Building Future Fit Teams: Cultivating Complex Problem Solving
By Kerryn Kohl
The WEF has identified 10 skills that are critical for us to develop if we are to stay relevant and employable in the future. You will notice that the skills of the future are focused on the “Soft skills.”
Until now these skills have received little attention in the workplace; technical skills were mostly lauded as supreme. However, with the speed of technology advancements, the breakthroughs in AI and machine learning we are finding ourselves struggling to define what is going to keep us differentiated from the machines. For now we seem to be pinning our hopes of a future on skills such as ‘creativity’ ‘complex problem solving’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ to name a few. These ‘soft skills are what differentiates us, they enable the way we ‘show up’ in different situations. They are the power house of our discretionary energy. (Having said this, I am not sure if you have met ‘Sophia’ the humanoid developed by Hanson Robotics and recently granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. After watching her interview I am not sure for how long we will be able to sustain our ‘humanness.’)
Over my next 10 Columns I hope to take a deeper look at each of these skills. Understand what they mean and of course, with my learning hat on, provide some tips on how best to develop these within yourself and your team.
Firstly let’s begin with number 1 on the list, Complex Problem Solving:
This is listed by the WEF as the most important skill that we need to develop. The world is changing so quickly and we are impacted by so many global factors that we need to develop the mental flexibility of an Olympic gymnast just to keep up.
We all have the ability for problem solving, we solve problems every minute of the day. For example, which alternative route to take in the event of a traffic jam, what to have for lunch, or which of your products are most suited to your customer’s needs. But these are easy problems to solve as there are more knowns i.e. you know which alternative routes are available, you have a canteen menu to choose from, you have a limited number of products.
But, where the difficulty comes in, for Complex Problem Solving is in the ‘complexity’ of the amount of unknowns, when the unknowns are greater than the knowns. And this is the VUCA world we find ourselves in. To solve problems where there are a great number of unknowns requires that we engage in higher order thinking.
To help ourselves and our teams to be better at complex problem solving we have to go back to basics and focus on developing sound ‘Thinking’ skills.
“Thinking is a very specific subset of mental activity that involves working with mental representations, planning and executing behaviours, and the coordination of cognitive resources.” (The Psychology of Thinking: Reasoning, Decision-Making and Problem-Solving)
To solve complex problems we need sustained attention and focus (That means no multitasking as it distracts us making deep thinking near impossible) combined with the ability to recall learned information and apply this to our dynamic situation or environment. It doesn’t end there though. In addition we also need to build in reflective practice whereby we monitor the results of our chosen path of action and reflect on those outcomes with a view to doing it better next time.
If we want to teach ourselves and our teams to ‘Think,’ we have to create the opportunity for them to do so. Sounds simple, but difficult to execute, given that offices are built around collaboration, i.e. distraction, given that leadership is still largely centred on directing i.e. telling, and given that we do not feel we have the freedom to make mistakes, i.e. black spotting.
To reiterate problem solving is actually an innate skill, but one that can be taught and improved upon. As mentioned earlier we are actually really good at problem solving. Our challenge when it comes to solving complex problems is to inhibit our ability to make judgement calls around what is largely unknown. It is this judgemental ability, or our ability to ‘fill in the blanks’ that most often leads us to make less right assumptions thereby increasing our potential for mistakes and the implementation of not so great solutions. We still by default think linearly but when it comes to solving complex problems we need to start thinking systemically.
This is where we as leaders play an important role, we need to provide the context the ‘systemic’ view, and not the solution. As leaders we need to equip our teams with methods and tools on how to solve problems. Teaching and instilling good methods of problem analysis and structured problem solving approaches. This in itself is not difficult task, but it requires two precious resources from Leader’s: time and focus. Complex problem solving is a skill that needs to be practiced until it becomes interwoven into your teams DNA.
So how do we do this?
To engage in complex problem solving, firstly we need our people to understand how important it is to be able to problem solve and secondly we need them to understand the basics around the psychology of thinking and reasoning.
We need our teams to know that problem solving is innate, and that what are actually focusing on is teaching them to increase their solution success rate, the success with which their solution is able to address the specific challenge they are presented with. It is increasing the success component that is benefited from using a more structured approach.
In addition we need to spend time teaching the different methods and approaches that could be used to solve for complex problems. Yes this is rather rote, as here we need to delve into the theory and practice, which then supports understanding. To get the ball rolling on this front check out this course on Coursera: Solving Complex Problems
A simple Google search will also turn up many additional methods that you could adopt. However through my own research into this I have observed that many of the approaches to problem solving involve the same set of basics.
First: Understanding the problem, which could also involve doing some type of root cause analysis i.e. understanding why the problem exists in the first place.
Second: Taking into consideration the broader landscape in which the challenge exists. As a leader this is your time to shine. Your view of the system and the intricacies within this system are most likely better formed. My only caveat here is make sure you are presenting an ‘informed’ view and not one based simply on your own assumptions.
Third: Brainstorm as many possible solutions you can come up with. Learn to look beyond the obvious and take the time to look at the possible consequences of each solution to the system as a whole. Fourth: Devise a plan of action based on the most plausible solution considered in the preceding step. Put this plan into play and monitor it with the eyes of an eagle!
Finally: Review the progress and outcomes using a reflective learning process. I.e. Retrospect.
The third and most critical component when developing the ability to engage in complex problem solving, is that your team is given an opportunity to practice their skills. That means you need to put as many complex challenges into the environment as possible. One way to do this could be to have a weekly Problem solving challenge, followed it up with a retrospective in which they have an opportunity to discuss and reflect on the process they adopted, how they arrived at their solution, and examine the outcomes if it was put into motion or simply just to theorise about intended implications of implementation.
This opportunity to practice is often what we don’t allow for. As Leaders we often take the problem solving component out of work, we solve too much for our teams. As leaders in this new age we need to realise that one core ability we need to foster, is to just get out of the way. Provide the play ground and let people ‘play.’