What Problem Solving Isn’t…

Watching out for some critically bad behaviors can improve your effectiveness as a problem solver.


This is the first of a few posts I’ll share on the topic of problem solving.

We in the professional ranks toss the concept of “problem solving” about like it’s a common sense concept. It isn’t. Problem solving is about being effective in moving forward with a potential solution to a given problem—regardless of scoring political, influence, or style points unrelated to the solution. It is with this focus on effectiveness that I’m posting on the topic.

Let me say up front that I lay no claim to being among the problem solving elite. That is for others to judge. I offer my thoughts as more of an experienced social observer and capability builder on the topic. In practice, problem solving is messy, like most other things not written in textbooks.

Countless negative mindsets and behaviors masquerade as good problem solving, and we all need to be on the lookout for them. That’s the topic of this post.

As someone who has interviewed hundreds of aspiring problem solvers and worked alongside some of the best (and possibly some of the worst) in the world, I have gleaned a few points of view on what problem solving is NOT. So, in the interest of going negative from the start, let’s explore a few of them.

Problem solving is NOT being merely smart. Many very smart people are very bad problem solvers. Why? Really smart people suffer from a couple of common flaws that, if they aren’t known and mitigated, can derail problem solving. First, many really smart people are naturally oriented toward finding an answer vs. a direction. They have to learn to think in terms of risk and opportunity vs. correct and incorrect. Second, many very smart people suffer from the “smartest guy in the room syndrome;” meaning they struggle to listen to others’ viewpoints.

Great problem solvers are flexible and incorporate a very broad number of viewpoints.

Problem solving is NOT merely having excellent energy and drive. Action-orientation is a virtue. Practical action-oriented problem solving is as well. However, some leaders confuse the drive for action with the drive for effective action. Being driven in a business setting is an excellent virtue if it is combined with sensitivity, structure, and at least some patience.

Too much drive with too little collaboration can lead to a bullying approach to problem solving. Combined with power, mere drive can lead to problem solving via fear, and to the closing off of channels of communication. Oddly, excess drive leads to a lack of listening, just like too much “smarts.”

The urge to do something is a good one if it’s managed. Great problem solvers manage it.

Problem solving is NOT problem finding. Problem finders, or mere whiners, are out of scope here. While issue identification can be a positive skill, too often leaders and their subordinates use it as a passive aggressive pseudo problem-solving surrogate. Those who are talented at lobbing quasi-professional bombs by identifying other people’s problems may score points in some organizations’ political games, but they aren’t problem solvers.

In most professional contexts, I’d estimate that problem identification is less than 5% of the effort required. Great problem solvers don’t congratulate themselves for being great at spotting issues.

Problem solving is NOT solving the wrong problem. We all have our own skills and tools to apply to a given problem. Always keep in mind the proverb “To a person with a hammer, all problems look like a nail.” It’s powerful. A very common problem solving failure springs from misapplied expertise. How often have you observed the process expert seeing every problem in terms of process, or the patent expert seeing every problem in terms of intellectual property, or the talent expert pointing only to talent? Often, I’ll bet.

Great problem solvers reflect on the definition and potential solutions for a problem before acting.

Problem solving is NOT a heroic pursuit.With all due respect to the proverbial mad genius problem solver who comes up with truly novel solution to a very tough problem, your run of the mill problem solver is more likely to be a structured thinker, clear communicator, and fantastic networker who may not even be the person in front of the group when the problem is solved.

Many of the world’s best problem solvers are unsung heroes.

I could go on about what problem solving is NOT, but I won’t. You probably get the picture. The question to ask when presented with a behavior or a contribution to your team that doesn’t feel on point is “yeah, but will it make us more effective?”

“He’s so smart/driven/insightful/savvy!”

“Yeah, but does he make us more effective?”

It’s a simple test.

Please consider sharing thoughts on barriers to effective problem solving from your own experience.

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