Find Your Problem Solving Mindset

When it comes to problem solving, learning to define and flex your mindset can make all the difference.

In my prior post, linked here, I outlined some important notions of what problem solving isn’t and how to test for unproductive problem solving behaviors. In this one, I’ll go into a critical aspect of problem solving—the mindset.

One of the most important phrases I have encountered as a professional leader is “it’s not your job to solve the problem, it’s your job to ensure the problem gets solved.” This pithy comment encompasses the flexibility of approach that a great problem solver needs to embrace. Thus, your mindset—specifically how you relate to the problem at hand—is the key to problem solving.

Problem solving is an art. It’s an art whether you are a plumber or a mathematician, an artist or an analyst. In any field, effectively solving a problem requires a dynamic combination of drive and collaboration. While merely “having” drive or the ability to collaborate on some level comes naturally to most people, it’s the dynamism—ability to alter style—that is rarely innate. In almost every professional setting, the combination of these two qualities in the right doses at the right times is what determines a leader’s effectiveness as a problem solver.

This combination is what determines your problem solving mindset.

You control it.

Again, it’s about knowing where you place yourself in relation to the problem you are solving.

Why the mindset?

Management practitioners like you and me talk a lot about mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets. Unfortunately, we focus a lot on the latter two in our day to day coaching and leadership: Skillsets (financial, operational, and strategic acumen, for instance), and toolsets (how quickly I can deploy a financial model, a SMED exercise, or a Monte Carlo analysis) are easier to teach.

I’m going to reinforce the notion that, when solving problems in a professional setting, we need to think about Mindset, Skillset, and Toolset in exactly that order of priority. Mindset comes first. If your head isn’t “right,” it really doesn’t matter how skilled or equipped you are. You’ll be your own (and in some cases your organization’s) worst enemy.

Let’s get your head right.

Here’s my grid.

In order to establish how the mindset of an effective problem solver has to be flexible, I’m going to simplify problem solving mindsets into a grid based on Drive—how quickly we push ourselves and others to solve the problem—andCollaboration—how much we seek out and enable the specialized skills, assets, and knowledge bases of others.

With this grid in front of us, we can quickly outline four fundamental mindsets for problem solving that we all should be able to dynamically don.

I have numbered the quadrants of the grid for convenience (and, because of the way I’ve numbered them, the math geeks are probably having a fit right about now).

As I stated above, the mindset you assume relates to how you evaluate your own role in relation to a given problem. So, the dominant question you answer as you establish your mindset needs to be “what can I add vs. others, and therefore what is my role?” Notice that your skills are not on the grid. They are part of the evaluation, but they don’t really matter to the mindset.

So, how does it work?

“Thinker” (Quadrant 1) is the starting point:

I’m going to start with the Thinker mindset (Quadrant 1) on the lower left side, because it is where we really get our heads right. Quadrant 1 is the introvert’s dream and the extrovert’s nightmare, but the reality is that all good problem solving starts with a reasoned, independent reflection on the problem by all parties involved.

Thinker is where this happens. Based on that reasoned reflection and framing of the problem, you as the problem solver need to reflect on what your role is; and that leads us to the other quadrants in turn. Quadrant 1 is the jumping off point, and often is the problem solvers’ refuge during really tough moments.

Where to next?

Place yourself in Worker Bee mode (Quadrant 2–low drive, high collaboration) when your bandwidth is constrained or when you are part of a team but bring no specific skills to bear. All people (yes, even execs) will be in this quadrant at times. You play a specific role, and others are acknowledged as the driver. Practitioners of project management will see this quadrant as the “consulted” or “kept informed” role on a team; but I see it as more than that: It is ownership of a part of the problem and delivery of it. Owning a part of a problem is very different from being consulted (which is more akin to partial ownership of the whole problem). You are more than a listener, but less than a driver.

Place yourself in Champion mode (Quadrant 3–high drive, high collaboration) when you have access to resources that will enable others to be at their best. This is where the best executive problem solvers reside for most of their careers. They network, enable, unlock, and encourage. Not only do they ask questions and hold a high bar for the answer, but they also pave the way for others by providing knowledge, contacts, and organizational clout to drive to solution.

Place yourself in Warrior mode (Quadrant 4–high drive, low collaboration) when you are the expert and all people know it, or when extenuating circumstances exist (time pressure, low bar for quality, etc.). These occur. Keep in mind that your mindset in quadrant 4 can be fully supportive of a team that is filled with people in Champion and Worker Bee modes. This is ok. How many times has a single person owned the financial model for a complex transaction, but not been accountable for the transaction itself? Happens all the time. Own it.

Remember this, though: The first rule of problem solving is to know that you are ready to solve the problem. The key prerequisite of problem solving is you and others around you have spent enough time in Thinker mode (low/low) to ensure the problem is worth solving and that your skill will be deployed correctly.

By thinking about problem solving as a mindset, and by having discussions about what roles people will play for a given problem (what their mindsets need to be), you can create a more powerful approach to getting anything done. Your effectiveness and the effectiveness of your teams will be far greater than the standard practice of muddling through.

All this is very clean, easy, and academic in an article and on a matrix. It’s much messier in real life. The need for flexibility in drive and collaboration is, however, real.

Just asking yourself if you know your role and that of those around you is a sufficient and practical first step.

I’ll offer a few pitfalls to this approach in my next article.

Please consider sharing your tips to facilitating effective problem solving mindsets.

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