By David Frank, Kepner-Tregoe

When companies find themselves facing difficult problems, technical, operational or strategic, they often look to the subject matter experts, troubleshooters, and seasoned problem solvers in their organization (or as outside consultants) to help.  There is a growing recognition that individuals with problem-solving skills are able to learn more quickly, are more adaptable, and able to sort through complex situations to find solutions faster than those individuals lacking or weak in problem-solving skills.  The obvious question then becomes, “if having individuals with problem-solving skills is the answer, why don’t we just get more of them?”  There must be another piece to this puzzle that companies are missing.  There is, and the answer is culture.

Problem-solving is rarely an individual activity.  Experience has shown that issues that impact only one person or can be solved by one person usually get resolved quickly and never develop into true problems.  Almost every business impacting problem that an organization encounters involves a number of people – a workgroup, a business function, a group of people engaged in a process, relationships with outside suppliers or customers, etc.  If problems involve (and are potentially caused by) a number of people, it makes sense that diagnosing and solving problems also require involvement of more than one individual. 

But what differentiates an organization that solves problems well from those that continually struggle?  As mentioned before, it’s the culture.  Highly effective problem solving organizations have a culture that promotes teamwork over individualism.  Teamwork is more than a group of individuals coming together to work on something – it’s about a sense of connectedness, shared purpose and collaborating in activities and the development of ideas.  You can have the best qualified individuals working together, but unless they are operating as a cohesive team unit, you will never see their true value potential.

Applying the team culture insight back to problem-solving, there are a few things your organization can do to boost your problem-solving performance.  Skills training is a good place to start.  It is still true that a team is only as strong as its weakest player so investing in your people is a good thing.  But if you want to get more value out of that training, don’t train the individuals – train the team.  Give them the opportunity to not only learn individual skills, but also learn to apply those skills in the team context.  By learning problem-solving skills together your team will have an easier time understanding the role that each person needs to play when a real business problem occurs.

Beyond training, look to your processes.  Often times companies look at process as driving conformance and consistency – that may be true.  Good processes do something more important for your employees and your teams – it provides a common baseline understanding of what needs to be done and the mechanics of execution which in turn enables them to focus more attention on the problem at hand.  Its like the bicycle analogy – once you develop proficiency in riding a bike, you can focus less on turning the pedals and more on where you want to go on a bike ride.  Problem solving processes can help your team understand what they need to do, how they need to interact with each other, what tools and resources they have at their disposal and when to seek escalation and outside involvement.  Processes make teams stronger.

With well-trained people and solid processes, the final piece of this puzzle is behavior and attitude towards accountability.  Nothing undermines your problem-solving effort more than looking for someone to “blame” for a problem.  A culture that places blame encourages people to hide their mistakes, withhold information and in many cases inhibits the continuous improvement activities that problem-solving is all about.  Rather than seeking an individual to blame, teams should be encouraged to take shared accountability for problems, their underlying causes and the preventative actions to resolve them.  Most problems start somewhere, and that may be an individual or an activity that the individual is responsible for.  Instead of focusing on “who is responsible?”, a high performing team will instead focus on “who has the opportunity to make our collective situation better and how can the rest of us help?”

Problem solving isn’t just an individual activity, it’s a team sport.  If you would like to up-level your team’s problem-solving performance and improve your team culture, the experts at Kepner-Tregoe can help.  For over 50 years, we have been working with organizations across a wide variety of industries and governmental functions to provide problem-solving training, implement process best practices, and coach teams through some really big problems. 

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