By Andrew Vermes, Kepner-Tregoe

Are you a problem solver? Regardless of who you are, where you live or what you do for a living the answer is “yes” – everyone is a problem solver. Solving problems is a part of life as humans – we are constantly observing our environment, looking for risks, opportunities and things that need to be addressed. We can’t tackle everything all at once, so we make choices about how to spend our time, our resources, our thought and our talent based on our own individual priorities. As you go through your day, here are 3 important problem-solving questions for you to think about.

Which problem should I solve?

The answer to this question is subjective and depends on you. Problems are everywhere: in our personal lives, in our businesses, in our relationships and in the environment we interact with. If we were to consider every possible problem that we could address, we not only would become quickly overwhelmed but would spend the whole day thinking about problems and never do anything else. We would effectively be stuck. Instead, humans prioritize.

As we observe and interact with things and with people around us, we make (sometimes unconscious) choices about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Of those things that we pay attention to, we apply personal filters based on experience to determine what things are urgent and/or important and need our attention. This second filter is often based on intuition. We then apply a more conscious prioritization based on skills, interests, ability, capacity and potential for impact to decide what order to address problems.

Choosing which problem to solve is a question with no right answer. Look around your environment, figure out what needs attention and where you can have the most impact. If you don’t see the results you want, don’t worry – there are many more problems and opportunities left for you to address.

Does raising awareness of problems make me look bad?

Humans are social animals and have a desire for the acceptance and affirmation of others. When it comes to problem solving in the workplace, we often experience a fear or perception that raising awareness of problems has a potential to make us look bad in the eyes of peers, management and customers. What we fail to recognize in this situation is that it is not the problem that people will judge us on, it is how we respond to it. Masking problems can be a sign of lacking self-awareness and self-confidence. It can also be perceived as deceitful, un-ethical, and contrary to the best interests of the company. None of these perceptions are positive. 

Raising awareness of problems in a thoughtful way that is constructive and respectful of others demonstrates that you are aware of your environment, understand the impact of situations and care about the success of the company. How you go about raising awareness may differ based on the culture of your company and where in the world you are operating. Social norms and protocols may dictate the appropriate method, audience and timing for raising awareness of problems but if you keep those in mind, raising awareness of problems can improve others’ perception of you.

My list of problems keeps getting longer, is that a bad thing?

That depends on why your list of problems is growing. If your list of problems is growing because new problems are being created faster than they can be resolved, there may be a larger issue at play that needs some attention. If your list of problems is growing because you are being more observant and identifying more issues and opportunities in your environment, this could also be a bad thing in that it indicates you have a lot of “noise” in your process need to improve your filtering and prioritization techniques to make sure you understand the urgency and importance of the problems on your list.

If your problem list keeps getting longer because you are making a conscious effort NOT to solve them, that is a good thing. Not all problems should be solved. Some problems will resolve themselves without action and you can simply monitor for changes in the environment. Other problems require more time, effort and resources to solve than the resolution will generate in benefit – you are better off to leave these alone. It is also a good thing to not address some problems because you are addressing others that have a higher urgency/importance or resolving them will have a greater impact – this is a sign that you are effectively prioritizing and focusing your limited resources on the activities that will generate the most value.

The length of your problem list and whether it is growing or shrinking is not a very good indicator of how well you are doing at problem-solving. To understand if what you are seeing is good or bad, you will need to go one level deeper and understand why the growth is happening. This will also give you insight into things you can change if you don’t like what you see.

Kepner-Tregoe has been helping individuals and organizations manage and solve problems giving them a competitive advantage for over 50 years.

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