The Problem with Problem Solving

Posted Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Allen Slade

“We have a problem.” If someone says that, do you get a sinking feeling? If you bring up problems with your team, do you feel the energy leave the room?

Let me be clear. Problem solving is good. As a leader, you must solve problems. Your ability to find and fix flaws is essential. Leaders need to find the error, reverse the decline, criticize the fault, hold others accountable and hold difficult conversations.

The problem with problem solving is that we use it too much. Relentless fault finding decreases energy for you and the people around you. If you see everything as a problem, you drain your own energy. If a person frequently finds fault with you, you lose energy for that relationship. If a given task or situation seems to be laden with problems, you lose energy for that task or situation. You may need to continue in that relationship, task or situation, but your heart won’t be in it. Excessive problem solving is a problem.

While problem solving drains energy, appreciation builds energy. As a leader, you must be able to appreciate people and opportunities. You must be able to recognize what is good, true, effective and beautiful.  You must reward progress, not just punish shortfalls.

To manage the energy of the people you work with, be mindful of your appreciation ratio. The tipping point seems to be 1/3 problem solving to 2/3 appreciation. When problem solving exceeds 1/3 of interactions, we tend to lose energy for that person, task or situation. When appreciation is 2/3 or more, we tend to build energy. Aim for an appreciation ratio of at least 67%.  

Managing my own appreciation ratio has fundamentally changed my outlook on life. I used to see consulting as problem solving. If my client hired me to solve problems, then I had to be scanning for problems, thinking about problems, talking about problems and solving problems. With my problem radar on full power, it is no surprise that I found lots of problems. I completed many consulting assignments thinking “With all these problems, I’m glad I don’t work here.”

Now, I look at my clients from the perspective of success. I look for my client’s strengths – what is good, true, effective and beautiful about what they do. With my appreciation radar on full power, I appreciate my clients more and I project a positive vibe. I still solve problems, but I solve them in an atmosphere of appreciation.  Now, when I complete an assignment, I think “This is a great company!”

There is a strategic problem with a low appreciation ratio. Focusing on strategic weaknesses is more than depressing. It is bad strategy. Ford Motor Company got into retail banking in the late 1980s and 1990s. Ford was good at car loans and leasing, but it was not very good at retail banking. A problem solver would work on banking until it was fixed. Ford tried to turn the banks around for a few years , but the company wisely decided to cut its losses and sell the banks. Then, Ford was able to focus on its core competencies in auto financing and manufacturing.  

Try a mini-experiment today: focus on what is good, true and effective. Look for strengths more than problems. When you interact with people, notice your appreciation ratio. When it drops below 67%, turn down your problem radar and turn your appreciation radar on full power. In the short term, you will perceive things more positively. In the long term, you will build stronger people, more effective systems and a healthier organization by leveraging competency rather than focusing on failure.  

To solve the problem with problem solving, go positive. Problem solve less and there won’t be as many problems. Appreciate more, and you will build your success as a leader.

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