Everyone hits a ceiling of complexity. Teens hit a level of complexity in sports, class, and social situations. Entrepreneurs hit levels of complexity in sales, collections, culture, communication, focus, size, number of members, and more. The teams and companies that succeed are the ones that figure out how to solve problems better, faster. And that’s a ceiling of complexity that I observe in many fast growth companies. A one-person entrepreneur shop can move fast, make decisions quickly, and re-chart direction as often as needed. Small companies with few employees can circle a conference table and hammer out solutions. Yet, as your company and teams grow, it gets progressively harder to solve problems in a timely manner.
Challenges at this stage include confusion about who owns the problem, how to get permission to move forward on a solution, and a proven framework for thinking problems through. I’ve taught myriad ways to brainstorm creatively, solve problems, use teams to make decisions, etc. And each of these would divert me from my focus in this blog – how to teach your team members to practically consider and correctly solve business problems. For those familiar with Rhythm Systems, you’ll be familiar with our Think process to really put energy and brain power into solving complex business challenges, and a great resource for this is the book Rhythm. For our discussion, I’ll focus on smaller day-to-day and week-to-week obstacles and problems that, as your company grows, you simply do not have the time to solve by yourself. In fact, these are the problems that you’re already paying others to resolve.
I’ve seen failure in companies from Australia to Belgium to Canada to the USA as leaders attempted to get team members to own problem solving. I’ve also seen great success in those same countries and below I’ll distill the essence of what I believe is a simple and effective approach to grow the problem-solving capabilities of your team members.
Problem Solving Model
Step Zero: Identify the problem. This sounds so elementary that I hesitate to list it. However, how many times have you seen individuals solve the wrong problem really well? Right. So as elementary as this sounds, you must make sure that the team member can identify and articulate the problem. Often, problems are people or process centered and you want to make sure that the definition is free from opinion, is fact focused, and easily understood when stated. Have them use the format, “the problem is …” and complete the sentence. Don’t get lazy and give the answer, instead let the team member grow in their struggle. If the problem definition is on track, there is no need to coach them on problem definition. If off-track, this is the time for you to educate and coach them on defining problems. Your performance goal for the team member is an ability to see and articulate problems or challenges well. One way to coach team members to do this is to ask them to describe the current state of the challenge and articulate the desired state (or the goal).
Step One: List and brainstorm every potential cause for the problem or challenge. As the team members work through listing potential causes, you’ll gain insight into their thinking and any leadership gaps that you may need to back fill. If this list is complete and well thought out in your mind, go to the next step. If the team member leaves anything off this list, then coach, counsel, and educate for better (even broader) understanding. When this step is completed well, you’ll have confidence they are considering the issue or problem from as many angles as you would.
Step Two: Brainstorm possible resources to help. After considering the most likely potential cause(s) for the problem or challenge, ask your team member to consider what resources they will need to address the problem. Some prompting questions may be: Who could help us? What partnerships could we form? What tools or technology do we need? What don't we know that we need to know? Who can we talk to about the budget we need? This step helps move the focus from the problem into potential solutions.
Step Three: List and brainstorm every potential solution or approach. Have the team member list every potential approach that they can think of. Everything. You want to ensure that they have every possible approach under consideration so no matter how inconsequential, the possible solution should be listed. I’ve even had team members write down one solution named “Barry.” Yeah, that meant that they could dump it on me, and I would solve it for them. That solution never made it to the next step, but it was a reminder that in this step, everything should be considered. Any ideas missed here could be the magic bullet you're looking for, so be sure to offer plenty of time, coaching, and guidance. Once this list is solid, it’s time to move to step four.
Step Four: Recommendation for action. Sometimes, even after success in the previous steps, you will still see your team's hesitation in making a recommendation for a course of action. Team members will still wait for you to tell them which is the best approach. Resist the urge to give them the answer and let them struggle through. Something like, “If I were out for a week with no email or phone connection, what would you recommend is the best course of action?” Sometimes the answer is a combination of items from step three’s potential solutions and sometimes a single action. Your first objective is to determine if their recommendation really is the best approach. If you also believe it is the best recommendation, be sure to compliment and reinforce their choice. If not, it’s time to coach and educate on implications and impact so they understand why another choice may be better. Once your best choice is agreed on, set deadlines and a process for follow-up and then get out of their way. You should also identify a date when you will meet to assess results and make adjustments to your course of action.
I encourage you to stay strong during this process. This is an investment in the strength and problem-solving capability of your current and future leadership. Hold team members to the process and refuse to give them the answers. This will make them better contributors and establish a process they may repeat with their team. Before you know it, everyone in your organization will be good at solving basic problems and issues.
Many ideas sound good but in practice, but don’t make it past the first attempt. Here’s my encouragement on the practical application of this approach. Imagine you work for someone who, rather than giving you answers to problems, made you work through a problem-solving approach like the one above. Day after day, week after week, month after month, they ask you these same questions, refusing to give you answers while letting you struggle through the thinking process. How long would it take you to catch on to the pattern and begin to implement it in all your problem discussions with this leader? My guess is… not long. In fact, I can imagine after a few experiences with the above approach, you’d get it.
You’d likely walk into that leader’s office with a clearly defined problem, a list of possible causes, a list of possible resources, a list of possible solutions, and a specific recommendation for action. I can envision that you (as a leader) would ultimately say something like this, “Great job! For future issues or problems like this one, please go ahead and make your decision with this process and let me know afterward how it went. You’ve proven that you’re very capable of making good decisions.”
Every entrepreneur and leader dreams of a team that works well, plays hard, focuses on solutions, and wins often. This problem-solving approach is just one of the tools that will help you in creating that team. Implement now to develop the strength of each individual player. For help using this approach, download our free Breakthrough to Green Tool to walk through the process step by step.
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