Most days, real estate agents storm into Ron Shuffield's office with problems. They might have a closing that's about to blow apart or a commission in dispute. They lay out all the obstacles and argue that there is no possible resolution.
"I tell them to stop, listen a little longer, learn all the pieces and focus on a solution," said Shuffield, CEO of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell Realtors.
With the recession and cutbacks, it has become easy to be a workplace whiner or someone who points out roadblocks. What's more difficult is being the person who calmly puts on his or her problem-solving cap and bring ideas and solutions.
"Companies are dying to have people play these roles," said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive, a Massachusetts crowd-sourcing company that helps businesses identify problems and connects them to solvers all over the world.
Being viewed as a problem solver can put a career on the fast track and can even lead to better work-life balance. Problem-solving ability ranks high as a desirable trait for job candidates, and it should become even more in demand from all level of employees. "It's a key skill workers of the future will need to tackle the technology and global changes that lie ahead," said Sayed Sadjady, talent management and organizational design leader with PwC's advisory practice in New York City.
With a little effort and some know-how, you can become a problem solver.
Define the problem. Before jumping in with a quick and easy solution, become better at asking the right questions so that you tackle the right problems, Spradlin said. Recently, a manufacturer hired Spradlin's InnoCentive to help find the right lubricant that would work for its machinery. But by asking questions, he learned that rather than finding a new lubricant, the company actually needed a new way to make its product. "It takes asking lots of question and brutal introspection to understand what the real problem is and why it hasn't been resolved," Spradlin said. "A better-defined problem is already closer to a solution."
Think bigger. Craig Robins, a Miami real estate developer, has built projects that have been on the forefront of neighborhood turnarounds. As a pioneer in redevelopment, Robins has encountered all kinds of difficult situations. But he has become a problem solver by "getting out of the box and not being consumed by conventional thinking or process." Robins now has an ambitious plan to turn Miami's urban Design District into a super-high-end retail destination. He has partnered with a Paris investment fund that owns high-end brands to make it happen.
"Usually, innovative solutions involve collaboration," Robins said. Most important, though: "It takes looking at things differently and perseverance to come up with a solution that's better than what's currently contemplated."
Examine a failure. When faced with a challenge, be the person who does his or her homework. Learn the history of problem-solving efforts and what went wrong with already-attempted solutions. Shuffield encourages real estate agents to come to the negotiating table prepared for possible problems to crop up and with research on previous solutions that have been successful. By doing that, he said, you can enter a situation with a problem-solving mind-set. "You are prepared to take charge of the situation. People want to do business with you."
Practice makes perfect. Get into the habit of always bringing at least one solution idea for every problem you identify. Experts say a problem solver practices this skill on and off the clock. It often starts with deconstructing the challenge, creating a road map of the steps needed to get the desired result and brainstorming for ways to remove each roadblock. Lisa Palley, publicist for the Miami Book Fair International, says she was taught problem-solving at a young age and practices it regularly as she tries to arrange media interviews for overscheduled book authors: "I was taught not to get hysterical or respond immediately, but to step back, deconstruct the problem, spend time with it and the answer will come to me."
Use your subconscious. C. James Jensen, author of Beyond the Power of Your Subconscious Mind, said people become problem solvers when they learn to walk away from a difficult situation rather than "worry a problem to death." Rather than getting frustrated and giving up, "tell yourself, 'I can solve the problem; I just need time away from it,' " Jensen said. Then, get your conscious mind busy elsewhere with leisure and relaxation. Almost always, he says, a solution will come to you.
Resist starting from scratch. Sadjady of PwC says technology and the Web make it easier to research, connect with others, and learn what solutions others are using to tackle similar problems. Then creatively apply it to your situation or build on it. "It's going to become more important to find interesting solutions without reinventing the wheel," Sadjady said. "There's a lot of knowledge out there beyond your organization's borders."
Consider a team approach. In big, global companies, expect to see more reliance on team-based problem solving to stay innovative. "A lot of issues in business need to be addressed and managed by groups," Sadjady said. In those scenarios, a problem solver also has to be a good collaborator and willing to share the risks and rewards, he says.
Going forward, Spradlin suggests we will see even more job descriptions entirely focused on problem solving with titles such as strategists, innovators and special project team leaders. But he asserts anyone can learn to adopt a problem-solving mind-set: "It takes an individual that says, 'Here is the problem. We have options. Let me run with them and create a path forward.' All that takes is courage, clear thinking and relationship-management skills."