Most humans are by nature problem solvers. It’s been an important evolutionary trait that has fueled social and economic evolution for at least the past half a million years, and we all do it to some extent every day at work and at home.
But few people truly understand the range of approaches to solving problems and don’t consciously select the one or ones that work best for them. However, it’s extremely beneficial to understand our strengths and weaknesses as problem solvers because how well we do often plays a critical role in success or failure.
The ability to resolve problems effectively can drive success in personal life, as a member of a team, and ultimately as a senior manager or leader in a business. Being aware of how you (and others) tend to approach a problem can help you match the situation to the set of skills and aptitudes that will best create an effective solution quickly. The ability to resolve problems effectively represents a “force multiplier” when it comes to getting things done, moving forward, and avoiding disruptions.
The specific skills needed may change with each type of problem and you should not assume that the same approach will work equally well every time. But behavioral psychologists have studied approaches to problem solving for many decades and have identified a number of specific approaches. Here are four of them:
- The Analyst: Analysts solve problems by taking them apart to see what’s working and what isn’t. An analyst digs into the details of a problem, evaluates each of the elements he or she finds, and looks for ways to understand how each element contributes (if it does) to the problem — and then for ways to fix whatever is wrong. Generally, analytical thinkers use questions to flush out any issues. They have confidence in their abilities and make assumptions and decisions based on observational process. Although the assumptions are credible and decisions well supported, the analyst may not move quickly enough to a solution if she does not have all the facts. Because the fact-finding process takes time, the analyst may not offer any options or opinions unless specifically asked. He may, in fact, get locked in analysis paralysis.
- The Synthesist: While analysts like to take a problem apart, synthesists try to gather all the pieces together into an integrated whole in order to create a solution. They have the ability to envision multiple root causes and the outcomes of different approaches, and select from among them the “best” answer. They often do so without really knowing (or being able to explain) exactly how they got to the conclusion they offer. They tend to make assumptions about what needs to be done to solve a problem and are willing to take some risks because they have confidence in their judgment. Synthesists often start from the “big picture” around the problem and are not limited by analytic processes; instead, they create their own unique solutions. If a problem has a deadline or budget constraint, synthesists may struggle because they have difficulty focusing on tactical solutions in favor of a strategic answer.
- The Rationalist: The rationalist attacks a problem with the belief that the correct articulation of the problem must contain the seeds of the solution. Rationalists have the ability to take all of the available information about a problem and identify “irrational” combinations of data or conflicting assumptions, reducing the problem to its simplest form, from which they will construct the optimal solution. A rationalist will often state “from my point of view it’s clear that this is the problem and the best approach to resolve it is therefore …..” While this approach may be “rational,” the starting point for the reasoning that leads to a precise conclusion may be completely irrational to someone with a different perspective. Rational problem solvers seldom see the world from other than their own experience, which may give them tunnel vision.
- The Pragmatist: Pragmatists have the ability to quickly isolate the elements of a problem that can be addressed quickly and that “must be solved no matter what…” and thus seek a partial solution rather than wait for a complete solution to emerge. Pragmatists are not generally constrained by strategic concerns or past results — good or bad; instead, they expect to be able to achieve incremental improvement and are more focused on finding ways to achieve improvements now, rather than later. They focus on opportunities to move quickly, collaborate with others, and “get things moving in the right direction.” This tendency to look for quick fixes may make the larger problem reoccur multiple times before a complete solution emerges.
These are tendencies rather than strict profiles, so often there are combinations – the rational analyst and the pragmatic synthesist are common variations. It’s helpful for a leader to ask themselves which approach to problem resolution they generally use when a problem occurs. Very few approaches exist that work equally well for every situation. Some people are naturally skilled at one approach rather than another because that’s where their habits and experience take them.
However, if leaders understand the different options available, they can orchestrate the best resolution technique for any given problem. Some situations may require a unique combination of approaches, while others can be fully resolved with a single line of attack.
Leaders should challenge themselves and their teams to cultivate these talents, practice mixing them as the situation demands, and play one approach off against the others. This can improve the odds of reaching a good solution quickly. Do this well, and a team and company can discover a potential source of sustainable competitive advantage.
John Parkinson is an affiliate partner at Waterstone Management Group in Chicago. He has been a global business and technology executive and a strategist for more than 35 years.