Problems happen. That’s why we have sayings like “That’s life,” and philosophies like Murphy’s Law. While both of these reflect a cynical attitude, life does come with challenges. You can’t do business without facing and solving problems.

Successful executives overcome problems. Unsuccessful executives let problems overcome them and their businesses. How, then, can executives like you discover and execute the best solutions available?

7 Ways Executives Can Improve at Problem-Solving

Executives analyzing and solving problems for their business

1. Increase Creativity in Solving Problems

You can solve many “unsolvable” problems by thinking creatively. Trying the same old things only brings the same old results. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But imagining and trying new ways can open doors to solutions never thought possible.

Suppose you have a keyring full of keys and you come to a door you need to open. You try one key and it doesn’t work. Do you keep trying that same key over and over again? Of course not! You try another key. If none of your keys work, you try your friends’ and colleagues’ keys. And if no one’s keys work? You look for another door, check for a window, or knock and see if anyone inside can let you in.

You can increase your odds of finding the best solution to a problem by taking more creative approaches to it. Don’t get stuck in a box. If you struggle with creative thinking, see “Creating Innovation as an Executive” for tips and inspiration.

2. Develop Additional Solutions to Complex Problems

Often, there is more than one good way to solve a problem. There can even be a plurality of ways, especially when the problem is complex.

For example, suppose your car breaks down on your way to an important business meeting. This means you’re not going to make it there in time. Complicating matters is the fact that one of the clients you need to meet is only in town for one day. And, you’ve already waited longer than you wanted to get this meeting scheduled.

What can you do? The first solution that comes to mind may be “Oh, guess I have to postpone the meeting.” But take a deep breath, tell yourself there’s more than one solution, and start thinking of and considering them—beginning with contacting the meeting attendees and letting them know what happened. Then, you can try any of the following:

  • See if the client can wait, and for how long.
  • Find another way to get there.
  • See if they can meet by conference call.
  • See if they’d be willing to come to a location by where you’re stranded.
  • Reschedule for later in the day, while everyone is still in town—and offer to reimburse them for their time and transportation costs.
  • If necessary, reschedule the whole meeting—for as soon as possible—and communicate as much as possible through other means until then.
  • Find another solution.

This is just a hypothetical situation, but it exemplifies the myriad of solutions to complex problems. And it doesn’t take much time to think them up.

3. Brainstorm

Brainstorming, represented by a chalk drawing of numerous small lightbulbs equaling one large lightbulbThe more brainstorming you do, the more possible solutions you can create. What is the best way to brainstorm?

  • Whenever possible, brainstorm alone. That isn’t to say that you should be the only one brainstorming—two heads are better than one, and many heads are even better! Just avoid group brainstorming, which has been thoroughly proven to produce results either worse than or similar to solo brainstorming.
  • Do it in a relaxed environment, as free as possible from external and internal stressors. Stress produces adrenaline, and too much adrenaline takes much-needed energy away from the thinking part of the brain to deal with perceived threats in “fight or flight” mode.
  • Devote a specific amount of uninterrupted, unhurried time to it.
  • Jot down any idea that comes to mind. At this point, everything is on the table.

Some executives find mind-mapping helpful—organizing ideas and thoughts according to a central core and connecting one to another.

4. Troubleshoot Issues

In order to “shoot trouble,” you need to know where it is and take proper aim to deal with it effectively. Use the four Ds of troubleshooting:

  1. Diagnose: Determine the exact problem.
  2. Detect: Figure out what’s causing that problem.
  3. Decide: Create a strategy and action steps to solve the problem.
  4. Document: Record what worked best, and what didn’t work, so you can go straight to the solution next time (as long as it’s the same problem).

5. Increase Analysis of Problems

An executive analyzing problems by creating chartsThe better you can analyze a problem, the better you can solve it. Yes, over-analysis can lead to paralysis, where nothing gets done to solve the issue. But it’s always helpful to:

  1. Research and gather more information.
  2. Sort and categorize that information as to how it relates to the problem.
  3. Determine the meaning and implications of each piece of information.
  4. Prioritize the information—put it in order of relevancy and usefulness.
  5. Decide how to best apply the information.

6. Weigh Pros and Cons

Once all the options are on the table, you need to consider the pros and cons of going ahead with each of them. First, are they even viable solutions? Can they actually be carried out? Then, what are the foreseeable benefits and/or drawbacks to each? How significant is each benefit and/or drawback?

One clear and effective way of weighing pros and cons is to make a T-chart, with the option as the top heading. Then, draw a line down the middle of the page with “Pros” on one side and “Cons” on the other. Record lists on either side and assign a number to each, on a scale of 1–5, according to the degree of significance, or “weight,” with 1 being lowest and 5 being highest. Finally, add up the totals in both columns and see the balance of weight between the “Pros” side and the “Cons” side.

7. Identify Solutions in a More Calculated Way

After diagnosing the problem, looking at all the options, and weighing the pros and cons of each, the last step is calculating the overall impact of each possible solution. What risks does it entail? How long will it last—i.e., is this just a temporary solution, or one that will hold up in the long run under testing? How deep does the solution go? Does it just cover the surface, or does it effectively address the root of the problem? How much will this solution cost to implement—in finances, human resources, materials, time, etc.?

After doing a more thorough calculation, you (and any others you choose to involve) can decide on the best solution(s) and move forward with implementation.

Why Competency in Solving Problems Matters

Presidential portrait of Harry Truman in 1945

Presidential portrait of Harry Truman in 1945.

The ability to solve problems can make or break any leader, including executives. Problems occur as a part of corporate life and business, and when they do, as President Truman was famously fond of saying, “the buck stops here”—at the executive’s desk.

Discovering This Strength

To develop this strength, you need to closely observe your actions and ask yourself how you solve problems. Then determine both your strengths and weaknesses in each of the problem-solving criteria listed above.

To facilitate improvement, you can:

  1. Read books and articles on problem solving. One recommended book is Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem Solvers by Nat Greene.
  2. Research how to diagnose, analyze, troubleshoot, and creatively solve problems. Then, evaluate each solution.
  3. Get a coach and work with them on skills and attitudes related to problem-solving. A coach will help hold you accountable to your own goals for improvement.

If you are a bona fide CEO or other senior executive in need of a coach, I would be happy to offer you three complimentary executive coaching sessions. I can coach you myself or put you in touch with a coach with expertise specific to your industry. Please schedule your first session:

Complimentary Consultation

About This Competency

The Execution quadrant of the SOLID competency model, which includes Solving ProblemsSolving Problems is one of SOLID’s 50 competencies critical to executive success. It falls under the category of Execution, one of 5 categories within the competency model, which is explained and downloadable at the end of this article. Overall, executives are responsible for, and must be competent in:

E10 Solving Problems: Increasing creativity in solving problems; developing additional solutions to complex problems; brainstorming; troubleshooting possible issues; increasing analysis of problems; weighing pros and cons; identifying solutions in a more calculated way.

About Our Competency Model

SOLID Executive Competencies ebook coverThe SOLID Competency Model is based on two decades of research. It is founded on the premise that all executive competencies can be categorized into these five groupings: Core Character, Execution, Relationship, Management and Leadership. Executives must master all five categories to achieve excellence in their roles. This model is useful for gauging and quantifying your skillset, understanding what it takes to be an effective executive, and providing a framework for improving performance. For more information, download “SOLID Executive Competencies: What It Takes to Be an Executive.”

About the Author

Daniel Mueller diving in HondurasDaniel Mueller has helped hundreds of executives improve their competency in solving problems. Over more than three decades of executive coaching, he has worked with over 1,500 top leaders as they maximized their performance, accelerated their careers and made smooth transitions from one role to another. Daniel Mueller lives in Austin, Texas and is happily married to Patty.