What are the Best Problem Solving Techniques?

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Are you a problem solver? Or let me ask it this way, do you enjoy solving problem. Let’s face it, some people make a career out of it and are extremely good at it and some of us run a million miles away from them and there is few of us between this. We all solve problems on a daily basis, in any type of work environment, at work and in our day-to-day lives so we should be good at it and in reality we all should have numerous techniques to share on. Some of the problems that are typically faced include:

  • Putting together an argument for boss
  • Getting to the root of a blocker on a work issues
  • Dealing with an awkward customer
  • Thinking about how you are going to manage your budget to keep the project moving along
  • Working out why colleagues and peers don’t respond to you
  • Developing a strategy to reach the next level of your own career.

Any job will bring problems to be faced and it is important to show that you have the right skills to resolve these problems, and the personal resilience to handle the challenges and pressure they may bring.

The core problem is sometimes just so obvious that saying it out loud is enough to expose the flaws in the current approach. Here are a few better tips for helping out on the bigger problems.

  • Establish yourself as a devil’s advocate: – Establish that you are going to ask a bunch of questions, some naive, some pointed, but that your goal is to help them re-verify their assumptions, not to promote an alternate idea or criticise their approach.
  • Be Kind, Rewind: – Even if you know the back-story, ask lots of “why” questions and continue pushing back towards the root problem. Help them fight the tendency to revisit only the last few decisions.
  • Don’t let them linger on meta-problems: – When a problem seems too big to hold in your brain, it’s tempting to seek respite by focusing on manageable meta-problems. While those problems may need solving, they are distractions from the real issue that is blocking progress. When the person lingers on details or raises meta-problems, keep rewinding.
  • Ask Probing Questions: – Make them talk through each decision and ask stupid questions. Apply extra scrutiny when the developer clearly thinks a decision was easy or obvious. When we think things are obvious, we take mental shortcuts by avoiding thinking things through as thoroughly. Challenge assumptions, this is where problems hide.
  • Use Reflective Listening: – This is a communication technique where you repeat back a summary of what the other person just said to you to confirm understanding. Another benefit in this situation is that having the person hear their own ideas in another person’s voice/words may make it easier for them to be objective.
  • Avoid injecting your own ideas: – At some point you may have a great idea for a better approach. Keep it to yourself. It will just make them defensive and will undermine their sense of ownership of the problem, and inhibit their ability to understand the solution.
  • Lead them to the answer: – If they simply aren’t making progress and you know a good answer consider leading them to the answer with a line of questioning that directs them instead of just hand feeding the information to them. They are more likely to take ownership if they feel they reached the conclusion, and people generally retain information more readily if they arrived at it by logic on their own.

These are given in the context of a coach / mentor acting as a sounding board. In this role, your primary focus should be to create leverage by making things happen through your team. Now tackle those problems and embrace the challenge.

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