Strengthen the Problem-Solving Skills of Your Team

Group of professionals working together to solve a design problem on a wind turbine.

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Group problem-solving skills, like exercise and playing the piano, grow easier and more effective with ample practice. Unfortunately, most managers fail to recognize the need to develop the decision-making and problem-solving muscles of their teams, leaving money and performance on the table and potentially damaging their reputations.

And while we all know that listening to classical music or thinking about exercising won’t change a thing, neither will wishing your team was better at solving customer and organizational problems. It’s time to put your team to work on strengthening their problem-solving skills. 

Beware the Smoldering Garbage Can Culture

In too many workplaces, the prevailing culture suggests that most problems belong to someone else. In some of the cultures I’ve encountered, the resistance to stepping up and voluntarily solving a problem is both laughable and sad. 

I use an anecdote of a group of individuals in an office observing and talking about a smoldering garbage can in the corner to amplify the point. 

“Is that garbage can on fire?” asks the first worker.
“Not sure,” says the second worker. “It is smoking, though,” he adds.
“I wonder who owns fixing this,” offers a third employee.
“It’s not me,” said the first.
“I think this problem is beyond our pay grades,” said the second.
“Sure hope someone puts it out before it gets too big,” said the third.
“Well, it’s time to get back to work,” said the first.
Everyone nods and heads back to their cubicles. 

While it is unlikely—hopefully—any group would ignore a smoldering garbage can, the lack of initiative on display for solving even the easiest of problems in the workplace is frustrating for many managers. Unfortunately, these same frustrated managers are often key contributors to their team’s unwillingness to jump in and solve problems. 

Reasons Your Team Won’t Step Up to Problem-Solving

While you may expect your teams to step up to problem-solving, there could be reasons that it does not happen


If you are micromanaging your team, then you are defeating yourself and your workers. You’ve trained everyone to wait for your directions for even the simplest of tasks. Most micromanaging managers are unaware of their style and its adverse impact. Ask someone for some feedback on your management style to see if you fit the micromanager mold.

No Mistakes Allowed

Perhaps you can't stand mistakes. You encourage experimentation and then metaphorically bite people’s heads off if they make a mistake. Nothing stifles group initiative more effectively than contradictory behaviors from the boss. Review your actions on past projects where there were failures and evaluate if you kept your cool or blew your top.

No Team Development

You can't expect team efforts if you have not actively fostered a culture that encourages spontaneous team development and collaboration for problem-solving. In these environments, I often see managers who emphasize and respect the roles of the individuals and view group collaboration as less important. As a consequence, employees are both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with teaming together to tackle larger issues. 

The first two behaviors are indicators of the need for training and coaching. The third is readily solvable with the introduction of some simple but effective processes and approaches. 

Create Small Team Problem-Solving Victories

Jump-start group problem-solving by creating small victories. For teams unfamiliar with working together, select smaller initiatives that merit group consideration and ultimate consensus. Resist your temptation to offer the solution and instead, serve as a facilitator for group consideration of the issue. As the group gains experience collaborating, serve up some of the stickier and larger workplace challenges. Success breeds success. 

Get Out of the Way

Give the team autonomy for implementing their ideas. Nothing creates accountability like owning both the solution and the implementation of the solution. Your willingness to let a group carry a problem from identification to resolution reinforces your confidence and trust in their work. People and teams respond positively to trust from the boss. 

Teach Problem Framing

Teach your team how to frame issues. Framing is a powerful technique for looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Teach your teams to frame issues from multiple perspectives—positive, negative or neutral—and then encourage them to develop unique solutions for each frame. 

For example, a product team might look at a competitor’s announcement of a new offering as a threat in the marketplace. Another view might suggest that the competitor will now be singularly focused on bringing that product to market, leaving them vulnerable to a new offering from your firm with a different customer group.

Remove Yourself

Part of your success in strengthening your team’s problem-solving skills is to remove yourself as a critical part of the solution development process. Instead of holding court in team meetings and potentially biasing the group with your views, make certain everyone understands your willingness to support the team by working across functions and up the organizational ladder to secure budgets, talent, and other essential resources.

Encourage the team to draw upon your help in removing obstacles or securing needed resources.

Watch How You Respond

Never respond to failures or misfires with anger. While a group misfire on a big issue is frustrating and even anger-inducing, this is destructive behavior and must be avoided.

The proper response is to challenge the team to step back from the situation and analyze what worked and what did not work. Challenge them to describe how they will improve in the future and then move forward. Lingering on failure is toxic for the team environment. 

Set the Bar High

Set high expectations. While the above steps suggest a reduced or removed role for you as the manager, you get the final say on the recommendations of your team. If the team has failed to think through a complex issue or to consider all options as part of their solution development, it is reasonable for you to push back and challenge them to dig deeper.

A technique for teaching teams to think critically about a topic is through the use of proper questioning. Instead of criticizing an idea, ask questions that lead the group to understand that it is more complex or requires a different view than the one presented. Questions teach.

Outside Experts Help Teams

Encourage teams to draw on outside expertise. One of the classic traps of teams is groupthink—a process where the group focuses exclusively on their ideas and suppresses or rejects outside and differing views. This dangerous trap is easily avoided by ensuring the team draws in individuals who can objectively evaluate assumptions and approaches and provide candid feedback. 

Celebrate The Team

Celebrate often! The stress and pressures of the work are made bearable by the feelings of accomplishment and contribution. The opportunity to revel in accomplishments for a few moments in time offers a powerful reinforcement for the benefits of working together to solve problems. 

The Bottom Line

A famous team researcher, J. Richard Hackman, once suggested that greatness was possible with every team, but you shouldn’t count on it. His message was that teams perform best when clear structure, proper support, and defined processes are present and reinforced in a positive manner. The essence of group work is about problem-solving, and the formula for strengthening a team’s ability to do this is identical to the formula for excelling at music or exercise: proper instruction and ample practice with quality feedback. It’s time to help your team strengthen their problem-solving skills.