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The World Economic Forum listed Complex Problem Solving as the top workforce skill for both 2015 and 2020, and for good reason. With continuous advances in technology that allow for greater global competition, wider networks, and an ever growing list of stakeholders, doing business in any industry, for profit or not for profit, is more complex than ever. All that complexity means that most challenges are too big and complicated to be solved by one person. As a result, our leaders must be equipped with the knowledge of how to bring people together to solve problems large and small.
We must approach problem solving the same way we, in the Credit Union industry, approach most everything: from a collaborative point of view. Complex problem solving is much more about bringing together a team to collaborate and find solutions than about the IQ of any individual leader.
So, as leaders, how do we do that? Here are a three ideas…
#1. The leader’s highest priority is not coming up with a solution – it’s creating trust between members of the team.
As leaders, instead of thinking that it’s our job to solve the problem, we must think of ourselves as facilitators that can pull the right people together and encourage communication that allows the best solution to emerge. In order to do this, working relationships of everyone involved must be built on a solid foundation of trust. This includes making agendas transparent, acting with personal integrity and expecting others to do the same, setting clear expectations, and being the architect that builds bridges between diverse members of the team.
#2. Mark short-term wins along the way to the bigger solution.
Solving complex problems can be a long process, requiring a deep investment of time and effort from everyone involved. In order to create and sustain momentum, it’s important to highlight small milestones along the way. All of us have a tendency to loose interest in projects that we don’t feel personally invested in. To hold a team together and keep them moving forward, it’s important to make sure each member feels that there is a personal benefit to their collaboration. Celebrate progress, be generous with praise, and look for opportunities to facilitate individual professional development along the way. A true win-win situation includes the solution to the problem at hand, of course. But it also involves each team member coming away from the situation having moved further towards their own professional development goals.
#3. Distribute the power.
Leading a team towards the solution to a complex problem requires leaders to understand what role they must fill in different situations. Sometimes, the most appropriate thing to do might be to step forward with a directive. At other times, it might be to step back and let others lead. It’s important to establish a collaborative framework that is more or less free of “traditional” hierarchy. This doesn’t mean that no one is in charge – it just means that team members have the opportunity to step forward and lead the group when the group most needs to rely on their particular area of expertise. This requires the leader to leave their ego at the door and be self-aware enough to understand when to exercise authority and when to hand it off.
Humor writer and lecturer Josh Billings once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Like most things in life, leading a team through complex problem solving requires a strong dose of humility. We must learn how to set aside a lot of what we think we know – about the problem, the people on our team, and what we think the solution might be – in order to allow creative solutions to emerge. This requires a great deal of humility. It also promises the prospect of a much greater reward.