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What's the Problem with Problem Solving?

Many CEO's and Senior Leaders can be very effective at problem solving. It's often a strength that has helped them excel in their careers and business building. So what's the problem with problem solving?


Too often this individual strength can become a barrier through overuse which can result in several problems. Rushing into problem solving mode too quickly can lead to the wrong problem becoming the focus; this can waste energy, time and/or make the problem worse resulting from the wrong solution. Another problem is leaders who too often make problem solving a solo activity, miss out on the wisdom of the crowd (their team) and potentially deprive growth, learning and engagement from others.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask” – Albert Einstein

I see this on a regular basis through my business and leadership coaching practice where a leader might score higher for problem solving on a strengths assessment only to concurrently score lower on engagement, empowerment, and similar dimensions. Through exploring the problem solving strength with the client, self-awareness can shift, allowing for different choices and options to emerge, which when put into action can have significant positive benefits to both the leader being coached and those around them. After some time focusing on problem solving awareness, it's not uncommon for leaders to express a sense of relief as finding the best solution to important challenges doesn't have to rest solely with them along with realizing the benefits of letting go of their need to too often, be the sole problem solver. The confidence of clients often increases as does their courage to step into even more complex problems where the path forward is even less clear and needs the perspectives of others.


Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify and understand the problem you hope to solve. What might be helpful to do this?


In the Harvard Business Review article, Are You Solving The Right Problems, the author highlights an important tendency:

"we tend to overengineer the diagnostic process - but most problems are faced in daily meetings"

Further, the author points out how rushing to solution finding can lead to addressing the wrong problem and suggests reframing the problem. Reframing moves away from the misleading idea that a single root problem exists to the reality that problems are typically multicausal and can be addressed in more than one way. An example might be a CEO facing high inflation in their supply chain. A reframe may shift the focus from "input prices are increasing too fast" to "how to reduce packaging of products to maintain margin".


"Identifying a different aspect of the problem can sometimes deliver radical improvements"

Some of the same skills utilized in coaching for leadership development can equally be powerful for problem solving. Using both probing and clarifying questions can facilitate effective deliberation. With practice getting really clear on the problem first, more appropriate, and innovative solutions will emerge more often. Here's some examples of probing and clarifying questions.


Probing Questions:

· Why do you think this is the case?

· What do you think would happen if…?

· How did you conclude…?


Clarifying Questions:

· Is this what you said…?

· What criteria did you use to…?

· Did I hear you correctly when you said…?


To put this into practice requires a shift in thinking (this is much harder than said) from automatically offering solutions or advice as the first step which is normally what many do to instead create discussion space, even if only briefly, to utilize probing and clarifying questions. Some might think this takes too much time. In reality like anything that is a new practice, it will take a little more time and energy as a focus initially yet as it becomes an unconsciously competent skill with this approach, it simply becomes embedded in one's leadership rather than taking extra, dedicated time and effort. This change can be powerful.


For CEOs and leaders, staying agile means being able to continuously adapt with an iterative approach through learning and feedback yet the habit of too fast problem solving can impact the quality of decisions in significant ways. Reframing problems along with using probing and clarifying questions are quick and easy ways to enhance problem solving. Slowing down is sometimes the best way to speed up!


Time for you and your leadership team to rethink your approach for improved success? Consider our Leadership Coaching or join one of our Growth Masterminds to get your growth started! To stay informed, subscribe to the AWS Growth News bringing tips, insights and learning for your success!


As an Agile Growth Coach & Certified Business Coach, I utilize my professional expertise every day to ensure clients I work with can successfully ask the right questions to find solutions right for their organization. Agile Work Solutions provides a proven, practicable and profitable path for companies, non-profits, and local governments who want to move beyond their current performance.


Jerome Dickey, MA, ACC, CPHR, Q.Med

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