By Guy Harris
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 supervisor position in my first civilian job after the Navy was that I knew how to solve the technical problems my team faced. I excelled at individual problem solving and that skill drew both recognition and opportunity. It turns out that my problem-solving ability was both a blessing and a curse.
You might 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. That is the blessing-curse piece of the growth opportunity.
While the skills of the individual problem solver and the group problem solver are similar, they are also different. The individual problem solver can assess a situation and jump to action immediately. 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 so that other people are moved to action.
This consensus/inspiration/buy-in piece is often where new leaders go wrong as group problem solvers, and it is their skill as an individual problem solver that creates the challenge. They see the problem, they identify a solution, and they go to work trying to get everyone onboard with their 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 many 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 toolbox, 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:
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 solutions will be different. You will waste time and energy trying to convince each other of the “right” way to solve the revenue shortfall with little likelihood of reaching a mutually agreeable solution.
As you collaborate with your team, slow down and invest 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.
Work with your team to create a shared and clearly defined problem statement. Then, work to create buy-in for the problem definition before you even begin to discuss practical solutions. Remember – first, define the problem.
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