Five Practices to Enhance Your Problem-Solving Mindset

By March 20, 2013Millennial

Problem-Solving MindsetAs Steven Snyder points out in Leadership and the Art of Struggle, having a growth mindset is essential as we navigate through leadership challenges. It keeps us optimistic as well as wanting to learn more and enhance the way we do things.

Equally important is having a problem-solving mindset. There isn’t a day that goes by in which a problem doesn’t arise. Big or small, we encounter problems each and every day. We have a choice on what to do. We can:

  • Freeze
  • Ignore
  • Solve

Only the last one is a viable option. If we freeze in our tracks or ignore a problem, it just doesn’t evaporate. Worse, unsolved, we get stuck in the status quo or blame someone else for leaving it unsettled. Both of these wear down our growth mindset and impact our attitude in a very negative way.

Solving problems is what leaders do. It is what people do. We solve problems or, at least, it is what I am suggesting is a necessary life and work skill. Some are better at it than others, but it is a skill anyone can learn and enhance.

Highlighted below are five practices to enhance your problem solving mindset.

Practice 1: Recognize a problem. The first practice is awareness. Attentiveness may be stronger way to look at it. We need to wake-up to the fact a problem exists!

It is easier to recognize a problem when it is someone else’s. When it is ours, it is more challenging to see at times.

Here are some clues:

  • You keep having the same conversation over and over again.
  • You talk and no real change happens.
  • You listen but all you hear are your own thoughts.
  • Frustration is growing in your teams and organization.
  • People leave or begin to check-out in effort.

There are market, culture, people, and many other clues that arise. We just need to slap ourselves to attention.

Practice 2: Turn the problem inside out. We need to know the details of the problem. A definition of it is a starting point and then we need to define it further. Key questions requiring answers include:

  • What caused the problem? Dig deep.
  • What are the dimensions of the problem? Go wide.
  • What happens if the problem remains unsolved? Go inside.

Understand the problem. Write it down to gain clarity. Ask why to determine the cause.

Practice 3: Turn it upside down. We just need to look at a problem from a different angle to gain a better, more accurate perspective.

We need to talk to others. It may be team members impacted by the problem. It may be customers. It may be mentors. It may be colleagues. It may be all of these groups.

We also may need to read market information. It may include looking at other industries, too, in how they handled similar situations. We need a well-rounded perspective.

We may need to just go for a walk.

Practice 4: Take it inside. At times, we may just need solitude. We need time to think. It may be meditation. It may be writing about it. It may be just having the time to consider the alternatives.

It is not staying wrapped in our own thoughts or taking on the problem alone. Solitude in mind does not equal solo in effort. Instead, we need the time to soak it in and get our thoughts in order. We need to center ourselves to work more effectively with the people required to solve the problem.

Practice 5: Solve it but don’t leave it. Once we have defined a solution and moved forward, we need to put the right metrics in place to ensure it is working as intended. We need to be flexible to adjust to what the trends are communicating.

Too often, we solve and leave the problem behind. We need to ensure it stays solved or, at least, we have the right solution in place.

Adopt a Problem-Solving Mindset

Part of a having a growth mindset is having a problem-solving one, too. It is how we grow. It is how we learn. It is how we lead to build better organizations and communities.

Problem-solving requires us to evaluate, involve, decide, and deliver. We must avoid stalemate, sidestepping a problem or letting one fester.

Our responsibility as a leaders, team members, and citizens is to adopt and enhance our problem-solving mindset.

How do you develop a problem-solving mindset?

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Dara Golderg says:

    Hi Jon – I love the steps you offered here. Thanks for the great advice. I also like to advise my clients (and anyone else who will listen) to ‘find the opportunity’ within the problem. Take the time (the step?) to reframe the problem as opportunity and, in so doing, release some mood-enhancing, mind-clearing serotonin in the brain, which paves the way for even better problem-solving. Take care, Dara

    • Jon Mertz says:


      Thank you for your feedback and perspective! Re-framing is an important step to take. When a problem arises, we tend to get stuck within its own frame, rather than taking the time to shift our thinking and view. By doing this, we can open a whole new way to solve. Thanks again for adding in your insight!


  • […] a problem-solving mindset. Leaders need to have and encourage a problem-solving approach. Workplace politics need to be prevented. Pettiness in discussions need to be put aside. Focus on […]

  • Greg Z Fainberg says:

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    for a FREE copy of my book titled “How to Solve (Just About) Any Problem: Timeless Practices for Solving Problems Better.


  • When it comes to problem-solving I turn to awareness, acceptance, and action.

    The first step is awareness. I recognize there’s a problem and determine the nature and scope of the problem.

    The second step is acceptance. Now this doesn’t mean I am accepting of the problem- what it means is I see the problem as it is. I am not trying to figure it out in this step. I see the problem without judgement or emotion- I accept the situation is what it is.

    The third step is action. After I have identified the problem and see it for what it is, this is when I can consider possible solutions.

    Sometimes I like to brainstorm all possible solutions- from the reasonable to the unreasonable. Brainstorming all possible solutions helps me recognize more possible options than if I try to only consider workable solutions. Once I start thinking “outside the box” often ideas come to me that I may not have initially considered.

    Have a grateful day!


    • Jon M says:

      Great steps, Chrysta. Acceptance is a key step in developing a solution and getting to the action step. This is a great process to use in solving problems. Thanks for adding to the conversation! Jon

  • Alli Polin says:

    Great post, Jon & really sound advice on how to sort out problems. Really appreciated #5 Solve it but don’t leave it. We definitely need to measure the effectiveness of our solutions.

    Had an opportunity to hear a lecture from a research psychologist this week on problem solving and he shared that if your problem is in your control, it’s effective to ask problem focused questions to better understand the issue. If it’s a more ambiguous situation, solution focused questions are most effective to explore what needs to happen next.

    Your post adds another layer to my learning. Thanks!

    • Jon M says:

      An interesting distinction on how and when it ask questions, Alli. I can see how that can be beneficial. It sounds like it was an interesting lecture. Appreciate your insights on this. Thanks! Jon

  • Marquita Herald says:

    Excellent message Jon – I especially like your point about looking at a problem from different angles. When we’re busy or feeling stressed it’s just so easy to fall into doing things the way they have always been done. We need to learn to open ourselves to possibility thinking to consider all avenues. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Jay Steven Levin says:

    Here’s a problem solving exercise and structure that I’ve used for years. For myself and across teams. Promotes fast, focused collaboration. COBRA. 5 parts. C represents a concern statement. Either broght to the group or boiled down by the group. Time = 1 minute. O represents Objective statement. Time = 2 min.. B represents blocks to objective. Time = 3 min. All blocks are listed. R represents a results statement. Time = 1 min. A represents action specific task statements. Time = 3 min. Whole 5 C.O.B.R.A. part exercise takes 1+2+3+1+3 = 10 min max. Can be expanded but shouldn’t go beyond 13- 14 min. Goal is a focus action development plan that states a concern, defines an objective, lists critical block, creates a desired result statement and compiles key relevant actions. Once actions are define they can be timelines and assigned to people. Someone is appointed lead and manages thru to completion. When problems rear their heads and strike, bite them back with this fast focused exercise to develop critical team think.

    • Jon M says:

      This is an interesting approach, Jay. It addresses the speed concern someone raised earlier. Is COBRA used for small and large problems and challenges? It seems that some of the more strategic problems couldn’t be addressed well using this approach, unless each objective is broken into smaller Objectives.

      Solid approach. Thanks for sharing it and adding to the conversation! Jon

  • Mike Kunkle says:

    Good post and solid thoughts, Jon, thanks!

    I’m not affiliated with this site in any way, but have often referred to it for good reminders on problem-solving techniques and other tools:

  • These are five very logical steps to solve a problem, Jon. As for me, I think simple and simply treat problems as stepping stones. They’re learning experiences. They help you grow in experience and sharpen yourself. Always have the attitude; if there’s a problem, there’s a solution. It’s like a cause-effect relationship. Leader’s got to be optimistic, always. Even if something bad happens, they would say, “Okay, let’s see what we can learn from this, and what can be the positive outcomes for us (either short-term or long-term).” Problem exists only if it is accepted, otherwise ignorance is bliss. But when we recognize a problem, we open doors of opportunities for improvement, and when we solve it, we gain a tool and skill set so as to never be bothered about such problems ever again.

    • Jon M says:

      Agree wholeheartedly, Harleena! We need to learn from what we have resolved as well as from how the problem arose to begin with. There needs to be a learning loop so there should be another practice to encompass how to sharpen our perspective and approach next time. All great insights into problem-solving so thank you for jumping into the conversation! Jon

  • Johann Gauthier says:

    What a beautiful post Jon.
    Strategic thinking AND engaging with oneself and others, the frame you are presenting is comprehensive.
    I would add “speed” to this… recognizing that changes requires of us to adapt and adjust continuously.
    Thanks for being there!

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, Johann. Speed is an important element. We cannot afford to stall our efforts in solving problems. In today’s fast pace world, we will get passed by if we do not resolve in a reasonable time, which may mean spending greater effort in the process to bring it all together. Great add. Thanks! Jon

  • Deone Higgs says:

    Invaluable sage wisdom here, Jon!

    You’ve nailed many valid points here with excellent precision. For instance, it is imperative that we become aware of the importance of being able to solve the variety of problems we encounter on a day to day basis. One of the key elements is being grounded before the challenges arise. The only way we can go about doing that is ensuring that we are sharpening ourselves when we are not needing to have our “game face on” to tackle predicaments. There is always going to be downtime, or “a calm before the storm.” Those are the typical periods we should be assessing our mindset with honesty, focus, and awareness. The most prepared leaders are the surpassing problem solving leaders of them all. We are only ever as good as we have practiced becoming.

    • Jon M says:

      All great points, Deone, and thank you for your your feedback and insights! You have added some great thoughts to developing and using our problem-solving mindset. Grateful for it! Jon

  • Christopher Avery says:

    Yes! And, with the research of the last 27 years about how personal responsibility works in our minds — i.e., how we avoid taking ownership for problems AND how we take ownership — we actually understand the organic mental process for turning problems into breakthroughs. It’s understandable, teachable, and can be practices and mastered.

    As I mentioned directly to Steven Snyder, this research proves for me that leaders are not born rather they make themselves by the challenges they confront.

    • Jon M says:

      Spot on points, Christopher. I particularly like the point of how leaders are made by the challenges they confront. I do believe this is true, as it not only tests our character and skills but strengthens and expands them. Really appreciate your insight on this! Jon

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Jon,

    A very interesting post. Thank you.

    Practice number 5 got me thinking about problem solving in larger organisations. I believe some type of record needs to be made of how certain problems have been solved. When faced with commercial pressures, tight deadlines etc, people get on with it, just to get the job done. However, the processes used can sometimes be forgotten altogether once the pressures have died down.

    Thank you.

    • Jon M says:

      Yes, Hiten, recording the lessons learned, the best practices, and how a problem was solved are all important things to document as well as make into teachable moments. Great advice. Thanks! Jon

      • AjmaniK says:

        Let us not re-solve problems to which solutions already exist 🙂 When we turn the problem inside out (practice 2), we may find that the problem had occurred before, and had been solved by others in the organization. We can save a lot of time by having well-documented and accessible “lessons learned” 🙂

        • Jon M says:

          Great point, Kumud! We should leverage whenever we can, whatever we can. It is also about focus, meaning let’s not re-solve what has already been solved. Wonderful points! Thank you. Jon

    • Joy Guthrie says:

      Hiten, my father-in-law is a great proponent of every organization needing a company historian. I think your recommendation falls squarely in that area. If the information is captured & shared, it can promote learning.

  • Joy Guthrie says:

    This is great, Jon. We’re doing a 4 graphic set + 1 video on analytical thinking next week. Your post is right on target. A key element is to examine your assumptions. Many times, your assumptions about something cause you to react in ways that may not align with what is actually going on. Viewing from alternate perspectives can help you question your assumptions and find new solutions. Another key is to identify those things you don’t know. Once you’ve identified some things you don’t know, you will likely be able to tackle the problem in a more advantageous way.

    • Jon M says:

      Great point, Joy. Ensuring we are making the right assumptions is an essential element to sound problem-solving. A great add. I look forward to seeing your analytical thinking series! Thank you for your insights. Jon

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