I believe that one of the key critical skills of anyone in a management role is the ability to be able to solve problems, despite my loving the fact that Albert Einstein said “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them”.

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner; via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner; via Wikimedia Commons

In this context, and assuming that genius is generally a rare commodity at any time and at any level in management, it is important that we start off by defining what is a problem.

Too many managers have a limited view of a problem, believing that it is either an issue that a subordinate brings to his superior for resolution or an obvious “fix-it” situation. These are important and should not be discarded, as in the words of Colin Powell

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

I feel that problems cover a wider area of definition than those that come to you from subordinates for resolution, and that in the same way that a question will generally have more than one answer, a problem will have more than one correct solution, and that not all problems are the same.

Here are a few categories that I see:

1. A problem can be an opportunity for improvement. It can be a situation of “opportunity knocking” or a fortunate stroke of good luck. I was very fortunate early in my career, when at the age of 25 my boss at the time, who was the 45 year old senior analyst at our company (when I was senior programmer), was told by the IT manager, who was being promoted to company controller, that he would be his replacement. The issue was that my boss did not want the job, creating an immediate succession problem, so he recommended me for the role instead. Luckily, I had been doing a part-time Business Administration course at the local university, and the company senior management decided that this was an indication that I was someone who was serious about a management career. I was immediately sent off to the US headquarters to join a three month management programme that the company ran annually in conjunction with one of the US universities. I came back to NZ as the new IT Manager, but one who had at least been somewhat prepared for the role. For me it was a major stroke of luck and the start of my management career for the next 40 years. I was very lucky that this opportunity came to me so early in my life, but rather than waiting for a good stroke of fate to put an opportunity like this at your feet, I have found that successful people tend to seek out problems to solve, rather than just wait for them to be presented.

2. A problem can be the difference between the current state and a goal, which can result from situations like a new way of thinking, a change in market conditions such as the way that countries like China and India have exploded onto the world stage, or a new innovation from a competitor. When you can define where you are today and where you want to be, the problem is then to define the steps of how you will get there, usually and most importantly for success, from a myriad of possibilities. I was working for Digital in the late 1970s when it announced the 32 bit Vax minicomputer and VMS operating system. This was a terrible blow to arch competitor Data General who were still trying to sell 16 bit technology. DG founder Edson de Castro knew that he had only a short amount of market tolerance to be able to come up with a credible competitive solution. Their ability to achieve this is well documented in an interesting and readable book written by Tracy Kidder in 1981 called “The soul of a new machine”, which documents how a DG engineering team worked under immense pressure and mind-boggling speed to be able launch their 32 bit Eclipse minicomputer in answer to Digital in 1980. Knowing where you are and where you need to be and then marshalling the resources and plans to get there is a critical skill of good managers.

Author: Emiliano Russo; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Emiliano Russo; via Wikimedia Commons

3. A problem can be the recognition of a present imperfection and the possibility of a better future in its resolution. This recognition is a wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself as a manager, whether to become personally better at some required future skill yourself or to prepare your team to be able to better handle situations that exist today or are looming as challenges for the future. This ability to “build the future” is a critical skill for successful management and why I continually stress the fact that “learning is a journey not a destination”, and that we never reach a state of perfection, but that our abilities to recognise “imperfections” and address them is key to our success.

Only once we have understood and defined fully the problem(s) that we face, can we then put in place plans to address them. I find that too many managers find it significantly easier to attack the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause of the problem itself. For example, it is much easier to try and solve a lack of skills in a team by rushing towards external recruiting, rather than looking at why the current team that is in place (and which presumably was successful for quite some time in the past) has not advanced significantly enough over time, in its skills and knowledge, to be able to now address current needs. External recruiting will then only be a short term fix, as the same lack of focus on people development and preparation will once again create a lack of capability in the team in the future. This will once again necessitate the need for external recruitment, and so the pattern of solving the symptom rather than the problem will keep recurring, with the same solution being applied by a manager who believes that he is doing the right thing.

Good managers are good problem seekers, good problem definers and good problem solvers.

Anyway, for those in management, James A. Lovell (former NASA astronaut and commander of the Apollo 13 mission) got it right when he said

“Be thankful for problems. If they were less difficult, someone with less ability might have your job.”

Author: NASA; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: NASA; via Wikimedia Commons



  1. cnxtim2012 says:

    I would like to add that the person on your team who identifies a problem should also be pre-disposed and encouraged to offer their solution.

    • leshayman says:

      Tim, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the person in the team who identifies the problem also comes with the solution … perfect state. The challenge is when they don’t recognise that there is a problem. Les

  2. cnxtim2012 says:

    And (slightly modified) from Albert E;
    Do not worry about your problems in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater

  3. Hi Les

    Thank you very much for your very thoughtful article.
    One thing that came up reading it: You are using Leader and Manager as synonyms. I think, they are not. And that’s a big part of the problem overburdening executives with expectations …


    • leshayman says:

      Hermann, I don’t believe they should be separated any longer, as those with people responsibilities need to be able to act in both capacities depending on circumstances, and can no longer be just one. I believe that separating them is for academics rather than business realists. A good leader needs to also be a good manager and vice versa. Les

  4. cnxtim2012 says:

    Hi Les,
    Ahh no, actually i wasn’t seeking managerial nirvana, my point was that when someone on your team brings you a problem, they are strongly encouraged (damn well better have) thought about the solution…

  5. Jeanne says:

    We want to encourage folks to look around, notice and report any potential problems or opportunities to make improvements. We also want to encourage folks to think about solutions and to feel free to suggest ideas that might just address these issues. If we put pressure on anyone who reports an issue to also be the one to provide a solution, then we may discourage folks from reporting issues. If we separate the two tasks, and encourage staff who may not have noticed or reported an issue, to actively participate in designing corrective and/or preventative actions, then we may make it possible for all concerned to actively participate, learn and grow as a team.

    • leshayman says:

      Jeanne, well put.
      The culture needs to be one of problem definition and resolution as a team rather than necessarily an individual responsibility.
      Some people will be stronger in one part than the other and while it would be wonderful to be skilled in both, this will depend on the actual problem area which will suit some but not others.

    • cnxtim2012 says:

      Actually, i don’t want, think, feel, encourage – I DEMAND that of my team, The rest can go work for one of my competitors…

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