Is the first problem solving step really ‘Identify the Problem?’
If you’ve ever watched someone who is tired or emotional struggling to solve a problem, you know that somebody forgot a step in the problem solving process.
People can get so wrapped up in the problem of having a problem that they can’t think straight, they get tunnel vision, and any attempt to start a process will be a waste of time. But if you begin with these three steps, you are more likely to find good solutions, and emerge better from the experience when it’s all over.
1. Embrace the Suck
Often our first response when we encounter a problem is to see it as a bad thing, an obstruction to forward movement. But instead of thinking of it as traffic jam on the path to progress, think of it as a sign that you might be doing something right.
In his book It Worked for Me, Colin Powell even reminds us that having problems is actually a good thing, especially as leaders:
If your team has concluded that either you can’t help them or you don’t care, that’s a far worse problem to have. So focus on the upside of having problems: somebody trusts you enough and believes you have the necessary problem solving skills to do something about them.
Ok, so in a way, you want to have problems. Does that mean you have to like them? Of course not.
During my time in the Army, we would often coach ourselves to “Embrace the Suck.”
Some stuff will come along that you are just going to have to deal with. You will have problems to solve. The thing to do is to accept that fact, and get on with the business of solving them.
Two ways to help you past this point are to breathe deeply, and make yourself smile. These simple acts will help you keep your head in a crisis and prepare your mind to think more rationally.
If it helps, tell yourself to “Embrace the Suck.”
2. Distance Yourself
In Scientific American, Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman talk about “Construal Level Theory” – the idea that by increasing our mental distance from a problem we are able to think more abstractly about it.
They cited experiments in which two groups of people were given a transportation problem to help solve. One was told that it concerned a group of fellow students locally on campus; the other was told it concerned students in a distant country.
Researchers found that the group with the more distant problem produced more possible solutions than the close-to-home group. Further, their solutions tended to be more creative. The sense of distance made the problem more abstract and easier to manipulate in their minds.
As the authors concluded, “Even minimal cues of psychological distance can make us more creative.” Here are four ways you can build some of that helpful mental distance:
Change Perspective – What if it was someone else’s problem? How would you counsel them to proceed?
Alter Time – What if you had three weeks instead of three days? Or, if there’s time, consider sleeping on it – things might look different in the morning.
Reduce Probability – What if it were less likely the problem was going to materialize? With the pressure off, what might you do differently?
Assign Identity – This wasn’t in the study, but I think another way to separate yourself from the problem is to give it a name.
Something with its own name has its own identity, and is more clearly defined. That allows you to put some distance between yourself and it.
So give the problem a name. You can be descriptive, with names like “The Shipping Snafu” or the “The Packaging Predicament.” Or have a little fun with it and give it a pet name, like “Fifi,” or “Barney.”
Even the World Meteorological Organization does this when it names storms. It helps them define what they are talking about and reduce the potential for confusion.
Putting a name on a problem doesn’t make it any less difficult. But it does help you separate yourself from the problem, and gives you a handle with which you can manipulate it creatively in the abstract to find better solutions.
3. See the Opportunity
The third thing to do is to see the problem as an opportunity for growth. Assuming you can’t avoid the problem, view it as a chance to sharpen your problem solving skills.
The effort of grappling with problems will make you more adept at solving them. Like your daily workout or playing your ukulele, you get better at it with practice.
It works the same way with your mind, too – it’s like a muscle that grows stronger under manageable levels of stress. You build mental toughness one day and one challenge at a time by dealing with the problem, not avoiding it.
Viktor Frankl, who has seen more than his share of problems and suffering in Nazi concentration camps, sees it the same way.
I think he’s telling us that we reach our full potential as humans and leaders in the struggle. So the thing to do is to see the problem as an opportunity to become a better version of yourself and a chance to make things better for others.
Accept the challenge.
Problem Solving Steps – The Takeaway
Problems are a given; you will encounter them (at least I hope you do!). How you approach the problems you face can have a huge impact on whether or not you find good solutions.
So before you launch into the first problem solving step: Identify the Problem, take a moment to make sure you are approaching it with the right attitude:
When an unavoidable problem comes running up to you:
Smile and give it a hug.
Name it “Snoopy.”
And take it out for a walk.
The exercise will do you good.