Work Traits

Problem Solving

Problem solving refers to your level of energy and interest in predicting, preventing or solving problems, business challenges and difficulties.
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What is problem solving?

Problem solving is highly useful in risk assessment, quality control, strategic planning and crisis management. You’ll typically find yourself saying phrases such as “we need to…” and “I have concerns…”, and you’ll prefer to avoid or prevent negative events from happening - rather than waiting to react when they do happen. 

This is a strategic and technical motivation that’s focused on having some control over the future; avoiding negative outcomes is important to you so you plan accordingly to make sure they don’t happen.

This outlook is focused on specifics, rather than aspirations, so it might seem a little negative sometimes. But a problem solver can be a real asset in tricky situations, since you find challenges very motivating, especially when your 'back is against the wall.'

We call it: Away from problems

Your level of energy and interest in predicting, preventing or solving problems, business challenges and difficulties.

Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.

Piet Hein

Leaders who excel at problem solving

Lisa Su

Lisa Su

Named by HBR as one of the ‘Best-performing CEOs in the world’, Lisa Su is the president and CEO of AMD, the American computer processor manufacturer. 

At IBM in the 1990s, as an engineer Su helped solve the problem of copper impurities contaminating connections in semiconductor chips. In her words, "my specialty was not in copper, but I migrated to where the problems were”.

She then took this mindset to business, where she simplified product and supply lines, and strengthened market position in the face of tough competition from Intel. Su helped the struggling AMD regain its place as one of the most important technology companies in the world.

Shantanu Narayen

As the CEO of design software company Adobe Inc., Narayen faced a rapidly changing technology market when he took up the post in 2007.

Narayen predicted the upcoming shift to cloud computing and subscription-based software packaging; being left behind in this market was a problem that couldn’t be ignored.

So he directed a huge strategic change for Adobe in the face of this coming wave, moving their broad software offering from the desktop to the cloud. There were critics, of course, but the numbers speak for themselves. The result: Adobe Inc became a Fortune 400 company in 2018, exceeding a $100b market cap for the first time. Problem solved.

Shantanu Narayen
Illustration of an author known for a certain trait

Marie Curie

Marie Curie is one of history’s most famous scientists. Born in Poland and performing most of her research in France, Curie was responsible for the modern theory of radioactivity, plus the discovery of elements polonium and radium. These led to her becoming the first person in history to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.

Curie was a true problem solver. Alongside her many accomplishments in physics and chemistry, she made a huge impact in medical science. During the First World War, Curie helped develop mobile radiology vehicles that delivered X-ray abilities to surgeons in the battlefield. These units, known as les petites Curies, helped doctors treat wounded soldiers by identifying bullets and shrapnel in their bodies. It’s estimated that over a million wounded soldiers were treated by these units.

The benefits of a problem solving mindset

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You counter rash decision-making by tempering unrealistic expectations; highlighting problems that others might be blind to.

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You find yourself with increased energy when your back is against the wall, stakes are high and the pressure is on.

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Others can rely on you to identify stumbling blocks and lead them through uncharted waters, especially when things get tough.

The blind spots of problem solvers

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You can be perceived as lacking support for your coworkers’ goals and personal aspirations as you focus more on the technical aspects of operations.

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A focus on problems can be seen as negative by some, even though in truth it’s a strategy for avoiding negative consequences.

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Need pressure

Sometimes you lack motivation for a task until it becomes stressful or high-pressure, which can be problematic in calmer times.

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How to develop a problem solving mindset

1) Highlight the issues.

Use words like ‘problems', ‘errors’, and ‘concerns' to highlight issues you want to avoid. Urge colleagues to avoid or stay clear of these scenarios, and if that’s not possible, do everything possible to prepare for and mitigate them.

2) Avoid aspirational language.

Avoid words like ‘achieve’, ‘dreams’, ‘goals’ and ‘desire’. They lack the specificity that’s needed to highlight potential roadblocks in your journey to success, and can make it tempting to see things with an overly positive mindset.

3) Focus on the specifics.

If you’re prone to a more visionary outlook, you can sometimes miss issues that need dealing with. Try to focus on numbers, statistics and operational inefficiencies. Remember: to gain insight, you need to start with good data.

4) See problems as opportunities.

Reframing issues as challenges rather than threats means you get to approach them with excitement rather than fear or hesitation. By seeing problems in this light you can approach them as your opportunity to thrive, overcome and ultimately, win.

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