Understanding the People Side of Problem Solving

Doug LaphamThu, 08/16/2018 - 14:32

All problem solving requires some level of interaction. Tasks and people require coordination, alignment and integration. Even the most challenging and deep technical problems often require some level of discussion, review and approval. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been exposed to problem-solving techniques all our lives from the sandbox, to school, to social events, to the corporate boardroom. Let’s take a guided tour through a small set of techniques that will help you drastically improve your people-based problem solving skills.

  1. Inquiry
    First and foremost, lead with inquiry. Ask relevant questions. As Steven Covey famously said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Too often people lead with assertion, or feel the real value is to quickly offer a solution. While the ultimate goal is to reach the solution, the journey can be as important as the destination.
  2. Engagement
    Engage your stakeholders in the problem-solving process. Applying the strategy of ‘asking, not telling’ helps people feel a shared ownership and begins to build buy-in from the outset. 

    Too often, if an effort to solve things more quickly, the solution is presented as an assertion. Someone says, “Oh, I’ve seen this before and clearly what we need to do is…”. This assertive approach might be the exact solution needed, or it might not be. But this style of declaring can lead to resistance from people who want a different solution, or need more evidence than one person’s experience.
  3. Know Your Audience
    When focusing on the people side of problem-solving, it is critical to understand your audience. Sometimes this requires taking a deep breath and slowing things down. You need to understand the people you are working with in order to frame the problem and the solution properly to help move things forward quickly. If you are working with people from finance, you may benefit from a more quantitative approach. Leverage numbers, facts, and charts to highlight the issue and show the impact of different solutions.  If you are working with product owners or marketing, use more qualitative techniques such as storytelling, or use cases to describe processes and experiences.
  4. Influence
    Influence is often a key to engaging people in solving problems exercises. One approach to influence is assertion. Just keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, jumping to the solution too quickly can have a negative impact, build resistance, and hinder the group’s efforts. Instead of assertion, try to influence through inquiry. Ask, engage, and listen.  If people don’t understand a proposed solution, ask why. If people object or resist, ask why. If people are not engaged, or not attending meetings, or sitting in meetings while focused on their smartphone, ask them if they have ideas to contribute.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes, and so do people. Your reputation as a manager will be largely defined by how you engage and adapt to address different problems and audiences. You will need to support getting to a final solution. But what people will actually remember, what will more than likely be captured in a performance review, will be ‘how’ you came to the solution. How you engaged stakeholders, and how you built the buy-in for the solution.