Are Your Problem-Solving Skills Lacking? Try This New Approach

April 22, 2021

Problem Solving the golden retriever approach

Approaches To Problem-Solving

I appreciate a good mechanic. When something goes wrong with my old truck, I take it to Todd. Todd manages to fix impossible problems. Once, he manufactured a part because no new parts were available. I enjoy working with Todd because he is very good at fixing the tough problems I bring to him. Occasionally, I bring a problem to him, and he says, “You don’t want to spend the money to fix that; it’s not worth it!” Many leaders work like Todd; they wait for others to bring them problems, and then they fix the problem.

I also appreciate Golden Retrievers, although I have never owned one. When my brothers and I grew old enough to go pheasant hunting, we only owned one shotgun. It was a 12-gauge single shot, which means that you had one chance to hit your target. Since we did not own a dog, we decided that whoever had the gun was the hunter, and the other two were the dogs. The dogs’ jobs were to flush out the pheasants. I cannot remember ever bringing home a pheasant, but we did have fun. Unlike my brothers, Golden Retrievers can sniff out a pheasant, point to them so the hunter can get ready, and then flush them out. Many leaders are a lot like Golden Retrievers in terms of solving problems. They are constantly looking for what could go wrong. They take time to anticipate problems before they happen.

I wanted to analyze some 360 feedback data to determine who was a more effective leader. Was it the problem solver or the problem anticipator? I identified leaders who had strengths and weaknesses in both traits and used the following criteria to classify each leader.

Characteristics of Problem-Solving Leaders

  • Tend to start projects quickly and then resolve problems when they arise.
  • Are skilled at spotting problems and fixing them.
  • Do a good job every day and fix immediate problems and concerns.
  • Tend to react to the present.
  • Focus their efforts on work that needs to be done today.

Characteristics of Problem-Anticipating Leaders

  • Are effective at anticipating potential problems or things that could go wrong.
  • Tend to see trends and patterns in what they and others are doing.
  • Prefer to take the long view and focus on the future.
  • Like to anticipate the future.
  • Are skilled at identifying changes that need to be made.

Using a dataset of 360-degree feedback reports from 110,460 leaders, I classified leaders who were in the top and bottom quartiles on both characteristics. I also identified two outcome variables I was interested in examining. Overall leadership effectiveness (the average of 60 behaviors found to differentiate poor from great leaders) and a confidence rating by direct reports. The confidence rating was an item asked of all direct reports where they indicated the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statement, “I have confidence that this organization will achieve its strategic objectives.” Since not all leaders had direct reports, the number of leaders analyzed on the confidence outcome was 97,851 leaders.

The graph below shows the results comparing groups in the bottom quartile and the top quartile on problem-solving and anticipating. Groups with bottom quartile scores in both dimensions were only rated at the 14th percentile on their overall leadership effectiveness. Note that problem-solving ability has twice as much impact on overall leadership effectiveness as top-quartile skills at anticipating problems, but the combination of both skills propels leaders into the 87th percentile.

Leadership skill- Problem Solving

Check out the latest episodes of  The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast. 

In this second study, I looked at the 97,851 leaders with direct reports. Ratings for anticipation and problem-solving were also only based on data gathered from each leader’s direct reports. The combination of these skills impacted the level of confidence direct reports had in achieving their organizations’ strategic goals.

Leadership Skill- Problem Solving/Anticipating

Problem Solving is an Essential Skill

In another study, over 1.5 million raters were asked to select the top 4 most important competencies based on 19 different competencies. The number two skill rated as most important was solving problems and analyzing issues.

A day of work is often a day of solving one problem after another. Leaders frequently put themselves in the mechanic role—waiting for others to bring them problems rather than getting ahead of the issues by anticipating them before they occur. The leaders who effectively anticipate problems avoid fire drills and stress. If you are a skillful problem solver, take some time to think about and anticipate problems that may occur. The data is compelling that combining these two skills can be a powerful combination to improve your leadership effectiveness and the confidence of your direct reports in the business’s success.

Learn more about problem-solving by registering for this month’s leadership webinar.

-Joe Folkman

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