When it comes to the daily operations of a business, no matter the size, the one thing you can be sure about is the regular introduction of new problems that need solving.
Great leadership might reduce the frequency of potential problems by preempting pitfalls and devising strategies to avoid them, but, no amount of foresight can guarantee protection from market changes or other anomalies aiming to throw you off course. It’s in these moments that the agility of leadership is tested; how well can they react to a problem and how effectively can they present a solution?
The scope of the problem will vary, as will the resources needed to tackle it, but regardless of the challenge that lies before you, there are some best-practice strategies to help you overcome whatever is being thrown your way.
Following a guiding set of principles is preferable to “thinking on your feet” as the latter leaves too much room for error or worse, a foundational misdiagnosis of the problem itself. And if we don’t understand it, we can’t effectively manage its impact or solve it.
Read on for a framework of steps you can take to solve any problem.
Leadership strategies for problem-solving
Sometimes the problem you’re faced with is a human one or it could be a technological one, let’s use an example that we can follow through each of the steps.
1. Define the problem
Example: Productivity has dropped off and deliverables are being submitted later and later each week. This is having a domino effect and pushing back other departments' schedules and affecting their productivity as a result.
Now that we have defined the problem we need to ask ourselves if it’s a tolerable deviation from where we want to be and does it require further investigation.
You might be aware of a departmental or employee circumstance that explains a shift in productivity, this might be tolerable for a day or two. But if the problem persists, this will need your attention sooner than later.
2. What’s the damage?
This is where you determine which stage the problem is at.
- The emergence stage is when the problem is beginning to happen and hasn't yet caused any significant disruptions to operations.
- The mature stage is when the problem is causing damage and you’ll need to address it quickly to mitigate any further damage.
- The crisis stage is when the problem has already caused significant damage to operations and needs correcting immediately.
3. Determine the root cause
Now, this is where you ask yourself a series of questions to figure out why the problem occurred in the first place:
- “Is there an obvious internal or external factor for the drop in performance?”
- “Who is responsible or in charge of the affected area?”
- “Has anything changed in terms of process or structure?”
- “When did the problem first occur?”
And so on. Determining the root cause of a problem means asking lots of questions to help eliminate guesswork and accurately address it.
4. Get everybody brainstorming solutions
Two heads are better than one. Or better yet, two dozen heads! Get as many different perspectives as possible. Often as leaders, we approach problems from our singular mindset (as the responsibility ultimately lies with us) but your team are invaluable for offering expert analysis and coming up with alternative solutions you might have overlooked.
Don’t be afraid to go higher up the ladder either. CEOs and senior management will have undoubtedly faced similar setbacks in their career and can lend their expertise. Once you have a few ideas on paper, go with the one most likely to succeed.
5. Test the solution
Come up with an implementation plan that states what it is you’re testing and prepares you and your team for any variables that may occur.
For more complex problems, it’s unlikely that you’ll solve them on the first attempt (although we hope you do!) so always plan for the unexpected. Experiment and iterate with all of your ideas generated from the brainstorming session until you find a winner.
6. Measure the results and learn for next time
Once a solution has successfully been implemented you can extract what worked, and what didn’t and how you can avoid similar problems cropping up in the future.
If we go right back to our example at the beginning:
Example: The productivity has dropped off and deliverables are being submitted later and later each week. This is having a domino effect and pushing back other departments' schedules and affecting their productivity as a result.
After applying all of these steps we determined that the software and tools used across the department have limited functionality, this is forcing the team to juggle lots of tasks across multiple tools and it’s causing a slow-down in productivity.
Solution: Find alternative software and tools that improve workflow and collaboration between departments, thus reducing the slow-down in productivity across our teams.
Problem-solving is never one-dimensional
In this example, the problem was a technological one. But in another circumstance, the problem might have stemmed from one employee who was experiencing difficulty in their personal life and this was affecting their performance at work.
The challenges we face as leaders are varied and often but it’s up to us to decipher them using both soft and technical skills.
Recent times have shown us that now more than ever, we need to pivot and adapt to rapid and unforeseen changes. Frameworks like the one mentioned in this article help us to face these challenges one at a time so that businesses can continue operating with minimal fallout.