In business, as in life in general, problems crop up everywhere. Those who know how to think about problems proactively have an advantage, and problem-solving is arguably one of the most important skills a businessperson can learn. That’s true no matter the role: managers, supervisors, executives, individual contributors, and team leads all need to know how to solve problems and to contribute collaboratively to finding solutions. In a recent study about the future of work, complex problem-solving emerged as one of the top ten skills that will be in high demand.
Successful problem-solving involves practicing habits of thought, or ways of thinking, that will help when you begin working on a problem and will also help you stay on track. As these strategies become second nature, you will find that your ability to problem-solve will improve. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Treat the cause, not the symptom
If your doctor treated your symptom, but never looked for the cause of your complaint, you’d likely find a new doctor. But too often in business, the most immediate symptom is treated rather than the basic cause. For example, a salesperson might discount the price of a product after a customer complaint, when the root problem isn’t the price, but rather a customer service issue. As long as the target of treatment is really just a symptom, the cause remains, and the problem will persist. Make sure you are treating the true cause, not the symptom.
- Cast a wide net
A barrier to effective problem-solving is that people can view their problem from a narrow perspective and fail to ask others for additional insight. The reasons for casting a narrow net are varied. Some people might not want to make their problem known. They might want to control information. Or they may feel that others are too busy to get involved. Whatever the reason, the problem might never get solved if the net remains narrow. To cast a wider net, don’t be satisfied with your first impression about the problem, its cause, or its solution. Instead, gather a variety of perspectives on the problems and take a wide, broad view of the problem.
- Look where it’s not expected
How often are keys found where people expect to find them? It seems they are never where they are expected, which is why they are “lost.” In business, an important reason that problems remain unsolved, or are even accepted as the status quo, is that people look for solutions in the same place they’ve always looked and fail to consider looking elsewhere.
- Recognize ripple effects
Some solutions will have effects beyond the initial action, like the ripples that are created when a rock is thrown into a lake. When you are analyzing potential solutions, it’s important to look ahead and anticipate the ripple effects. A minor action or oversight can lead to a major disaster. For example, in today’s interconnected world, a controversial business decision can have social media ripple effects far beyond anything imagined, and they can have a long-lasting impact, bringing on new problems.
- Appreciate complexity
Why do people often resist thinking beyond their initial assumptions about a problem or its solution? Sometimes personal egos are tied up with a certain point of view. Other times, people simply find it too confusing and frustrating to deal with the complexities. Sometimes people will choose an ineffective solution because it is easy rather than putting up with the ambiguity of figuring out a tough problem. But the best solution often emerges from the uncertainty. By appreciating and being patient with complexity, you give solutions time to make themselves known.
- Implement simplicity
While it is important to push yourself to expose the complexity and ambiguity of a problem, it is also important to finally take a clear stand on both the nature of the problem and its solution. In this way, your problem-solving efforts will save you time and money rather than merely generating a lot of interesting discussions. The best solution is always the solution which is the most simple – while also getting the job done.
While problems are an expected part of life in business, there are principles of problem-solving that can make the job easier. These six strategies give you a smart place to start.