become ace problem-solvers – dealing with complexity in a more agile and intelligent way. Problem-solving needs to be delegated!

Learning more

QA has a range of courses that can help you improve your problem solving, including Solve Problems and Make Decisions and Innovation Thinking. We can also design bespoke interventions to meet your specific needs.

So, stop the rush to solutionising and talk to us!