The Boardroom Series is back. In December, we invited you to share what topics you would like us to cover in this year’s Boardroom Series. We have taken on board your requests and are pleased to bring you the first article of 2023 on the topic of positive problem-solving.
The potential benefit of reframing problems or challenges as opportunities is not a new concept. Our research has shown that while most leaders advocate this approach, and many practice this principle in their own lives, very few know how to cultivate this mindset in others. In today’s Boardroom Series article, I am going to help you address this by sharing a few practical tips from our positive problem-solving course.
Drawing on the neuroscience of solution-focused thinking, I will explain why traditional approaches to problem-solving are failing us and share three simple steps that will transform the way you approach conversations about challenges. These practical tips are the foundational habits of more high-impact thinking, enabling you to transform any challenge into a catalyst for growth, inspiring engagement in new ideas from colleagues, and accelerating success in your organisation.
The problem with problem-solving
You may have heard about the idea of the negativity bias. This describes the human brain’s predisposition to be more attuned to problems and risks, than it is to new opportunities and possibilities. While, in evolutionary terms this has great benefits, in modern problem-solving terms it is not so helpful. The reason is that once the brain has identified a problem or risk, it becomes more alert to seeing other obstacles, barriers, and potential problems. As it does so, it tunes out from seeing possibilities and solutions, almost becoming blind to them. This opportunity blindness is not only true on a psychological level, research shared by Richard Boyatzis, in his book ‘helping people change’, has shown that our peripheral vision is also impacted when focusing on challenges, reducing by up to 30%. We literally become tunnel visioned and unable to see the possibilities around us!
What this means in problem-solving terms is that when we focus on ‘solving problems’, our brains immediately become aware of other problems and obstacles to finding solutions, rather than being alert and open to opportunities. In organisations and teams, this is often demotivating, inhibiting creativity and innovation, and instead inspiring unwavering pessimism and resistance to change.
While researchers and neuroscientists have known this for years, in business, this knowledge is often unknown or overlooked. Most businesses continue to implement traditional approaches to problem-solving techniques which strive to “fix problems” thus creating more problems and preventing them tap into potential possibilities.
So, what is Positive problem-solving?
Positive problem-solving draws on this science and taps into the fact that people are more engaged, creative, and collaborative when they are working towards a vision of something they aspire to, compared to when they are escaping something they fear. If, when addressing problems, we ask “what would we like to see happening?”, rather than asking “how can we fix this?”, we inspire visions of hope. In turn, this helps people to think more deeply and creatively so they can unlock new and unexpected solutions, it inspires engagement and commitment to those ideas, reduces stress in the process, and leads to greater fulfilment in the long run.
Unlocking potential with three principles
Positive problem-solving is built on three core principles, which can be applied to 1:1 colleague conversations, client interactions, meetings and brainstorms, as well as used when working alone. If you can start by implementing these principles in your daily life, I have seen that these changes can be transformational, in a very short space of time.
1. The Anticipatory Principle
Humans are innately driven to grow and strive towards things that they see as desirable. This is known as the heliotropic effect. If we can offer an exciting, positive vision of the future, individuals and groups will strive and work towards that image with more vitality, commitment and resilience.
2. The Simultaneity Principle
The way we ask questions impacts the way the brain seeks information and answers. When we ask positive questions, like “what would excellence look like”, rather than problem-focused questions, like “how can we fix this?”, the brain seeks solutions more effectively, leading to unexpected ideas and new pathways to success.
3. The Poetic Principle
Where the attention goes, the energy flows. When we focus on what’s going well and how can we recreate this, rather than prioritising what’s wrong and trying to fix it, we expand the thought repertoire of the brain. This means we have more creative ideas as well as being more open-minded, so we trust those around us and are inclined to collaborate too.
Three practical steps to implement these principles and inspire success
Now we know the principles, I want to introduce three simple ways to start integrating these into everyday conversations and meeting practices so that every interaction generates inspiring opportunities.
1. Ask better questions
Rather than focusing on problems to “solve”, start asking “what would we like to see”, inviting your team members to envisage a desirable destination that they want to create. As you do this, it will be tempting for you and your colleagues to start introducing practical parameters quite quickly. Try to resist this temptation, allowing them to dream ‘big’, as this will activate more engagement, creativity, and excitement, which will accelerate the rate of new ideas that come to light. You can introduce practical thinking later on. We love asking teams to finish the sentence “wouldn’t it be amazing if…..” – How would you finish that sentence?
2. Spot success, and build on it
Invest time in drawing attention to best practices and inspiring examples of where success has been achieved. Decades of research have shown that this simple habit is a powerful way to incite enthusiasm and sustained motivation, in both individuals and teams, supporting them to recognise what is possible and strive to achieve it. You can do this yourself, spotting and celebrating success, and invite team members to do the same, sharing their own stories and examples of excellence. As they articulate their experiences and memories, they will connect more deeply with that vision of success, fuelling their inner drive to realise it for themselves. Start today by asking yourself and your team today, when have we been at our best?
3. Celebrate and invite criticism
Not everyone will always welcome new ideas. In fact, on the contrary, it is inevitable that some people won’t. Lean into this, inviting critical analysis, welcoming other viewpoints, and encouraging people to share their views and objections. Doing so ensures that resistance is discussed, potential obstacles to success are addressed early, and resolved so you can then accelerate on the path to realising your vision with confidence, vigour, and, perhaps most importantly, the support of those around you. Try this at your next meeting by asking, “if you were going to offer one criticism of this, what would it be?”
A final thought
In this article, I have introduced you to three of the core principles of positive problem-solving and shared three things you can do to inspire your colleagues to be more open to new perspectives and support them to identify solutions to even the hardest problems. These skills will not only unlock potential in your teams, but they will also reduce stress and make the process of problem-solving more fun.
What underpins the success of these principles and skills, is having a foundation of psychological safety and trust. Without this, even the most positive questions may be misinterpreted, the most genuine compliments will be deflected, and valuable critiques will never be raised.
We are going to share more about how to build psychological safety in next month’s boardroom series article. If you want to be notified of when that is released, please follow Charlotte Wiseman Leadership & Wellbe or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, please share your thoughts below and let us know how you get on as you put the power of positive problem-solving into action.