How Great Leaders Solve Problems: 7 Key Ingredients

Have you ever found yourself trapped in a never-ending cycle of problems upon problems? In our day to day work and personal lives we can easily become caught in a mountain of issues to deal with, which consequently result in constantly putting out fires, taking shortcuts, ignoring the bigger picture, perceiving that nothing we intended to do is completed, and feelings of exhaustion.

Not only do problems often distract us from our primary focus, they also cause a shift of attention to additional problems. Contagious? Perhaps, but more a ‘law of attraction’ to putting out fires becoming a main function of our role. With no actual resolution in sight, alongside our increasing heap of unresolved issues, feelings of frustration and tension appear to sky-rocket. The danger is feeling ineffective, unproductive, and burned out.

HOWEVER, there are day to day problems that need your attention, that are your responsibility, and that can’t just be ignored. There is no ‘great’ in a ‘great leader’ if they fail to solve problems within the workplace. Here are a few strategies to effectively resolve problems for continuous improvement. There are many problem-solving strategies, but a simple yet effective one is,

  • Assess,
  • Diagnose,
  • Plan,
  • Act,
  • Evaluate or Check.

Plus, whatever strategy you prefer must begin with clear communications and psychological safety.

1. Maintain Crystal Clear Communication

Now is not the best time to put your head down and plod forward, shy away, or not communicate. It’s necessary to involve others as you investigate the issues. There have been uncountable situations where it has been almost impossible to pinpoint the root cause of an issue, or even get close to the surface of it.

To do so, it is essential to communicate in a transparent and clear way in order to gather all the facts plus opinions and ideas for resolution. Transparent communication is a basic necessity, and without this it is extremely difficult to form a full picture, diagnose the issue, and identify strategies to solve it. A firm foundation of trust and respect are necessary for the others to believe that they are invited to participate.

2. Fully Assess the Issue

The importance of gathering the facts cannot be under-estimated, yet so often managers do not take the time. The consequences often lead to spending more time later to address the issues and deal with resulting additional problems. How many times have you found yourself in a situation where the problem is unable to be solved smoothly, merely because basic factors have failed to be identified? A great leader will ask many questions and gather data in order to obtain the information.

3. Ensure Psychological Safety

An unfortunate, but familiar scenario consists of employees involved in a problem not fully expressing themselves due to the fear of risking their jobs or even exposing their own, or others’ errors and mistakes. We know of situations where employees actually hid mistakes, causing the problem to go undetected and allowed to fester. A great leader needs to create a safe environment for open and honest dialogue among their team to occur.

Ensuring psychological safety is key to identify and resolve issues before they grow, causing a worse situation that requires more resources. It is an environment in which employees are comfortable and willing to take interpersonal risks without fear of being reprimanded, penalized, or ignored. Instead, they believe that their voice is heard and matters. It’s an environment where everyone is able to identify and speak up regarding the problem and then construct a plan of solutions to correct it.

4. Examine the Information and Diagnose the Problem

It’s important to not make assumptions regarding the cause or the best solutions. Discuss the findings, identify the actual problem, and determine the possible causes – realizing that the real issue might be different than originally thought and that there is rarely one root cause. Really take the time to sort through the data gathered and try to consider the situation within the time frame when the issue actually occurred. That means not letting the benefit of hindsight cloud your judgment of what it was like in the moment.

Then move forward to identify solutions, plan actions, carry out the plan, and evaluate effectiveness. This means knowing or finding available resources and delegating tasks.

5. Identify Solutions

Sure, it’s tempting to resolve ‘simple’ issues quickly on your own and just tell someone what needs done. The concern is that your team will rely on you for answers. Instead, identify solutions together and delegate tasks. You are teaching others to be leaders and take action, and you’re freeing your time.

Techniques such as brainstorming ideas and mapping them out can be beneficial and aid in collecting ideas. Another way – or a next step – is to create a prioritized list where tasks can be ranked in accordance to their importance or urgency. In addition, it is equally as important to analyze key features such as time, cost, and budget, in order to form an accurate picture of the best and most feasible options. Then the team can construct and plan long-term solutions.

6. Plan and Take Action

Now that the problem has been assessed and data analyzed, a diagnosis made, and solutions brainstormed, the focus can shift to constructing an effective plan. A solid plan that is directly related to the problem and agreed upon are critical.

Clear actions need to be identified, responsibilities outlined, and a timeline developed. In order for this to work successfully, it is vital that all members of the team are on the same page and can express the same level of commitment. Who is doing what, how and when are critical to carry out the plan. All must also be prepared to take action and be held accountable.

7. Check For Successful Resolution

Checking or evaluating is two-fold: one regarding the process, and the second to ensure that the issue is solved. Don’t assume that once the solution – or solutions – are implemented that the results are as successful as intended. Conduct a thorough evaluation to ensure that the issue is resolved and make any needed adjustments.

Part of checking is to debrief regarding the problem-solving process and ensuring that every voice is heard. Generate ideas for improvement for when (not IF) the next problem surfaces.

An important consideration is that Assessing, Diagnosing, Planning, Acting, and Evaluating are critical steps regardless of how minor or significant the problem seems. The steps can be quick and simple or much more in-depth to meet the level of necessity. Involving others, mentoring your team to be leaders, and coaching them to learn these important steps are life-long skills that benefit all, including the organization! And as importantly, demonstrate your great leadership skills!

“Everyone wants to do better. TRUST THEM.
Leaders are everywhere. FIND THEM.
People achieve good things, big and small, every day. CELEBRATE THEM.
Some people wish things were different. LISTEN TO THEM.
Everybody matters. SHOW THEM.”
– from, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family. ( Bob Chapman)

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