Three Questions To Ask When Problems Are Frustrating

Problem solving skills every leader should know

  • 3Questions

When leaders are challenged to lead during times of chaos and turmoil, understanding how to approach certain problems is critical. One important area to address is to understand the forces at play that can be latent under the radar of performance during problem solving. Problem-solving skills are fundamental for any leader. Regardless of the nature of the problem, if solutions and implementation are not addressed and carried though the lack of results can be frustrating to say the least.

Even the most successful executives are hard pressed to manage their frustration when they’re faced with reoccurring problems persistently resistant to resolution. Problems can be difficult to resolve for many reasons. Sometimes the obvious fastest route, the ideal solution, is just not possible to implement. It could be timing issue, and it also could be a type of resistance on the the part of a long time valued employee who is inclined to keep operations in the status quo. If it’s not really broke, why fix it? We all know the leader who may say yes to the seriousness of a problem or need for a solution to be implemented, then takes a long time, maybe even years not doing anything about it. A yes in the C-Suite should be followed by execution, yet that does not always happen. A lack of readiness psychologically on the part of the leader might be exacerbating the organizational problem.

If you suspect this could be the case, then it can be helpful to ask Three Questions that can help determine a way to address the annoying stall. If a certain performance is not being implemented, after the reply has been a clear ‘okay, I agree’, then try engaging the following three questions and discuss your speculations with those who are also affected by the lack of progress.

1. Do they know?
2. Are they able?
3. Are they willing?

An apparent procrastination might be because either they don’t know, aren’t able, or worse, aren’t willing. If it’s all three then the leader is not qualified anymore for the position. This is not likely the case though. However, either one of the three above can be true culprits to progress when complex problems are in our way.

Don’t Know
It is not uncommon for a valued executive on a senior staff to be asked to consider major changes and process improvement in their organization/department, only to be followed by – no action, just a lot of very busy operation that is same and is easily hidden under the guise of ‘too busy’ with regular business to do it.

However, it is also not uncommon for the executive who seems to ‘stall’ at the change initiative (especially if they are also charged with figuring out what and how to change). This can be because they just don’t know how, and feel or resist asking for help from outside (or inside) talent who may know. The leader at the top of a department can be quite adept at side-stepping the areas where they don’t know what to do, or how to go about solving certain problems in their organization.

Then, to make it more complicated, let’s say they have some knowledge about it. They have probably been hearing the bad news and negative feedback in meetings for years from their workforce below them. The sentence begins with, “Why don’t we…?”

A seriously long list of ideas from direct reports can seem to fall on deaf ears.

There are experts in gaining more knowledge that can help companies though. McKinsey & Company are renowned experts who ferret out every bit of information on an issue inside their client companies and gather both broad and specific perspectives about the topic, presented in extensive reports that help leaders understand and know more about a problem, option or direction. Not all companies can hire a McKinsey team. However that doesn’t mean the information isn’t out there to be known. Someone can find it and figure it out and it’s part of the senior leader’s role to be a knowledge troll, or hire one.

Aren’t Able
So let’s say now they know, but perhaps they aren’t ‘capable’. Even if someone knows information, they may not have the skills needed to implement change in their department. They may need much higher critical thinking skills, more personal influence, and better strategic planning aptitude than they actually have. Strategic planning is often talked about with big nods of the head, however few actually have or use a process that is potent enough to identity the darker areas where ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. This takes a different type of skill to be able to not just navigate the unknown, but to literally ‘out it’ and shed light on it, on purpose. Ability to do this type of work is usually a natural talent, or learned through experience. So, is the leader ‘able’?

If the answer is ‘no’ and that skill is determined as necessary for addressing a problem or change initiative, then there are experts who can help the organization get it done. So, that is possible too.

But the third question that involves willingness can be the most frustrating kick in the solution.

Not Willing
When the leader is just plain unwilling, then there you are – a bit doomed for endless rounds in staff meetings of ‘why don’t we?’ with lots of nods in agreement around the table. Peter Drucker would say to look for a frustrating continual and continuous non-action. Most people at the top of an organization just do not say no very clearly. They learn to entertain a ‘fake’ discussion so people all down the organizational chain might get the sense they are contributing, that they are being heard and something will eventually be done about ‘it’. However, after months, maybe even after many years of apparent unwillingness on a recommended direction, then it could that some of all three forces are at play. If they don’t know, aren’t able AND aren’t willing, that’s a bummer!

Advice for Both Upcoming and Seasoned Leaders

Get in the Know
It is critical in today’s business environment to continually work for your organization and keep building your personal value by gaining more knowledge. Don’t rest on what you already know. Be authentically open to learning and knowing more. Also, try not to pretend you ‘already’ know it all, because you don’t.

Become More Able Everyday
In addition, keep working on gaining new skills in some area every day, every month, and every year. You cannot overestimate the power of ability to keep relevant as a leader, and you cannot be over skilled at anything, especially if the skill is ‘learning new skills’.

Be Willing
Being someone who can look into personal blocks that can unleash the power to problem solve comes first with a willingness. Sometimes a leader is cautious to not have to see into their weaknesses, but I find it even more prevalent that the same leader is not really clear about their talents, strengths, and true value either. Every day a leader needs to draw upon their strengths to overcome a weaker area, and you would be surprised to know, that even with training and leadership development under their belts, how often they are still not really in touch with their deeper personal worth. Leaders have to be willing to go there, that place that is of greater meaning and depth. Leaders shout out a huge sigh of relief when they unlock passion, purpose, and principles still latent inside and under their radar of awareness.

Today executives, leaders and managers who want to rise in ranks, or continue to earn their place at the top are advised to keep gaining knowledge, new skills and practice mindfulness of any lack of perspicacity or unconscious unwillingness.

Be knowing, able, and willing. That’s brilliant! #HowILead

About the Author:

Jane Hundley, Executive Coach, M.A. Industrial Organizational Psychology (I/O) & Development, President of Impact Management, Inc.

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