Problem Solving: If Ya Gotta Problem… Yo, I’ll Solve It

Problem SolvingI’m not too proud to admit that as an impressionable ‘tween’ I had a girl-crush on Vanilla Ice. In fact, if you’d popped round to our house for a cuppa, you’d probably find me in the lounge playing Ice Ice Baby at full volume, singing and dancing as though no one was watching (which thankfully they weren’t). In my heart of hearts I’m a problem solver. I love problem solving. Maybe it was the lyrics to this song that led me in that direction (probably not)… but regardless, I’m at my best, I’m in flow, when I’m trying to nut out a wicked problem that has defied previous attempts to find a solution.

As my career has progressed, and the roles I’ve held have become more and more senior, I have also learned that not only can I not solve everyone’s problems. But nor should I.

While there are always a small set of problems that are my responsibility to resolve, most of the problems need to be solved by others.

My job is not to provide the answers, my job is to help others find their own answers.

So in this article, we’ll take a look at how to let your team do their own problem solving.

Resisting your ego’s determination to demonstrate competence

'Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.' ~ Eckhart TolleClick To Tweet

Most of your career you’ve needed to prove yourself. You’ve been asked for examples of how you’ve delivered x or y. You’ve been expected to toot your own horn and constantly compete amongst your peers for the limited attention of a boss who probably doesn’t really know what ‘good’ looks like.

Every interview, every performance review, every promotion opportunity…

And let’s be honest – irrespective of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, regardless of whether you enjoy the limelight or would rather work quietly behind the scenes – your ego likes to know that you’ve been recognised for your contribution, for your expertise, and for the value that you bring to the table each and every day.

So much so, that our negative self-talk tends to step into overdrive whenever we sense we’ve been looked over, or undervalued in some way.

“What have we done? What should we have done? Who said something about us? Did we drop the ball?”

And while men and women tend to respond differently to this situations, the cause is the same – our ego feels threatened. And it will overreact in a compensatory way.

There are two things that will help you overcome this. Mindfulness and changing your narrative.


Mindfulness (usually emerging from a meditation practice) will enable you to see what is happening, and observe it – reflect upon it – in a more objective fashion, increasing the likelihood that you can override your instinctive response,

Changing your narrative

But changing your narrative is even more important. Organisations thrive when they have high performing teams. Not when they have only high performing individuals.

If people you work with – or better still, people who work for you – solve a tricky problem in an innovative way, it reflects on the team… including the role you play in leading or contributing to that team.

Just don’t let this morph into claiming all the credit… otherwise you should have just done it yourself. And that’s not leadership!

Creating an environment of psychological safety

'Teamwork requires some sacrifice up front; people who work as a team have to put the collective needs of the group ahead of their individual interests.' ~ Patrick LencioniClick To Tweet

Now the thing with serious problems is that nobody knows the answer. There’s ambiguity, and a lack of clarity, and a range of completely unknown variables that make certainty and decisiveness really challenging. They aren’t called wicked problems for nothing.

Problem Solving

So, inevitably, to find a credible solution requires some trial and error. It requires people being willing to put forward ideas that might seem silly at first. They need to be prepared to suggest changing. Or stopping. Or starting.

Our brains don’t like this, and we can easily slip into dismissiveness. So we need to guard against that. Nobody wants their suggestion dismissed out of hand, and if they think it will happen, they won’t make a suggestion at all.

Remember, your team members will predict your future behaviour based on your past track record. If they’ve seen you be dismissive or worse – punitive –  for a silly or wrong idea in the past, then you can forget about it…

So you need to start building a track record now that demonstrates that you are prepared to tolerate some failure. That you are willing for a few missteps to be taken before the correct path is found. And most importantly, that you’ve got their backs with your superiors and aren’t going to throw them under the bus at the first sign of speed wobbles higher up the organisation.

Remember, everything you do is on show, and people are watching you for clues as to what you expect, and what you value. If you want problem solving, you need to set the conditions for that to happen right from the outset. It is also the only way you get genuine diversity of opinion into the solution.

Learning how to ask questions that prompt deep reflective thinking

'Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.' ~ VoltaireClick To Tweet

There are questions… and then there are questions. Problem solving requires great questions.

Problem Solving

Things that make you go… uhhh.

  • What makes it important for us to solve this problem?
  • Who else cares about the problem (and the solution) and why?
  • What have we tried before that might teach us something new?
  • What assumptions are we making that need to be tested?
  • What else could be contributing to this problem
  • Who benefits from the problem remaining unsolved?

Great questions can take you a long way.

The real challenge is not answering them yourself! When your brain hears a question, it desperately wants to answer it. It wants to prove competence and value. It wants to complete the sentence. It wants to close the loop.

Letting go of the desire to control the process

'As a leader, these attributes - confidence, perseverance, work ethic and good sense - are all things I look for in people. I also try to lead by example and create an environment where good questions and good ideas can come from anyone.' ~ Heather BreschClick To Tweet

Believe it or not, you are not the smartest guy (or gal) in the room. And if you are, I suggest you find yourself a different room.

Problem Solving

Ego is not a friend of creative problem solving. Your ego will tell you that your way is best. The solution you come up with is better than anything others will come up with.

This is a surefire way to ending up as the only person in your team!

You need to accept that the solution might not be the one you would have come up with. It might not be as neat, or as refined. It might not even be quite as effective.

The only way to combat this is to focus on the outcome you need. Be as specific as you can about the result. Not the way to achieve it.

And sometimes, your team will surprise you can exceed your expectations. That’s not something that you can do!

Having (and demonstrating) deep trust in your team

Trust them and get out of the way.

They have the answers within them. They are whole complete beings. You employed them for a reason.

So let them get on with it.

My new book, More Than This: Your Heroic Quest to Find Inspiration, Intent, Impact and Insight in a Broken World, is exactly what you need to:

  • Clarify and articulate your passion – to find your why
  • Gain the courage and commitment to do something about it
  • Learn and strengthen the skills you need to create massive impact
  • Stay true, analyse your results and gain powerful insights

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