What’s The Problem? A Different Approach To Problem Solving

February 16, 2023
What’s The Problem? A Different Approach To Problem Solving
Lessons in Leadership

Surely you have experienced this scenario: An employee walks into a manager’s office and declares, “We have a problem.” The manager, not at all phased by this statement, replies calmly, “Well, I know you have the solution, right?” Everyone knows that they must bring a solution to every problem they identify.

For decades, managers have implored their team members to focus on solutions. Many argue that this empowers employees to think critically, solve problems independently, and communicate good news (a.k.a. “solutions”) not just bad news (a.k.a. “problems”). A quick Google search will produce hundreds of articles on this “solution-oriented” approach, touting it as one of the most effective management tools. These articles consistently repeat the chorus: “Focus on the solution, not the problem.”

However, as a lifelong problem-solver, I believe that taking a “problem-oriented” approach can be far more effective than many of these authors have been willing to admit. Business leaders, in particular, could benefit from being more problem-oriented, and much less solution-oriented.

Just what do I mean by a problem-oriented approach?

Let’s talk about it.

The problem-oriented approach is a different way of thinking. It encourages leaders and teams to examine every possible aspect of any problem they may be facing before hammering out any possible approach to solving that problem. While it can easily be viewed as a time suck, or a costly delay when action is needed, I wager that it is much better to pause to examine a problem than risk failure with solutions adopted in haste.

Here are four steps that could get you to the right solution.

Step One:  Get the facts

This is an examination of what actually happened. Before jumping immediately to asking “what is the solution,” ask:

Once you’ve established the facts and have a legitimate problem, move on to the following steps.

Step Two:  Examine your environment

Conventional wisdom advises us not to ask why something happened. In contrast, it’s really healthy to ask “why” repeatedly. This is a critical step that will help you get to the root causes of a problem. Go on a broad exploration to find out:

Step Three: Dig into your processes

This step gets into the nitty gritty, the uncomfortable truth, of how you got to the point of having a problem in the first place. Take the time to work your way through:

Step Four: Consider the human and organizational implications

This is perhaps the most critical step because it affects the welfare of your team. Try hard to avoid looking through the lens of assigning blame and ask:

Depending on the size of your organization and the nature of the problem, you might run through these questions with dispatch. Large, systemic problems may require a more significant investment of time. Whatever the circumstances, it is important to flip the paradigm and try the problem-oriented approach.

Once you have worked through these steps, either self-guided or with the help of a consultant, developing a solution—if indeed one is needed—becomes the easy part.

Author:  J. Todd Phillips

* This article was original published on Forbes.com