There are few practices as widespread, and as crucial to business success, as problem-solving. It's arguably one of the top soft skills that every role within any organization must possess. But, although powerful, this term can also be extremely vague.

Aside from hiring people who claim to be excellent "problem solvers" on their resumes (after all, who can really prove that?), what can business leaders do to develop teams that can work through any issue that presents itself, both collaboratively and effectively? Luckily, there are some proven tactics that can get your team thinking in a more solutions-oriented way and working with one another to overcome obstacles.

Develop cognitive diversity

At the root of adept problem-solving is the presence of multiple perspectives. This is only starting to become a popular philosophy, but just think about it: If you have a group made up of all rule-breakers or all individuals who are highly risk-averse, you're stuck with a group of people who will approach the problem in almost entirely the same way. Too many like-minded people, even when rallied around the same cause, will end up providing redundant and stagnant ideas.

So the first solution for a strong team of problem solvers is cognitive diversity. Research shows high levels of cognitive diversity perform best when presented with a problem that must be solved. It's been shown time and again that putting people with different personality types, strengths, knowledge banks, and leadership styles together to work through an issue results in better collaboration, problem identification, discipline, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation.

Your first step as a business leader is to consider your team and think about how cognitively diverse it is. It's common to look for characteristics in people we can identify with and who share our way of thinking, but this can often thwart what will make your team great.

Ensure psychological safety

Although cognitive diversity is extremely powerful, there is one thing that can completely nullify its benefits: fear of negative social repercussions. No matter how many diverse people and perspectives you bring to the proverbial table, you'll never gain insight into their ideas if they're worried about being punished or mocked for speaking out.

This is why psychological safety is just as important as cognitive diversity. The best way to create an environment in which everyone feels safe to contribute ideas, ask questions, fail, succeed, and grow is by inviting curiosity and a "we" mentality among the group. If someone offers an idea, the entire team should feel responsible for the outcome--whether it worked well or completely fell flat.

When a culture of psychological safety exists, people are not singled out or made to feel ashamed for expressing themselves. And it starts with the leadership.

You have to set the example by allowing yourself to be vulnerable, share your thoughts, and own up to mistakes so others feel free to do the same. Reward the team for experimenting, asserting their own ideas, and encouraging one another to go outside their comfort zones in the name of collaboration and problem-solving.

Cut out complexity

Teams that excel in problem-solving are also often those that work peer-to-peer and don't get muddled in--or constrained by--hierarchical structure. In The Founder's Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of GrowthChris Zook dedicates a chapter to the issue of "stallout," which he says approximately two-thirds of companies face at some point. This problem is essentially the point at which companies reach an impasse and stop growing due to a lack of new ideas and disorganized structures.

Zook specifically mentions a point in Home Depot's journey in which CEO Frank Blake brought back "the founders' mentality." Blake rejuvenated Home Depot by speaking with employees and getting their feedback, as well as by emphasizing core values and customer experience. One of the keys he attributes to Blake's success, however, was that he committed himself to make the processes and mission of the company less complex and more clear.

In developing your team's ability to problem-solve and move through obstacles quickly and effectively, look for opportunities to eliminate bloated processes that aren't serving you. Then look for areas in your business that are being stalled by excess staff or reporting requirements.

One by one, start to tighten things up. Getting leaner won't just help you widen your profit margins, it will also help you sharpen your focus and attack problems with renewed vigor and clarity.

Every business will encounter problems, but the mark of a really successful brand is how swiftly and adeptly teams can work together to create solutions. Building a team like this takes time, but it starts with zeroing in on cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and getting lean.

Published on: Apr 26, 2018