To Help Solve Problems, Use Critical Thinking Skills

What’s at stake if teams do a poor job of solving problems? From a long list of potential answers, four stand out:

  • Lost time: Poor team problem solving simply burns more time. It may be more time in a meeting itself, because there were no collaboration guidelines. Perhaps it’s lost time outside of the meeting in hallway conversations, because ideas weren’t fully explored or vetted.
  • Dissipated energy: Poor team problem solving leaves questions unanswered and half-baked solutions in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly where we stand or what we’ve decided. The thought of revisiting an unfinished conversation itself is an unwelcome burden.
  • Mediocre ideas: Poor team problem solving fortifies our weakest thinking. Innovation is something we read about but never experience. We cut-and-paste the ideas of others, because we don’t know how to generate our own. We traffic in good ideas and miss great ones.
  • Competing visions: Poor team problem solving invites an unhealthy drift toward independence. No one has the conscious thought that they have a competing vision. But in reality, there are differences to each person’s picture of their future. It’s impossible for this divergence not to happen if there is no dialogue.

So, how do you start to create the dynamic of collaborative problem solving?  

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills by Michael Kallet

Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills is the comprehensive guide to training your brain to do more for you. Written by a critical thinking trainer and coach, the book presents a pragmatic framework and set of tools to apply critical thinking techniques to everyday business issues. Think Smarter is filled with real world examples that demonstrate how the tools work in action, in addition to dozens of practice exercises applicable across industries and functions, Think Smarter is a versatile resource for individuals, managers, students, and corporate training programs.

Think Smarter provides clear, actionable steps toward improving your critical thinking skills, plus exercises that clarify complex concepts by putting theory into practice.

Learn what questions to ask, how to uncover the real problem to solve, and mistakes to avoid. Recognize assumptions your can rely on versus those without merit, and train your brain to tick through your mental toolbox to arrive at more innovative solutions. Critical thinking is the top skill on the wish list in the business world, and sharpening your ability can have profound affects throughout all facets of life. Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills provides a roadmap to more effective and productive thought.


A SIMPLE SOLUTION 

Have you ever heard a colleague utter the words, “I don’t have to time to think!” If you’re honest with yourself, you’ve probably said them yourself.

This cliche is at the center of problems for organizations around the world, regardless of their size and complexity.

The reality is, that thinking is the most important driver in problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity – no organization can do without it.

According to author Michael Kallet, thinking is the foundation of everything you do, but we rely largely on automatic thinking to process information, often resulting in misunderstandings and errors. Shifting over to critical thinking means thinking purposefully using a framework and toolset, enabling thought processes that lead to better decisions, faster problem solving, and creative innovation. 

Critical thinking is a purposeful method for enhancing your thoughts beyond your automatic, everyday way of thinking. It’a a process that uses a framework and a tool set.

Michael Kallet

The benefits of critical thinking result from changing the way you look at issues, organizing your thoughts, and incorporating others’ thoughts. It simulates new perspectives and prevents distorted views of a situation. As a result, your problem-solving and decision-making skills are enhanced.

The critical thinking process framework, which provides tools and techniques, consists of three components: clarity, conclusions, and decisions.

Clarity

The single most important reason why head scratchers – projects, initiatives, problem solving, decisions, or strategies – go awry is that the head scratcher itself – the situation, issue, or goal – isn’t clear in the first place. Clarity allows us to define what the issue, problem, or goal really is. 

Conclusions

After you are clear on what issue you must address, you have to figure out what to do about it. Conclusions are solutions and a list of actions (to-dos) related to your issue.

Decisions

Once you have come to a conclusion about what actions to take, you have to actually decide to take the action – and do it.

Most people combine conclusions and decisions when they’re asked about problem solving or decision making, saying, “I need to decide what to do.” However, it’s important to separate conclusions and decisions, because the thinking processed for each are very different.

The space around clarity, conclusions, and decisions is filled with discovery, information, and ideas. These three concepts include asking questions, exploring ideas, listening to responses, and conducting research.

Michael Kallet, Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills

A NEXT STEP

As noted in the Quick Summary above, author Michael Kallet has provided many tools and suggestions throughout Think Smarter that will help you grasp and apply the critical thinking process framework. Here is just one that most leaders practice daily, yet hardly think about: email.

Start critical thinking practice with inspecting and writing emails. Not only is this easy and good practice, but there’s also an important side advantage. Write your email; then before you hit Send, ask, “Is what I’m about to send clear? Could the recipient misinterpret what I’ve written?” You’ll reap three benefits from this.

First, you’ll find your emails are shorter, because clarity often takes fewer words.

Second, your thoughts will be clearer and better organized.

Third, and most important, your emails will be more easily understood, resulting in potentially huge productivity gains.

What happens if you send an unclear email to someone? The recipient will respond with a question, which you’ll then have to answer. The result is at least three emails generated instead of one. Going further, consider how many emails would be sent around if you copied five people on an unclear email. Even worse, what happens if you send an unclear email out, and instead of asking questions, people just start to do their own interpretations of your email.

Imagine the productivity gains of critically thinking about just your most important emails every day.

If You Want to Solve Your Problems, Change the Problems You Solve

What’s at stake if teams do a poor job of solving problems? From a long list of potential answers, four stand out:

  • Lost time: Poor team problem solving simply burns more time. It may be more time in a meeting itself, because there were no collaboration guidelines. Perhaps it’s lost time outside of the meeting in hallway conversations, because ideas weren’t fully explored or vetted.
  • Dissipated energy: Poor team problem solving leaves questions unanswered and half-baked solutions in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly where we stand or what we’ve decided. The thought of revisiting an unfinished conversation itself is an unwelcome burden.
  • Mediocre ideas: Poor team problem solving fortifies our weakest thinking. Innovation is something we read about but never experience. We cut-and-paste the ideas of others, because we don’t know how to generate our own. We traffic in good ideas and miss great ones.
  • Competing visions: Poor team problem solving invites an unhealthy drift toward independence. No one has the conscious thought that they have a competing vision. But in reality, there are differences to each person’s picture of their future. It’s impossible for this divergence not to happen if there is no dialogue.

So, how do you start to create the dynamic of collaborative problem solving?  

THE QUICK SUMMARY – What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Are you solving the right problems? Have you or your colleagues ever worked hard on something, only to find out you were focusing on the wrong problem entirely? Most people have. In a survey, 85 percent of companies said they often struggle to solve the right problems. The consequences are severe: Leaders fight the wrong strategic battles. Teams spend their energy on low-impact work. Startups build products that nobody wants. Organizations implement “solutions” that somehow make things worse, not better. Everywhere you look, the waste is staggering. As Peter Drucker pointed out, there’s nothing more dangerous than the right answer to the wrong question.

There is a way to do better.

The key is reframing, a crucial, underutilized skill that you can master with the help of this book. Using real-world stories and unforgettable examples like “the slow elevator problem,” author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg offers a simple, three-step method – Frame, Reframe, Move Forward – that anyone can use to start solving the right problems. Reframing is not difficult to learn. It can be used on everyday challenges and on the biggest, trickiest problems you face. In this visually engaging, deeply researched book, you’ll learn from leaders at large companies, from entrepreneurs, consultants, nonprofit leaders, and many other breakthrough thinkers.

It’s time for everyone to stop barking up the wrong trees. Teach yourself and your team to reframe, and growth and success will follow.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

For almost all problems that leaders face, by the time the problem reaches them, someone has probably framed if for them.

  • Complaints about elevators? They’re old and slow – they need to be replaced.
  • Team problems? Do they blame failure on others? Do they resist following you? Do they lack passion?
  • Productivity issues? Do you always run out of time on projects? Lack the resources to complete the job?

Author Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg wants you to look at problems like these differently, with two thoughts in mind.

First, the way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with. 

And, by shifting the way you see the problem – by reframing it – you can sometimes find radically better solutions.

Sometimes, to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it. Instead, you must turn your attention to the problem itself – not just to analyze it, but to shift the way you frame it.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Step 1 – Frame

This is the trigger for the process. In practice, it starts with someone asking, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” The resulting statement – ideally written down – is your first framing of the problem.

Step 2 – Reframe

Reframe is where you challenge your initial understanding of the problem. The aim is to rapidly uncover as many potential alternative framings as possible. You can think of it as a kind of brainstorming, only instead of ideas, you are looking for different ways to frame the problem. This might come in the form of questions or in the form of direct suggestions.

There are five nested strategies to help find these alternative framings of the problem. Depending on the situation, you may explore some, all, or none of these:

  • Look outside the frame. What are we missing?
  • Rethink the goal. Is there a better objective to pursue?
  • Examine bright spots. Where is the problem not?
  • Look in the mirror. What is my/our role in creating this problem?
  • Take their perspective. What is their problem?

Step 3 – Move Forward

This closes the loop and switches you back into action mode. This can be a continuation of your current course, a move to explore some of the new framings you came up with, or both.

Your key task here is to determine how you validate the faming of your problem though real-world testing, making sure your diagnosis is correct. At this point, a subsequent reframing check-in may be scheduled as well.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve

A NEXT STEP 

In addition to the wealth of resources provided by the author, he provides an excellent section of how to create multiple working hypotheses when considering how to reframe a problem.

To consider multiple working hypotheses is to simultaneously explore several different explanations for what might be going on. By doing this upfront, you inoculate yourself against the danger of a single perspective.

Choose a problem that you are facing or expect to face in the near future, and work through the following approach in reframing it:

  • Never commit to just one explanation up front.
  • Explore multiple explanations simultaneously until sufficient empirical testing has revealed the best choice.
  • Be open to the idea that the best fit may be a mix of several different explanations.
  • Be prepared to walk away if something better comes along later.

Begin addressing a problem by coming up with other viewpoints and solutions at the beginning so you can avoid falling in love with a bad idea. And remember that problems almost always have more than one solution.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 142-2, released March 2020

How to Recognize – and Avoid – Problem Blindness as a Leader

What’s at stake if teams do a poor job of solving problems? From a long list of potential answers, four stand out:

  • Lost time: Poor team problem solving simply burns more time. It may be more time in a meeting itself, because there were no collaboration guidelines. Perhaps it’s lost time outside of the meeting in hallway conversations, because ideas weren’t fully explored or vetted.
  • Dissipated energy: Poor team problem solving leaves questions unanswered and half-baked solutions in the atmosphere. We don’t know exactly where we stand or what we’ve decided. The thought of revisiting an unfinished conversation itself is an unwelcome burden.
  • Mediocre ideas: Poor team problem solving fortifies our weakest thinking. Innovation is something we read about but never experience. We cut-and-paste the ideas of others, because we don’t know how to generate our own. We traffic in good ideas and miss great ones.
  • Competing visions: Poor team problem solving invites an unhealthy drift toward independence. No one has the conscious thought that they have a competing vision. But in reality, there are differences to each person’s picture of their future. It’s impossible for this divergence not to happen if there is no dialogue.

So, how do you start to create the dynamic of collaborative problem solving?

SOLUTION #1: Avoid problem blindness

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath

So often in life, we get stuck in a cycle of response. We put out fires. We deal with emergencies. We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints. But many crimes, chronic illnesses, and customer complaints are preventable. So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?

Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream—including “problem blindness,” which can leave us oblivious to serious problems in our midst. And Heath introduces us to the thinkers who have overcome these obstacles and scored massive victories by switching to an upstream mindset. One online travel website prevented twenty million customer service calls every year by making some simple tweaks to its booking system. A major urban school district cut its dropout rate in half after it figured out that it could predict which students would drop out—as early as the ninth grade. A European nation almost eliminated teenage alcohol and drug abuse by deliberately changing the nation’s culture. And one EMS system accelerated the emergency-response time of its ambulances by using data to predict where 911 calls would emerge—and forward-deploying its ambulances to stand by in those areas.

Upstream delivers practical solutions for preventing problems rather than reacting to them. How many problems in our lives and in society are we tolerating simply because we’ve forgotten that we can fix them?

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

Author Dan Heath believes that with some foresight, we can prevent problems before they happen, and even when we can’t stop them entirely, we can often blunt their impact.

Of course, there are barriers to this line of thinking, and the first of those barriers is profoundly simple: you can’t solve a problem you don’t see, or one that you perceive to be a regrettable but inevitable condition of life.

Problem blindness is the first barrier to upstream thinking. When we don’t see a problem, we can’t solve it. And that blindness can create passivity even in the face of enormous harm. To move upstream, we must first overcome problem blindness.

Problem blindness, also know as inattentional blindness, is a phenomenon in which our careful attention to one task leads us to miss important information that’s unrelated to that task.

Inattentional blindness leads to a lack of peripheral vision. When it’s coupled with time pressure, it can create a lack of curiosity. I’ve got to stay focused on what I’m doing. 

The escape from problem blindness begins with the shock of awareness that you’ve come to treat the abnormal as normal.

Next comes a search for community: Do other people feel this way? And with that recognition – that this phenomenon is a problem and we see it the same way – comes strength.

Something remarkable often happens next: People voluntarily hold themselves responsible for fixing problems they did not create. The upstream advocate concludes: I was not the one who created this problem. But I will be the one to fix it.

Dan Heath, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen

A NEXT STEP

How can you, personally, move upstream? Consider your own problem blindness, Which problems have you come to accept as inevitable that are, in fact, nothing of the kind?

A hallmark of work by both author Dan Heath as well as his brother Chip is the excellent resources they provide. One of those is a book club guide.

Here are a few questions drawn from that guide, relating to the topic of problem blindness. Set aside some time to both reflect and act on them,

  1. Problem blindness is the belief that negative outcomes are natural or inevitable. Do you think your organization suffers from problem blindness? If so, in what areas?
  2. “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” is a quote often used in leadership circles. Does this idea resonate with you? What examples do you see in your organization?
  3. When people reflect on our society 50 years from now, what areas do you think they will be shocked by, areas that we are suffering from problem blindness?

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 142-1, released April 2020

You can purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix – learn more here!

To Help Solve Problems, Practice a Six-Step Design Thinking Process

According to the authors of Solving Problems with Design Thinking, most leaders harbor a deep, dark secret: They believe in their hearts that they are not creative, and find themselves short on delivering innovation ideas to their organizations.

In today’s seemingly rampant innovation mania, managers and leaders cannot appear unimaginative, let alone fail to come up with brilliant solutions to vexing problems on a whim.

For most of us there will be no Moses-like parting of the waters of the status quo  that we might safely cross the Red Sea of innovation. Drowning is more likely our fate.  

– from Solving Design Problems

There is hope.

Instead of trying to part the waters, leaders need to build a bridge to take us from the current reality to a new future.

In other words, we must manufacture our own miracles.

The technology for better bridge building already exists, right under our noses. It’s called design thinking.

This approach to problem solving is distinguished by the following attributes:

  • It emphasizes the importance of discovery in advance of solution generation using market research approaches that are empathetic and user driven
  • It expands the boundaries of both our problem definition and our solutions
  • It is enthusiastic about engaging partners in co-creation
  • It is committed to conducting real-world experiments rather than just running analyses using historical data

And it works.

Design thinking is capable of reliably producing new and better ways of creatively solving a host of organizational problems.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Design for Strengths by John K. Coyle

Are you on the cusp of greatness? Do you have untapped potential and talents just waiting to be released? Read this book to learn the same creative problem-solving methodology (Design Thinking) used extensively at Stanford, Google, IDEO, and Apple. This guide will unlock your personal potential, and that of your team and your business.

By exploring the intersection of Design Thinking and strengths-finding, innovation expert John K. Coyle demonstrates what most high achievers intuitively know-that each one of us possesses a unique combination of strengths, talents, skills and capabilities to achieve breakthrough performance-but may need a code to unlock them.

Design for Strengths delivers the process, tools and mindsets required to find and maximize your hidden potential. Illuminated by a captivating narrative of Olympic training and competition, Coyle demonstrates how he used the Design Thinking process and mindset to hack the sport of speed skating and win an Olympic silver medal. This book contains real-life examples of how individuals and organizations can use Design Thinking to define the right problem, and to ask and answer a better question. Instead of “how do I fix my weaknesses?” ask, “how can I design for my strengths?”

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

Design is all about action, and churches too often get stuck at the talking stage.

Face it – despite all our planning and analyzing and controlling, the typical church’s track record at translating its rhetoric into results is not impressive.

In the business world, researchers estimate that only somewhere between 10% and 60% of the promised returns for new strategies are actually delivered. Having been around ChurchWorld for over 38 years, my observation is the reality would be between 10% and 30% – tops.

Practices that consume enormous amounts of time and attention produce discouraging results. All the empty talk is making it harder and harder to get anything to actually happen. Churches expect the staff to be member-focused while the majority watches. When a staff or volunteer actually takes a risk, they are punished if it doesn’t succeed. Ambitious growth goals aren’t worth the spreadsheets they are computed on.

Getting new results requires new tools – and design thinking has real tools to help move from talk to action.

Design thinking is a simple framework and process to guide creative problem solving – a way to leverage the designer’s mindset to “solve old problems” in new ways.

Here are quick snapshots of each of the six Design Thinking steps.

Accept: Like so many problem-solving methodologies, the first step in the Design Thinking process is to admit there is a problem. Corollary to this is the idea that you don’t want to accept or work on problems that are completely intractable. There is a fine line between giving up too early and taking on the impossible.

Define: Often the “obvious” fix to a problem is the wrong one. The define stage is all about framing and reframing the problem in meaningful and solvable ways.

Empathize: This is perhaps the most important element of Design Thinking and probably also the hardest. Empathy doesn’t mean sympathy or agreeing with a particular viewpoint. Empathy means being able to shift your own thinking to emulate the thought patterns of someone else, to understand why something can make sense to someone possessing a particular mindset in a particular context.

Ideate: Probably the simplest step in Design Thinking – and yet the one with a methodology most quickly abandoned. Generating ideas without judgment is vastly superior to the simultaneous divergent/convergent process that almost every meeting in the world manages to evoke.

Prototype: Critical to this step is a “learn-by-doing” action bias and mindset. It is less about feedback and much more about the willingness to produce a less-than-perfect artifact or process that we could learn from.

Test: This phase is a decision point; either A) we have confidence to launch through quantitative data, or B) we need to return to Define, Empathy, or Prototype to tweak our problem statement, understanding, or approach. In this phase, you take a prototype – a new way of doing something – and try it in “real life.”

John K. Coyle, Design for Strengths

A NEXT STEP

It may be simplistic, but when it comes to problem solving, there are basically two kinds of problems: the simple and the complex. Simple problems really aren’t “simple” – it’s just that their solutions are often obvious, and require specific types of action to solve. Think of building a house – it’s a complicated process, but the “solutions” have been honed and refined over hundreds of years until they become somewhat formulaic.

On the other hands, complex problems do not have easy answers, and may even appear to be unsolvable at first glance. Reframing stubborn and complex challenges as design problems allows new ideas and solutions to emerge.

With this in mind, schedule a team meeting to tackle a complex problem that either exists or you see on the horizon.

On the top of six chart tablets, write the key word for each of the steps listed above. Copy and distribute this SUMS Remix to use as a guide for your team in discussing and listing actions that correspond to the six steps.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 111-1, released January 2019


 

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here<<

Good Cooking is Simply a Series of Problems Solved

The title of this post is actually a quote from one of the instructor chefs at the CIA’s cooking school. Author Michael Ruhlman, in “The Making of a Chef,” chronicles his time at the legendary cooking school, the oldest and most influential in America.

The comment came in response to a student’s unique suggestion of how to keep hollandaise sauce at just the right temperature to keep it from “breaking”. The chef had never thought of his idea, and encouraged him (and the rest of the class) to approach a problem from a unique angle (outside the box” thinking?).

This line of thought falls right into a post by Seth Godin entitled “Sell the Problem.” He noted that many business to business marketers tend to jump right into features and benefits, without taking the time to understand if the person on the other end of the conversation/call/letter believes they even have a problem.

The challenge is this: if your organization doesn’t think it has a  problem, you won’t be looking for a solution. You won’t wake up in the morning dreaming about how to solve it, or go to bed wondering how much it’s costing you to ignore it.

And so the marketing challenge is to sell the problem.

I’m passionate about helping churches thrive by turning challenges (problems) into opportunities. It’s very personal with me – I want to understand prospective clients so well that I know their situation almost as well as a leader or staff member. In fact, that statement, made a couple of years ago by a pastor, is one of the highlights of my career!

It’s my job to understand their problems.

When a prospect comes to the table and says, “we have a problem,” then you’re both on the same side of the table when it comes time to solve it.

All I have to do now is follow the recipe – a series of problems solved.