Many people rise to leadership positions because they can solve problems. That was certainly true for me. One of the reasons I quickly moved from an individual contributor role to a supervisory position in my first civilian job after the Navy was that I knew how to solve the technical problems my team faced.
I’m guessing that you have a similar experience. You have a history of solving problems well, and that ability created an opportunity for you to become formally recognized as a leader. As you become a leader, though, your responsibility is less about your personal ability to solve problems and more about your ability to work with others to solve problems.
While the skills of the individual problem solver and the group problem solver are similar, there are also some major differences. The individual problem solver can assess a situation and jump to action. As long as the problem gets solved, everyone is happy. The group problem solver has to build consensus, encourage and inspire others, and create buy-in for a proposed solution.
This consensus/inspiration/buy-in piece is often where leaders go wrong as group problem solvers. They see the problem, they identify a solution, and they go to work trying to get everyone onboard with the solution. Then they hit a brick wall.
- People question the solution.
- People doubt the need to make changes.
- People hold on to old ways of doing things. And,
- The leader gets frustrated.
There are lots of great tools and techniques you can apply to become a better communicator, to build your influence, and to develop your persuasion skills. All of these tools and techniques have their place in your leadership tool box, and you will probably use them all as you work to solve problems with a group. However, these tools and techniques are secondary to a fundamental premise of group problem solving behavior:
When people don’t agree on the problem definition, they will never agree on the problem solution.
For example, your company has low revenues one quarter. If you think the problem is a failure to close on new leads and Joe thinks that the problem is a failure to get qualified leads, your proposed solution will be totally different from Joe's.
As a result, you will waste time and energy trying to convince each other of the “right” way to solve the revenue shortfall with very little likelihood of reaching a mutually agreeable solution.
As you work with your team, resist the urge to propose solutions before you have invested the time on the front-end of each problem solving effort to ensure that everyone has a common definition of the problem. Set aside your desire to leap to action in the interest of building consensus. In the end, you will get greater returns and better results as you release all of the creative energies of your team in a common, focused direction.
Clearly define the problem. Then, work to create buy-in for the problem definition before you even begin to discuss possible solutions.
Action Step #1: Think about a recent group problem solving effort that went well and another where your team struggled. Did your team have a clear and common definition of the problem in both cases? Reflect on what you can learn from comparing these two efforts.
Action Step #2: Think about a current group problem solving effort. Do you have a clear and commonly understood definition of the problem? If not, meet with your team in the next 24 hours to create a clear problem definition statement.