In my work with clients and workshop participants, people often start to tell me about a situation they faced as a leader with something like: “Maybe I didn’t do this right, but…” Then, they generally end the story by asking me if there was a better way to handle the situation.
I frequently respond by asking if they got a good result from their approach.
Before I offer advice, I want to know if their solution applied in their context and with the people they know worked. If it did, it was a good solution. If it didn’t, we can talk about ways to improve the odds of success the next time they face a similar situation.
As far as I am concerned, the quality of the outcome is the standard by which to judge the quality of a solution.
As I listen to the stories and questions, I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, it’s nice that people value my input and are actively seeking better ways to solve the problems they face as leaders. On the other hand, it tells me that they might be in search of “the” right answer for a complex problem.
Simple problems – like writing checks or fixing pumps – generally have single right answers. Complex problems – like fixing the accounting system or creating a maintenance training program – usually have many possible right answers.
As a leader, very few of the significant problems you face will be simple. Many of them will be complex. Searching for “the” right answer to a complex problem can hurt you in at least three ways:
- Limited thinking. When you are looking for a single solution, you narrow your thinking before you identify all of the possible solutions. This search for a single, perfect answer to a complex problem hurts your creativity and your ability to see alternative solutions.
- Indecision. As you seek “the” right answer, you might fall into over-analysis paralysis. Searching, researching, and analyzing can be productive parts of the problem solving process. And, they become a barrier to effective problem solving when they shift from analyzing to agonizing.
- Inactivity. Agonizing and indecision lead to this third problem. When you fail to make a timely decision, you fail to implement. When you fail to implement, you fail to move forward.
Before you were a leader, you probably dealt with many problems, both large and small, that were ultimately simple problems in that they had one correct answer or solution. In fact, your ability to solve these problems likely contributed to your promotion to a leadership position. Now you are in a role that calls for you to solve or to empower other people to solve complex problems that involve a number of variables and many possible good solutions.
When you are solving problems, quit looking for “the” right answer. Instead, keep your mind open for the full range of possible right answers.
Your Now Step: The next time you have a problem to solve, quickly decide if it is a simple or a complex problem. If it is a complex problem, write down at least three possible solutions before you implement your chosen solution.