How to develop versatile problem solvers in the workplace

Find the right individuals to invest in and expose them to different types of problems to build versatility.

by Jerald Lam Updated 24 Jul 2019

You’re time-crunched — and you need your people to step up as problem-solvers, but how should you develop them?

Your plate is so full that it’s threatening to spill over and make a huge mess on the floor. Technical debt and rework is piling up because your people are not thinking things through. They’re not solving the right problems. In fact, stakeholders are calling you because things are spiralling out of control. And these are just the ones you know of. The deeper fear is that some stakeholders might be sulking in silence, waiting to cut your team out of the picture.

Despite this, you’re clinging on to the hope that your people can step up as problem-solvers. The firefighting can’t last forever … right? Your people should get better over time. Perhaps there’s a way to fight the currents dragging you back to square one. But where should you start?

You can’t develop everyone, so start by assessing the individuals you work with.

Given your time constraints, it is impractical to develop everyone at once. Consider the following dimensions when assessing who to develop:

  1. Estimated runway and potential in the organisation: There’s little sense in investing in someone who is leaving your organisation (you could still do it out of goodwill if you have time). If you see someone with reasonable runway or leadership potential, developing their problem-solving skills is a strategic move that frees you up to do higher value work. P.S. Investing in them might also keep them around for a longer period of time.
  2. Existing gap between current skills and what’s needed: What’s needed is subjective and can be divided into two categories: (a) what’s needed to survive and (b) what’s needed for future-proofing. In the first category, you need to determine the gap between your people's current skills and the skills expected for the role they were hired for. In the second category, you need to determine if your people's current skills meet the future plans for your organisation.
  3. Effort required to bridge the existing gap: Your assessment of the effort required should include the time, energy and opportunity costs for you and the person you want to invest in. If the effort required is too large, you may have to look for someone else.
  4. Willingness to bridge the existing gap: A true assessment takes into account the person’s resistance to being developed. If the person is highly resistant to change, you might be better off not trying at all. If you align your development plans with their personal/professional goals, they may be more willing to be developed.

After you decide on who you want to invest in, have a conversation with the person. Invite them to take on the problem-solving mantle and share how it can benefit their career, team, organisation and clients.

Once they’ve accepted the problem-solving mantle, you need to expose them to different types of problems to build versatility.

Exposure can come in the form of on-the-job-training (OJT) or problem-solving exercises (PSX) — your people need platforms to practice, good feedback and some reflection time.

Provide platforms for your people to practice

OJT is great for building up your people’s problem-solving capabilities through real-world experiences. But life is too short for your people to learn from mistakes on their own.

If you want to speed up the process, try using PSX. Record interesting problems you've encountered and invite your people to try to solve them.

Tip: You can get individuals to try to solve the problem on their own first. Then, ask them to solve it collectively as a group. This allows your people to enrich each other’s mental models (using their individual experiences and frames).

Give good feedback through the deconstructive approach

Whether you choose OJT or PSX, you need to provide your people with good feedback. You may have heard the age-old advice about giving constructive feedback instead of destructive feedback. If that is the case, allow me to push it one step further by introducing the idea of a deconstructive approach to feedback.

The deconstructive approach seeks to add value by asking people to explain how they thought about a problem and how it led to their solution. In contrast, the constructive approach seeks to add value by focusing on what can be improved.

Schedule sessions after OJT/PSX to deconstruct each person's thought process. Although this will take more of your time in the beginning, it trains your people to think on a meta-level. When faulty assumptions come to the surface, you can provide constructive feedback or allow your people to come to a realisation themselves.

Allocate time to reflect on learnings

Lastly, it’s important to give your people time to reflect on their own. You can do this by introducing formal reflection exercises in your team’s regular cadence. Or you can include reflection time in your OJT/PSX. During these sessions, you may want to highlight key learning points if they’ve forgotten some along the way.

As you consciously select and train your people in different types of problems, you will free up your time to do higher-value work. This requires significant investment on your part and is by no means easy. But it can be oh-so-rewarding to see people growing under your leadership and guidance. It’s one more reason to jump out of bed each day to get to work!

Jerald Lam

Jerald Lam

Transformation designer

I'm passionate about raising the quantity and quality of human-centred leaders, teams and organisations.

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