My ego would have said that I had superior problem-solving skills for most of my career. As I look back and acknowledge how the world is becoming more and more complex, I now know that problem-solving is vital to the success of any organization and not quite as simple as it might appear. It is a durable skill that I will spend a lifetime enhancing.
While working in a previous role, we were faced with a reduction in revenue within a specific client segment. As you can imagine, a decrease in revenue is typically not a great thing within the for-profit world. The leadership team used a reductionist method and labelled the problem simply as a "revenue challenge" that needed to be solved. The group decided to fix the revenue challenge by focusing on another customer segment where they knew they could get quick results. They succeeded but with the unintended consequence of further isolating the original client segment, and they are still trying to recover today. Problem-solving has become more complex and crucial than ever.
In my Jan. 25 blog, I introduced categorizing skills as either durable or perishable and our Lethbridge College Centre for Teaching, Learning and Innovation's (CTLI's) work on student core competencies. CTLI describes core competencies "as soft skills, life skills, professional skills or employment skills," and problem-solving made their list along with communication, teamwork and collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, global citizenship, and career and personal development. So, let's explore problem-solving.
CTLI describes problem-solving as "applying the skills, attitudes and behaviours needed to effectively generate and implement ideas to address a need or challenge. A problem-solver is resilient, makes decisions, and employs creativity, flexibility and critical thinking to deliver solutions." When you investigate CTLI's Competency Indicators, you will find this line: "Predicts that alternative consequences and setbacks may occur." In my story above, many people within the organization saw the likelihood of isolating the original customer segment with the chosen solution. Yet, their opinions were set aside for the quick win with long-term negative consequences. So how does one avoid alternative or unintended consequences when trying to solve problems?
Avoiding Unintended Consequences
We've seen a plethora of theories and frameworks emerge over the years to try to deal with complexity and unintended consequences. Agile frameworks, minimal viable product, design thinking, systems thinking, polarity management, and complexity theory come to mind. Some break things down into smaller phases, while others assist in expanding the understanding of the systems at play. Some help by experimenting along the way, while others help to recognize not everything is a problem to be solved but rather interdependent pairs. They all afford different viewpoints of problem-solving.
It is helpful to understand that looking at problems through multiple lenses expands our viewpoint. The discipline of developing our understanding of the problem at hand has never been more critical. Unintended consequences are inevitable within complex systems, so it is less about avoiding them altogether and more about being as informed as possible before applying solutions. Doing so requires setting aside our egos.
Set the Ego Aside
I don't know about you, but I can quickly fall into believing my way of thinking is the best way to solve the issue at hand. We live in a world that rewards bold leaders willing to make quick decisions. It feels so good to move fast and act with boldness. Over the last several years, I have recognized that doing so is rooted in feeding my ego and leads to poor decision-making and problem-solving. I'm actively trying to take a more humble approach to leadership and, in turn, problem-solving. I'm working on expanding my viewpoints of the problems at hand and engaging others in exploring the possibilities to address them. The world demands that I tap into more powerful ways of leading, rooted in humility. As I do, I naturally relate to problem-solving more positively and effectively.
Practical problem-solving is vital to our sustained success. Expanding our viewpoint of the challenge at hand through setting aside our egos and employing multiple frameworks are all skills that will help us navigate our ever-increasingly complex world.