A Quick Problem-Solving Approach for Leaders

by Michelle Hunter

How getting outside your own head leads to solutions for your business.

Problem-Solving Approach with whiteboard

There’s nothing more valuable in our lives than moments of quiet reflection and analysis. Yet most of us are so busy running from meeting to meeting – or just digging out from under work we could delegate – that we seldom take time to really think.  Our go-to problem-solving approach defaults to doing whatever seems best at the moment… or deferring a decision until we can’t ignore the problem any longer. Not the best approach. 

I feel strongly about the value of reflection, and I’m intentional about weaving quiet moments into my work life – both short interludes to think about an issue or longer sessions when I can really think deeply about my business. I’ve built a habit of reflection that drives my business forward – both by fostering creativity and innovation and by accelerating problem-solving. 

Interested in learning more about this? I recommend reading Lead Yourself First by Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin. You can also listen to a podcast conversation I recently had with Katie Maggio of Level 10 Life. 

So, in keeping with my focus on reflection, I want to share the problem-solving approach I use to uncover solutions and spark action in my business. It’s simple… and a surprisingly effective way to move beyond confusion and take action. 

Plan and prepare for a productive session. 

As a leader, it can be challenging to find time alone to reflect. When I’m faced with a problem or situation that needs solving, I make an appointment with myself. I literally open up my calendar and book a 90-minute block of time for problem-solving. 

Putting this appointment on my calendar gives it significance in my own mind. It also keeps client appointments, meetings, and other tasks from crowding in and taking up the space I’ve set apart for reflection. It’s easy to put off problem-solving in favor of activities that are less important but feel more urgent. This strategy helps me make problem-solving a priority. 

In the description of the appointment, I record basic information about the problem I’m focusing on during the session. I might record observations I’ve made or feelings that are surrounding the issue. I may also put a little data together as a guide. Most importantly, I state the problem in the form of a question I can answer – -> something like “Why does X keep happening?” or “How might we avoid Y in the future?”

Our brains are naturally wired to answer questions. By phrasing the problem in the form of a question a few days before my session, I’m actually putting my subconscious mind to work. I find that this step improves the outcome of my problem-solving session… so I’ve learned to create a question every time I schedule a session like this.  

Brainstorm Session :: Root Cause (10 minutes)

At the appointed day and time, I grab a mug of hot tea and shut the door to my office. I close my email window and put my phone on Do Not Disturb. This is a dedicated time, and I take it pretty seriously.  Then I grab a sheet of whiteboard film (because my office doesn’t have a whiteboard) and a dry erase marker for a brainstorming session. 

For the next ten minutes, I dig into the causes of the problem set before me. Why does this happen? What are the issues? I write everything that comes to mind during this time. Some of the thoughts are insightful while others are just noise. It doesn’t matter… I don’t filter them. I just brainstorm. 

Evaluate :: Identify Problem Sets (10 minutes)

When the timer dings to signal the end of brainstorming, I pick up a different color dry erase marker and step back to evaluate the thoughts I’ve captured on the film. I read through them as a whole, and then start grouping them into problem sets. 

You see, quite often the problems in my business have multiple causes. I might see a training issue within my team as well as an area where the process is too complex or just doesn’t work. I often also notice issues with my own leadership or self-discipline. Maybe I’ve overbooked myself or struggled for a while with focus. Possibly I’ve lost interest in something or need to make a shift that I’ve been avoiding. 

I use the pen in my hand to circle issues and draw lines between them. Sometimes I cross out the silly things or repetitive thoughts. Then I grab another sheet of film and write out problem statements for the groups I’ve created. 

Here’s what it might look like: 

  1. Process is too complex with lots of extra steps. 
  2. Admin person is not fully trained and/or training doesn’t exist for that task. 
  3. X service isn’t profitable because it takes too long to deliver.

The goal is to condense my thoughts quickly into problem statements which can be evaluated and solved. I find this process brings insight and clarity… some of the issues I perceive are not really even problems… others are bigger issues than I might have realized at first. My goal in this step is to identify the true problems and issues that need to be addressed. 

Brainstorm Session :: Solutions (10 minutes)

Okay – this is the brilliant part of my problem-solving approach, in my opinion. I’m a serial overthinker… always looking for the best solution or the most practical way to move forward. I can spend lots of time thinking through options without ever taking action and totally waste a ton of time and energy without moving the needle at all. This step kicks me into action. 

I give myself ten minutes to brainstorm solutions to each of the problem statements I’ve just created. Again, no filter. No overthinking. Just writing down the solutions that pop quickly to mind. See how this step short-circuits the overthink? I am able to tap into my intuition and allow the answers my subconscious has been pondering bubble to the surface. 

Evaluate :: Identify Starting Solutions (10 minutes)

Clearly, all solutions are not equally valid. Brainstorming means a little silliness pops into the mix. This step is about identifying where I will start – and setting aside the solutions that feel too fuzzy or seem impractical. 

I grab a third dry erase marker, and select one potential solution for each problem statement I created. This is my starting solution – the action I will take next to solve the problem I’ve identified. It’s not necessarily the best solution – or the only solution – but it is a starting spot for action… and that’s all I need to get unstuck. 

Wow – that’s a lot of thought work! Before I begin the next step, I refill my tea mug and pat myself on the back mentally.  #selfcare

Organize :: Create Implementation Steps (40 minutes)

Honestly, this is the most challenging part of this problem-solving approach – – > creating an implementation plan and identifying the people and/or resources needed to put the solution in place. You can get stuck here… but I hope you will push through. 

Grabbing another piece or two of film, I start working step by step through the implementation of each solution statement. I break it into tasks I can delegate or put into my own schedule, and I put them in order if I can. Here’s an example… 

Problem Statement: Process is too complex with lots of extra steps. 

Starting Solution: Revise current process to eliminate unnecessary steps. 

Implementation Plan: 

  • Review process documentation. (me)
  • Meet with the team to discuss process.  (everyone)
  • Identify steps that can be eliminated or modified. (everyone – outcome of meeting)
  • Map out the revised process and discuss. (can we do this in the same meeting?)
  • Document new process. (admin person)
  • Review new process and approve. (me)
  • Train to the new process. (everyone)

Commit :: Communicate & Schedule (10 minutes)

This last step is vital to the success of my problem-solving approach. I need to commit to taking action and schedule the first few steps of the implementation plan. Skipping this step would mean the entire exercise has been a waste of time and energy. 

Typically, I take photos of the film on my walls and share those with my assistant. I communicate a desired timeframe (immediately, next quarter, etc) and ask my assistant to start scheduling meetings and assigning tasks. In other words, I commit to the solution by giving someone else the responsibility to get things started. 

I do this because (a) I need accountability in this way and (b) I always think we can fit more work into a given time frame than we actually can. My assistant knows the demands of our current schedule and the constraints of our team… and can help me adjust the timing if I need to do so. Sometimes implementing a solution to this problem takes precedence over other things we’re working on… but sometimes we need to wait a while. 

Can you take this step on your own? Yep. I just delegate it because I know myself. 

Don’t underestimate the value of action. Stop thinking & get moving.

This problem-solving method does not come with guarantees. The solutions I brainstorm using this process aren’t always ideal, and that’s okay. The benefit of this system is action. Problems are solved as we take action and evaluate our results. That means the way forward is to take the first step. 

Leadership is a skill we learn over time by overcoming challenges and reflecting on our results. Want to challenge yourself as a leader? Explore more on this topic here. 

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