Potholes of the Mindset

As you flex your problem solving style, watch out for a few potholes.

This is the third of three posts I pulled together on the topic of effectiveness in problem solving. In the first post, I outlined some thoughts from my experience on common behaviors and mindsets that masquerade as problem solving. In the second, I offered a simple framework for thinking about how to flex one’s problem solving mindset.

In this one, I’m going to offer three problem solving pitfalls that come to mind. These can kill your effectiveness as a problem solver. I’ll refer back to the grid from my second post a few times, so it may be useful to click on that link and familiarize yourself with the grid if you haven’t already. While the grid is not Earth shattering, it is my own; and so it is somewhat unique.

Here we go.

Pitfall 1: Getting Stuck in the Mindset “Corners”

Being too much of anything in problem solving is a bad thing, except in extreme circumstances (which, let’s be clear, are truly rare). Referring back to the Drive/Collaboration grid I outlined in my post “Find Your Problem Solving Mindset,” you and I need to be sure to avoid the corners of the grid. Getting stuck in the corners can lead to bad things for you and your teams.

On the grid, I’ve labeled a few “bad” problem solving mindsets that can kill effectiveness. They are Wonk, Friend, Hero, and Consensus Builder.

  • The Wonk is likely to get caught up in analysis paralysis; he’s a navel gazing superstar.
  • The Friend struggles to enable decision and action; he wants to please everyone and actually pleases no one.
  • The Hero suffers from smartest guy in the room syndrome; he won’t listen to others.
  • The Consensus Builder spends too much time trying to tradeoff decisiveness with inclusiveness; he exhausts his team with endless, driven iteration.

Be careful of the corners. I’d also say be careful of piddling around in the center of the grid as well, but I’ve covered that with the admonition (in my previous post) that we must spend enough time in quadrant 1 (“Thinker”) to place ourselves in one of the other quadrants.

One thought here: My observation has been that too many leaders end up in the corners after getting specific (and likely painful) feedback on their particular problem solving behaviors (“build more consensus” is a common one). They overcorrect and end up diving into a corner.

This is especially true of the “Friend” and “Consensus Builder” pockets–execs who are told to collaborate more but don’t understand the subtleties of doing so end up in these corners. They overcorrect from being in a constant warrior mindset (“I’ll solve it myself”) after receiving feedback that they need to be more inclusive. Don’t overcorrect.

Pitfall 2: Hiding Behind a Phony Mindset

Here’s a real sapper of executive effectiveness among under-apprenticed leaders. You shouldn’t pretend that you are an upper right quadrant leader working to build the best answer by leveraging all people’s strengths when you actually just want your answer to be the one chosen (meaning you were in the upper left “Warrior” quadrant all along).

You also shouldn’t pretend that you are going to solve a problem all by your lonesome (upper left quadrant) and then rely on others to get things done because you never had the skills or credibility in the first place. “I’ll figure it out” or the more pithy “fake it ‘til you make it” head-fake is a dangerous and arrogant approach to problem solving. Be open about your intentions and your limitations.

Being phony may work in a one-shot game, but life is not a one shot game.

Pitfall 3: Tangling With People Who Don’t get the Concept of Dynamic Mindsets

I’m not going to sugar coat this one, but the reality is that many, many people out there have a dark view of problem solving that amounts to “be decisive and tell people what to do” or “just tear every problem apart and solve it yourself.” They never move out of the Warrior mindset.

If you are a dynamic problem solver who knows when to alter your style, you will confuse and possibly bother these kind of people, whether they are subordinate to you or superior to you in the organization. They will look for specific behaviors (like giving orders) that simply won’t be there.

For example, if you are the executive enabler playing a background role to make a broader team more effective, and you are on a team or in an organization that highly values and respects brute force (“hand out orders and hold their feet to the fire”); watch out.

Be explicit about your role. That may not fix the problem for the long term, but you will at least state your aims and be clear that you are playing outside the organization’s leadership comfort zone.

Good problem solvers can improve the behavior of bad problem solvers, exceptwhen the bad problem solvers set the culture and have no learning mindset. Think about it.

Parting Thought on Problem Solving

Solving the problem is about applying the right minds, skills and tools to the problem. It is, in short, about being effective. Being effective starts with an understanding of what problem solving is NOT, continues with adopting the right mindset, and ends with a clear knowledge of what can get you into trouble as you proceed.

To borrow from Elwood P. Dowd: In this world you must be oh so smart or oh so effective. For years I thought the answer was smart, I now recommend effective.

You may quote me on that.

I encourage the reader to share experiences, debate these points, or simply to correct my assertions through the comments below.

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