Helping you Make Better Decisions

Tag: Leadership

A man contemplating problem solving and decision making as looks forward.

Problem Solving and Decision Making – Two Essential Skills of a Good Leader

Problem solving and decision making are two fascinating skillsets. We call them out as two separate skills – and they are – but they also make use of the same core attributes.

They feed on a need to communicate well, both through questioning and listening, and be patient and not rushing both processes through. Thus, the greatest challenge any leader faces when it comes to solving problems and decision making is when the pressure of time comes into play. But as Robert Schuller highlights in his quote, allowing problem-solving to become the decision means you’ll never break free from the problem.

“Never bring the problem-solving stage into the decision-making stage. Otherwise, you surrender yourself to the problem rather than the solution.”

Robert H. Schuller

So how does a leader avoid this trap? How do they ensure the problem solving doesn’t become the be-all and end-all?


The 7 steps of Effective Problem Solving and Decision Making

A vital hurdle every leader must overcome is to avoid the impulsive urge to make quick decisions. Often when confronted with a problem, leaders or managers fall back in past behaviours. Urgency creates pressure to act quickly as a result, the problem still exists, just side-lined until it rears its ugly head again.

Good problem solving opens opportunity. A notable example of this is the first principles thinking executed by the likes of Elon Musk and others. Understanding the fundamentals blocks of a process and the problem it’s creating can lead to not just the problem but accelerate beyond it.

So, to avoid the trap, and use problem solving and decision making effectively, you should embody yourself with the following seven steps.

1.      What is the problem?

Often, especially in time-critical situations, people don’t define the problem. Some label themselves as fire-fighters, just content with dowsing out the flames. It is a reactionary behaviour and one commonplace with under-trained leaders. As great as some fire-fighters are, they can only put out so many fires at one time, often becoming a little industry.

The better approach is to define the problem, and this means asking the following questions:

  1. What is happening? (What makes you think there is a problem?)
  2. Where is it taking place?
  3. How is it happening?
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?
  6. With whom is it happening? (This isn’t a blame game…all you want to do is isolate the problem to a granular level.)
  7. Define what you understand to be the problem in writing by using as few sentences as possible. (Look at the answers to your what, where, why, when, and how questions.)

2.      What are the potential causes?

Having defined the problem it is now time to find out what might be causing the problem. Your leadership skills: your communication skills need to be strong, as you look to gather input from your team and those involved in the problem.

Key points:

  • Talk to those involved individually. Groupthink is a common cause of blindness to the problem, especially if there is blame culture within the business.
  • Document what you’ve heard and what you think is the root cause is.
  • Be inquisitive. You don’t know what you don’t know, so get the input of others and open yourself up to the feedback you’ll need to solve this problem.

3.      What other ways can you overcome the problem?

 Sometimes, getting to the root cause can take time. Of course, you can’t ignore it, but it is important to produce a plan to temporarily fix the problem. In business, a problem will be costing the business money, whether it be sales or profit. So, a temporary fix allows the business to move forward, providing it neutralises the downside of the original problem.

4.      How will you resolve the problem?

At this stage, you still don’t know what the actual problem is. All you have is a definition of the problem which is a diagnosis of the issue. You will have the team’s input, as well as your opinions as to what the next steps should be.

If you don’t, then at this stage you should think about reassessing the problem. One way forward could be to become more granular and adopt a first-principles approach.

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
    • What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  2. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
    • How do the parts fit together?
    • What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
    • Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  3. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

Solve hard problems with inversion

Another way is to invert the problem using the following technique:

1. Understand the problem

Every solution starts with developing a clear understanding of what the problem is. In this instance, some clarity of the issue is vital.

2. Ask the opposite question

Convention wisdom means we see the world logically. But what if you turned the logical outcome on its head. Asking the opposite questions brings an unfamiliar perspective.

3. Answer the opposite question

It seems a simple logic, but you can’t just ask the opposite question and not answer it. You must think through the dynamics that come from asking the question. You’re looking for alternative viewpoints and thoughts you’ve not had before.

4. Join your answers up with your original problem

This is where solutions are born. You’re taking your conventional wisdom and aligning it with the opposite perspective. So often the blockers seen in the original problem become part of the solution.

5.      Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily

You now know the problem. You understand the fix, and you are a position to assess the risks involved.

Assessing the risks means considering the worst-case scenarios and ensuring you avoid them. Your plan should take into the following points:

  • Is there any downtime to implementing the solution? If so, how long, and how much will it cost? Do you have backup systems in place to minimise the impact?
  • If the risk is too great, consider a temporary fix which keeps current operations in place and gives you time to further prepare for a permanent fix.
  • Document the plan and share it with all the relevant stakeholders. Communication is key.

Here we see the two skills of problem solving and decision making coming together. The two skills are vital to managing business risks as well as solving the problem.

6.      Monitor and measure the plan

Having evolved through the five steps to this stage, you mustn’t take your eye off the ball as it were.

  • Define timelines and assess progress
  • Report to the stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aware of progress or any delays.
  • If the plan doesn’t deliver, ask why? Learn from failure.

7.      Have you fixed the problem?

Don’t forget the problem you started with. Have you fixed it? You might find it wasn’t a problem at all. You will have learnt a lot about the part of the business where the problem occurred, and improvements will have taken place.

Use the opportunity to assess what worked, what didn’t, and what would have helped. These are three good questions to give you some perspective on the process you’ve undertaken.



Problem solving and decision making in unison

Throughout the process of problem solving, you’re making decisions. Right from the beginning when the problem first becomes clear, you have a choice to either react – firefight or to investigate. This progresses as move onto risk assessing the problem and then defining the solutions to overcome the issue.

Throughout the process, the critical element is to make decisions with the correct information to hand. Finding out the facts, as well as defeating your assumptions are all part of the process of making the right decision.


Problem solving and decision making – a process 

Problem solving isn’t easy. It becomes even more challenging when you have decisions to make. The seven steps I’ve outlined will give you the ability to investigate and diagnose the problem correctly.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the potential causes?
  3. What other ways can you overcome the problem?
  4. How will you resolve the problem?
  5. Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily.
  6. Monitor and measure the plan.
  7. Have you fixed the problem?

Of course, this logical step by step process might not enable you to diagnose the issue at hand. Some problems can be extremely hard, and an alternative approach might help. In this instance, first principles thinking or using the power of inversion are excellent ways to dig into hard problems. Problem solving and decision making are two skills every good leader needs. Using them together is an effective way to work.


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Inspiration through empowerment brings the best out of people, and makes them smile

Inspiration Should Be More Than Words. It Should Be Empowering Too

Inspiration is the process of uplifting others. The common belief behind the act of inspiring someone is the words you use. As I was to see, it only works if you empower others through your words too.


The first day is always the worst. If you could ask Dr Miranda Bailey she would agree whole-heartedly. Her glum expression reflecting the hollowness she now feels. Gone is the high of starting her first day as chief of surgery at Grey Sloane Memorial Hospital.

Stood on the open passageway where the two sides of the atrium become one, Bailey has a choice of views. To the south, the red and white stripes hang against the giant flagpole, fluttering gently in the breeze as the Seattle skyline sits poised in the background. In the other direction is the centre of the atrium, the reception area where patients, visitors, doctors, and nurses go about their day.

Instead of absorbing the atmosphere, Bailey sulks, crest-fallen at what has become a horrible day. Despite her fierce reputation, ‘The Nazi’ is all a front. Introverted, but overtly confident, her vision hasn’t materialized. Instead, she has had to isolate one doctor, deal with squabbling surgeons and lovers, and feel scorn from an overworked Meredith.

In Bailey’s mind, Meredith is her Aide-de-Camp. The one who turns strategy into action, or in the case of a hospital, the unwell to the healed. But with no title, Meredith tackles the workload alone, and struggles to keep pace with the events of the day. Exasperated, her tone with the new chief is abrupt. Confused, Bailey’s questioning opens a pandora’s box of frustration from Meredith. 

Battered, humbled, and daunted by the sheer size of the challenge she faces, the views across the atrium offer Bailey a moment’s peace. Not only has she failed in setting out her vision, but she has also lost her colleagues.


Leadership lesson

The wallowing of self-pity escapes Bailey, as the moment of failure becomes framed in words. Her mentor, and earlier chief, Dr Webber is the sponge who soaks up Bailey’s sorrow. “I’ve failed. They hate me.” 

“If you want someone to run a four-minute mile, you don’t chase them. You don’t give them something to run from. You give them something to run to.”

He pauses, his fingers brushing the grey hairs which decorate his chin. His sageness now ready to try and guide his former student back to the right path. “If you want someone to run a four-minute mile, you don’t chase them. You don’t give them something to run from. You give them something to run to.”

His perceptiveness is a nudge to Bailey about the true skill of leadership.

It isn’t micro-managing; chasing and harassing others to get things done. It isn’t being fierce, or sharp in her tone. Leading is inspirational; inspiring her team to achieve goals and stretch them.

As Webber’s quote sinks in, Bailey goes in search of Meredith. An explanation for the overworked surgeon comes forth. “I wanted you to be me. Just as I was the engine to Webber, so I want you to be my engine.” What follows next is the switch Webber spoke about. “I want you to be my chief of general surgery”.

Now Bailey’s words to Meredith begin to turn the tide, the promotion a recognition Meredith can and will work with. Instead of feeling put upon, Meredith takes forth her title to lead and guide her team of general surgeons. Empowered rather than harassed, the change is emphatic.


Related Posts


Inspiration by empowerment

As the pandemic has done for many of us, box sets are now a pathway to relieve the monotony of isolation. Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s sixteen series have certainly broken up the festival of peace we’ve all experienced this year. Many of the episodes force a lesson upon us. Such is the way with exceptional stories, and this episode certainly prompted me to see how effective empowerment is. 

When I first think of inspiration, I think of General Maximus as he rides his horse back and forth along the frontline of soldiers in the opening scene to Gladiator. His steel sword reflecting the orange light of the fires that burn behind the lines. As he rides, so he issues a rallying cry to his troops. Inspired; so much so, the soldiers can see beyond the horror of war, and start marching towards the enemy.

Inspiration is so much more than leading from the front. It is more than battle cries, more than leading by example, although both are relevant. Inspiration is empowering others, allowing them to take responsibility. It lights up the pathway forward, which is what this excellent example highlights.

Yes, Bailey had delegated her work to Meredith, but she hadn’t empowered her to do it. Without the empowerment, Bailey faces a doctor bitter at the excessive workload, and worse, resentful of her new boss.

The inspiration comes from the empowerment. Now, Meredith is alive to the responsibility. No longer bristling, the promotion lifts the new chief of general surgery to do what Bailey needs. Inspiration should be empowering.


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A young man ponders; clearing his mind as he works at his desk

Clearing my Mind in the Information Age

Every Sunday morning, I get a notification from Apple about my screen time for the last seven days. Last week, I spent fourteen hours looking at social media; this fries my brain.

Context is everything of course; I’m in bed for eight hours (asleep for seven) and yet, twelve per cent of my time awake is gone, scrolling through an endless stream of tweets and posts. I spend another hour a day reading articles, webpages, and the news. This excludes the thirty minutes a day I spend with my Kindle, reading to try and learn even more.

Putting all that together is quite frankly frightening. I am, like so many others in the world, the epitome of the first part of the quote from E.O.Wilson. 

“We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

E.O.Wilson

I am drowning in information, and at the same time, starved of wisdom.

I’m my quest to improve my decision-making I’ve come to see that my mind is cluttered. Cluttered from the endless streams of noise, all because I become consumed by the endless scrolling on social media. I don’t save the information I’m exposed to; I read it, but I don’t record it. I just hope I might remember it.


I need a Second Brain 

Note-taking is something most people do. There is an unlimited choice of apps and tools to help capture your notes. I’m also a prolific bookmarker, saving endless articles on Pocket. I read, rarely pausing to make notes.

When I do make notes, I’ve become stuck, jumping from tool to tool. I used Evernote in its early days and then moved onto OneNote. From OneNote, I moved to Notion. I wanted more flexibility than I was getting from OneNote, but with Notion, I still felt restricted. I love the way the databases interlink and come together, but it was still too hierarchical and rigid for me.

Through Twitter, I’ve found Roam Research, and it has changed everything for me.


Changing how I Process Information

Nat Eliason introduced me to the power of roam and the concepts behind his use of it, written by Tiago Forte. A personal knowledge system is a phrase I’ve only just discovered.

I’ve understood the principles but never had heard it framed in such a way, let alone consider a tool that might do the job for me. Every day is a learning day, and I’m certainly learning – and doing it quickly. The hierarchal frameworks of PARA (Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives) are calling me. Awareness of projects and the cascading effects of goals and tasks are well known to me. But using them to manage information is new to me – and exciting.

Now, I’m wondering how I should manage the information I interact with. As time continues to decline on the time I have left on this planet, I’m also contemplating the criteria I use for reading – both books and articles.

Brandon Zhang shared with me his thoughts in Reading with Intention, which offers ideas around the process of choosing what to read.  Not only am I looking to apply this to my book reading efforts, but also to the articles I consume.

There is another consideration for me. What principles should form the foundations of my note taking?

  • Should I copy the article?
  • Make highlights?
  • Add my own context to draw out the relevance?

There are lots of thoughts to me consider here. Thankfully, I’m guided by those who already know better. The insights from Brandon Zhang, Tiago Forte and Nat Eliason have proved helpful. Progressive Summarization is one example of a new way for me to capture information and keep it within my second brain.


Decision Tree’s

Like most people, temporary feelings influence my decisions and I feel the need to apply a more disciplined approach. One that removes impulse and emotion from the process.

Decision Tree’s offer that capability.

It means I can map out a ‘if this, then that’ method which will help safeguard against some of the inferior decisions I’ve made in the past.

For some, this will appear cold and clinical. But that is how it must be. Simple decisions like what to keep for my second brain, and how to keep it, start to open the way for me to begin clearing my mind. I find it quite frightening how I have allowed the consumption of information to dominate my time – and my mind.

As Nassim Taleb says: 

Nassim Taleb Quote

Clearing my Mind

Decisions are battles of thought we must overcome. Some of us hesitate; dithering on the outcome of what might or might not happen. What would help is clearing my mind. A brain free of information and keeping only wisdom, which would certainly help.

This is the point that Nassim Taleb is making. Our minds are so cluttered, so clouded with information that the opinions we form become blighted. Stepping free of the blinkers shifts the mind to a different space. A space where it can think deeply. Where it can draw on the insights and knowledge held in our second brains.

It is this space I want to get too. To be able to make decisions free of emotion. To control the urges of my system one thinking and use the more logical – and thoughtful – system two. The two decision systems as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast, and Slow.

With this process in place, one day I might get to that utopia of a clear mind.


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In a world of irrational behaviour, Your Weekly Resolve will help you with making better decisions. Sign up here and every Tuesday, I’ll share valuable insights on the complex art of decision-making.

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