Problem solving may not be on your ambitions list when it comes to your career, most of us would rather avoid the problems in the first place and get on with what we might deem more productive work.
But productivity is only as good as your abilities to resolve or outsource the issues that emerge.
And right now problems just keep coming up, and often fester. Especially given the global emergencies we’ve faced and with so many of us transitioning to remote work quickly, without always establishing correct communication procedures that may have seen problems solved more organically within in-person environments.
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Remote work is here to stay, in at least some kind of hybrid form. Problems are set to continue to emerge in a future of work where change is constant.
Those problems might be staff conflicts – in many cases, more personal and prevalent than ever – it could be around implementing new tech, mitigating the impact of a local or global crisis and responding to personal emergencies.
So enter the role of the Chief Problem Solver – a position that is unlikely to ever have its own title, but one with traits that more of us may want to take on, and a mindset you can apply to your own personal experiences and time management.
Being a ‘problem solver’ hasn’t been met with much glory, with plenty of leadership writers urging us to avoid taking this on at all costs, and focus on getting others to solve these problems instead.
But ultimately, that’s where the ‘chief’ component of problem solving comes in. The chief is not there to take on every problem – they will never be able to get through them all.
Turn a challenge into an opportunity
Rather, they are there to see the potential in the challenge, including the opportunities to strengthen, develop and learn.
And, where possible, they’re there to empower others to get involved in solving such problems. Most importantly, they’re there to prioritise the problem, escalating them up and down and finding the right information and people to help.
In leadership, the CPS is continuously strategising on new processes to enable decision-making to be done without their input. They’re leading with agility, aiming to see problems solved swiftly and smart solutions developed.
But personally, the CPS mindset can do wonders for managing your day to day work as well as your career into the future.
Switching on to ‘chief problem solver’ model, particularly when you feel like you’re in crisis, can present an opportunity to step away from the emotion involved, to move to process-driven decision making and seek answers and support from others:
Some of the below will help on being your own personal CPS.
Time the mindset
If you’re feeling problem overload, then intentionally make that personal switch to CPS mode, just briefly. Set a timer if needed, put yourself into a 20 or so minute sprint to do nothing but look for solutions and make decisions.
Step outside your emotions and outside your own personal experiences. You are in control of the problem.
Apply a ‘decision matrix’
Using a decision-making tool will also support you in removing emotion from the problem, and you’re not short of finding such tool options online.
One way of doing it can involve setting out a list of options on the decision needing to be made and giving scores to each, so you end up with an overall score to determine which option wins. This basic worksheet from MindTools can help.
Another option is the famous Eisenhower Matrix. While it’s typically applied to simple things that end up on your ‘to do’ list, it can also be used to sort and prioritise problems, particularly if you’re swamped.
This would see you place problems into one of four quadrants:
important and urgent (DO, or solve),
important and not urgent (SCHEDULE, or solve later),
not important and urgent (DELEGATE),
not important and not urgent (ELIMINATE).
Get self-aware and empathetic
Decisions carry risks and these risks can increase with our own internal weakness and biases. We can’t eliminate all risk, but we can seek to minimise it by being more self aware. Identify your strengths and weaknesses.
Consider how your biases might be impacting your decision-making. Develop your empathy and aim to take a wide look at problems as they come up, rather than a narrow view.
Expect the fires
‘Fighting fires’ is often seen as a waste of time – getting in the way of the ‘real’ work. Instead, expect to be fighting fires on any given day and shift your mindset to seeing it as productive.
The goal is to avoid fighting the same fire twice – so look for the lesson, and find the way a process can be developed to handle it automatically.
Love the challenge
We take on puzzles with joy, finding satisfaction in the solutions. And yet too often work or personal related challenges are seen as nuisances that get in the way of everything else.
Let’s reframe that. Like with ‘expecting the fires’, shift the focus to enjoying the challenge that comes up. If it’s hard, you’re learning something.
Problems are classic causes of procrastination. They’re the things that typically get put off and put off to the point where, granted, they may completely disappear (and you can foresee these using the above Eisenhower matrix).
But if they don’t go away, these problems will grow, getting bigger and bigger until they’re dealt with. They will not only become difficult to solve, but also suck on your energy as you keep the issue marinating in your head.
Know this, and use it as motivation to get on top of what you can not outsource, avoid and put off, immediately.
And keep learning
Problems are easier to solve when you’re armed with as much information as possible, and when you feel confident you’ve explored all possible options and have some insight into the experience of others.
This can come from continuous learning – which can be brought into your day through everything from online courses relevant to your work to various news and industry publications that’ll keep you in the know of what’s going on, as well as case studies on how people with similar issues are solving them.
Angela Priestley is a Yahoo Finance contributor, writing on family finances and juggling work with kids. She is the founding editor of Women’s Agenda, co-founder of Agenda Media and a mum of three young boys.
This is part 11 of our Jobs 2021 series, where Yahoo Finance is exploring how to succeed in the next decade: earn more, lead better and win in the next decade of work.