Nine Attributes of Problem Solvers

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Problem solvers are hard to find. In a market where scarcity commands top pay and recognition, problem solvers are in very high demand. Problem solvers share a number of attributes. Nine of them are listed later in this article.

Problem identifiers, while valuable, are much easier to find. And not nearly as valuable or effective.

To illustrate my point:

I was engaged with a team of top managers on identifying the critical problems that needed to be addressed to pull their business out of a slump. The first step in the process was to define the problems - in concrete specific terms. The team was active, aggressive, focused and came up with quite a list of problems.

The next step was to prioritize the problems. The top 5 priorities were agreed to quickly - the remainder took quite some time.

But as soon as they were tasked with coming up with solutions, the dynamic changed. The team members were reluctant to deal with the solutions part of the process. It wasn't a question of ability - these were highly experienced, knowledgeable people who knew their business - that was evident in the problem identification phase. What they as a group were unwilling to do was to offer solutions. Solutions meant ownership. And ownership meant engagement and accountability. And, as a group, they simply weren't willing to do that.

There was not a single person in that team that stepped forward to take leadership and be the problem solver - and it was a group of eight senior managers.

That happens a lot. Ask anyone in any organization to tell you what's wrong, what can be improved, and they can go on for hours. Then ask them for solutions and many of the same people who were so good at problem identification start looking for an escape from the conversation.

One of my first bosses had a cure for that behavior. He told me to never come to him with a problem without bringing a solution - or at least the basis for one. It's a good behavior to adopt and to stress to others. It really cut down on the amount of time my boss spent listening to issues without answers.

Problem identification is a good thing - but there is a very fine line between problem identification and complaining. I recall a TV ad where the CEO and his staff were celebrating the acquisition of a company. Everyone was in high spirits And then the IT person broke into the conversation. He said he would be faced with a whole new set of IT challenges - more server farms, more software requirements, more possible security problems, more data configuration issues, more system requirements. The rest of the group stopped celebrating - the CEO looked at the IT person - and said - "Is that a good thing, or is that a bad thing?"

The moral - Don't bring buzzkill to a celebration. The IT head knew what he was talking about, but expressing concern at that point was both inappropriate and prematurely negative. And it identified him as a negative person - perhaps unfairly, but that's what happens when problems are thrown on the table without solutions.

Here are key attributes of problem solvers - attributes that help them multiply their personal success by making key contributions to their organization's success. And doing it without being the buzzkill of the organization.

1 - They have the ability to define a problem in terms of its impact on the enterprise, and then to communicate that impact to the organization.

2 - They have the ability to prioritize and see the big picture. Some problems may be pressing, but in the context of resources, jeopardies and opportunities, they may have to take a back seat for some period of time.

3 - They have the ability to predict problems and prepare to respond to them, and the emotional maturity to wait to respond to them until they actually become an issue to the enterprise.

4 - They have a strong sense of urgency about dealing with issues, coupled with the belief that very few issues disappear or get better with age. They believe that success likes speed - controlled speed.

5 - They have the ability to maintain a high profile for the issue and be its advocate until it is successfully dealt with. Too often attention drains away after initial actions - before the issue is successfully dealt with.

6 - They are comfortable with a ready, fire, aim mindset. Very few problems are solved without modification of the initial solution. Most need action, then measurement, then amendment, then another cycle of action, measurement and modification.

7 - They possess strong collaborative skills. Very few high level problems respond well to the efforts of just one person, one department, one function. Cross functional efforts are critical - and the problem solver has to be doing the leading.

8 - They are willing to take risk. Not all problems end up being solved or fixed to the satisfaction of all involved. There is always the possibility that criticism and resistance may be the undoing of the solution - and the people associated with it.

9 - They know when to hold, and when to fold. At some point in every problem solving process, certain things just don't work as anticipated. Knowing when persistence is becoming a failure behavior - a "pushing on the rope" behavior, and having the courage and communication skills to change course, is a critical attribute.

Take a look at your own attributes, beliefs, skills and motivators. See where action can be taken to strengthen your own problem solving abilities. It's worth the effort - problem solvers are a rare and valuable breed for any organization. And that translates into increased rewards, security and opportunities.

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Andrew Cox has 1 articles online

Andy Cox is President of Cox Consulting Group LLC. The focus of his work is on helping organizations and their people increase their success in the hiring, developing and enhancing the performance of leaders and emerging leaders. Cox Consulting Group LLC was started in 1995, and has worked with a wide range of organizations, managers and leaders - helping them define success, achieve success and make the ability to change a competitive advantage. He can be reached at

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Nine Attributes of Problem Solvers

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This article was published on 2010/04/04