From the parent who is facing the reality of life with a rebellious teenager, through to the business owner who is facing increasing competition and decreasing market share, we all encounter problems from time to time. In fact, it is said that as long as you are living, you will face problems – it is simply a part of life and, by extension, it is simply a part of leadership.
Leaders face an apparent smorgasbord of problems which often vary greatly in their complexity and scope but all require the attention and the problem-solving abilities of the leader. Relative to their complexity, problems can range from simple and straightforward to difficult and multifarious. A simple, straightforward problem for one parent may be having to find a new pair of shoes for their child as the current ones are now too small. Alternatively, a more difficult problem for another parent may be having to support and correct the direction of a child who has gone down a path of using harmful and mind-altering substances. The problems we face as leaders will vary in their complexity from case to case.
Looking at the scope of problems leaders face, it’s clear their reach can be either near or far, singular or plural. As a business leader, having to make an adjustment to staff which will mean the separation of one employee from a department or unit can be considered a problem with fairly near or singular scope. However, some of us have also had the immense displeasure of having to correct business performance which may require the winding up of entire units, branches and even country-wide operations – resulting in the displacement of tens, hundreds and even thousands! Such a problem is definitely more far-reaching in nature.
Regardless of how complex our problems are or how far they reach, we will all encounter problems periodically and we must be able to effectively solve them; this is what separates effective leaders from ineffective ones. Problem solving can be defined as a process where solutions are sought to address complex or wide-ranging challenges or issues and I submit to you that all leaders must be able to adequately navigate this process for the good of their families, communities, businesses and countries. A relatively intuitive five-step process can be posited: (1) define the problem; (2) find its cause (s); (3) collect information and list alternative options for solving the problem; (4) select and implement a solution (s); (5) evaluate/review.
Step one is to define the problem. What really is going wrong? What is out of place? What is the challenge being faced? As mentioned earlier, it could be a simple problem with limited scope or it could be more difficult and far-reaching in nature. These elements will go into defining the problem step and help us to better understand what we are up against. An ill-defined problem will always lead to ineffectual solutions being conceptualized and implemented. If you don’t know what your target looks like, how will you know when you hit it?
Step two is to find the cause (s) of the problem. This requires looking past the issue itself and diving deeper to discover what got it started in the first place. You may have an employee who suddenly begins to under-perform in his or her role – you may apply step one and identify that he or she is simply not putting in adequate energy into some key components of the function. But why is this? Could it be a result of that person being recently passed over for a desired promotion? Maybe. Not finding the cause is like treating the symptoms of an underlying problem without seeking to identify the real issue – the symptoms may get better, but the problem will still be there and it will continue to manifest itself.
Step three requires the collection of information and the listing of possible solutions. After we have defined our problem and understand its causes, we can now research ways to solve it. This is not difficult in today’s world because there is now more information at our fingertips than ever before. There is no need to re-invent the wheel – it is very likely that the problem you are facing has been faced by thousands before you and their solutions may be online to help you overcome as they did. Talk to others in your field, search the internet and read books – this will help you collate possible solutions for the problem.
In step four, you select and implement your solution. Problems hardly ever solve themselves, so there must be some level of intervention on our part as leaders (even if the intervention is not to intervene). After researching solutions, we should implement one or a mix of them quickly to address the issue. Again, depending on the complexity or scope of the problem, the solution (s) may need to be multifaceted and wide-ranging – you can’t put a plaster on a bullet wound!
Step five relates to the need to review or evaluate the effectiveness of the chosen solution. This step is critical as it should indicate that the problem is solved or, if not, it should lead to a repeating of the process from step one. Too many leaders implement ‘super’ solutions that they thought up on the fly and they never look back to see if the problem was actually addressed. This is reckless and can lead to organizational failure. Evaluation also helps to cement learning so that we are better able to face similar problems in the future.
Problems come, but effective leaders will employ these steps and/or others that will solve them.
(Davidson Ishmael holds a MBA in Leadership and Innovation and is an operations manager in the financial services sector.