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The Problem with Thinking about Problems

If you are a leader today, then you work to solve problems.  You work to remove obstacles to productivity and to be a positive influence for success.  You know you need to do this daily.  That’s just what you do.  So, it is good to gain more understanding of problem solving types.  Get better at seeing the nature of them and what leadership approach works better to solve it.  Bottom line for leaders, time is well spent when learning how to solve problems better.

It’s amazing how uninteresting life might be if we didn’t have any problems to solve.

Good problems are fun and habit forming.  They address success in business and learning how to grow with flexibility and stability at the same time.  Other problems are not good or interesting.  Problems can be big interruptions to feeling fine, confident and ‘in control’.

A sense of “in control” today for a leader is like an illusion that is critical to psychological safety.  Our constantly changing environments bring on a loss of balance.  There are times when suddenly, a new problem appears, and we go a little off kilter.

Cognitive Threshold

You may sense how individuals each have their own cognitive and emotional threshold of how many problems they can deal with, and handling the weight of them that they can carry. Most everyone has experienced brain lock. That’s when your brain has reached the ceiling for how many details it can handle and is often associated with emotional shutdown or even resignation (I can’t do anything about it).

It is helpful to sense and know how close you are to your threshold, since other people will not detect when you are disabled with unclear thinking.  Some people, when faced for too long with ongoing sets of certain types of problems, are at risk for burn out too.

Sheer emotional drain and physical stress is brought on by lack of trust, certainty, clarity and assurance.  Yet, our collaborative environments are characteristic of these weaknesses, especially apparent on highly creative technical teams.  But this syndrome can be found on any team at one time or another.

We see these emotional shutdowns every day at work.  Even simple problems can exist within complex relationships.  Sometimes people get so frustrated and triggered that what might be a simple solution is very difficult to implement.  Individuals can carry multiple sets of assumptions that cloud clear their intentions, even to themselves.  Unclarified assumptions complicate understanding and creates complexity in problems that can be overwhelming.

We find it useful to identify problem types. Spending just a little time working out what type of problem you have can help reduce overwhelm when a problem hits.

The following list of 5 problem types is prevalent in life and work, regardless of industry or business.  This simple structure can help you organize what’s coming at you, but also help you adapt with better thinking skills applied to the problem type.

 Five Problem Types to Identify:


Is this a simple problem?

A complicated problem?

A complex problem?

A chaos problem?

or…A Polarity?

1. Simple

With simple problems, leaders need to skillfully ANALYZE.  Simple problems need to be resolved by a single right best answer.  Once thought through and committed to, a leader can hold everyone accountable by providing clear steps and procedures, and continual quality oversight.

A leader needs to analyze, take into account any constraints. The leader needs to be able to count on SMEs for facts and valid information.  Ability to retrieve actual facts and components and make evaluations with accurate analysis is the main leadership skill.  The leader needs to have obtained technical respect in his domain for followers to work at their best for the best right answer, or be granted the final decision on the problem solution.

2. Complicated

With complicated problems, leaders need to skillfully examine and DEBATE.  Complicated problems are made of many groups of simple problems put altogether.   There can be multiple ‘right’ answers.  Therefore leaders need to be able to debate their position well enough to win by nature of actually having the best solution.  This can lead to opposing silos in an organization and make it difficult to integrate sub cultures under different leadership.  Complicated problems foster competitive environments since the more vocal and reasonable build consensus with greater influence.

Leaders need to grow their ability to debate, present logical reasoning, build consensus and make compromises around constraints.  

3. Complex

With complex problems, leaders need to OBSERVE, SENSE, EXPORE.  It is difficult to quickly identify any single one root cause for complex problems. Complex problems are characterized by many unknown unknowns.  Many factors of influence happening holistically are occurring.  Nearly all systems are affected by complex problems.  A leader may find a solution by skillfully watching for patterns and exploring innovative ways to proceed.  It is very difficult to determine priority actions in a sequence, since everything needs to be done at once, all parts are moving at the same time.

Leader skill sets that are most challenged in complex problem solving include maintaining a calm composure, facilitation of insight, management of relationships rather than people, and an ability to share needs, not orders.  Decision making with uncertainty is characteristic of complex problem solving skill, and collaboration is imperative.  Leaders must get ahead of collaboration difficulty to avoid the collaborative breakdown.

4. Chaotic

With chaotic problems, leaders need to COMMAND and ACT.  Chaos is an emergency state to manage immediately to reduce loss and contain the issue. Chaos situations could involve an emergency shipment to a customer or a quality or safety error in manufacturing…any number of immediate actions required.

A chaotic situation requires a top down commander-in-chief leadership who will call actions and closely monitor the situation, working to reduce chaos to just complexity.  Plans, actions, emergency response, and all other company events that are chaotic must be responded to immediately with all necessary resources.

5. Polarity

A polarity is a problem that cannot be solved, it can only be managed.

With polarities, leaders need to ACCEPT.  Accepting a polarity is not a resignation; it’ not a throwing in the towel at all.  In fact, acceptance means you are committing to developing better skills to deal with the polarity psychologically.   In short, polarities (when they are problematic) cannot be changed; they are systemic to the organizational system and you need to deal with them in an accepting and wise way.

Examples of a polarities can be the character of a founder, conflict between top stakeholders, or the image of an entire industry.  Culture clashes can become polarized norms too when senior directors and managers bring their former culture along with them when joining a new team in a new company.  People don’t merge, companies do.

In polarities, the leadership skill set needed is to lean in and flex to  accept the reality and learn how to leverage polarities.  Patience and being able to remain self-aware and grounded in values is critical to maintaining the mental and emotional clarity needed around most polarities.  Staying anchored to purpose and intent is critical and needs to be role modeled. 

It is important as a leader to know how problems affect you and others on your team.  Problems chew up a lot of time and energy, and if you know what kinds of problems derail you sometimes, then you can be better prepared for them.

Understanding problem types so you can reduce ambiguity and increase certainty can help.  And you may need to think and lead differently when you respond depending on the problem type.

Knowing your problem solving strengths is advised.  Attending to your cognitive threshold is important too.  Using the best leadership thinking skill to match the problem helps reduce cognitive overload under problem-solving pressure.

You can also benefit by observing your team to see who has strengths to address different problem types.  Look around your team and explore types of leadership thinking to address problem types you see in your group.

Do you know how problems affect you and others? What types of problems are demotivating or at risk to derail you?  And better yet, what type of problems get you motivated, charged up, convicted and on a roll?  

A good high impact coaching method #HowILead will help you rapidly gain traction on problem solving thinking skills.

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