Expand Your Problem-Solving Toolset

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We’ve all heard the axiom, “Work smarter, not harder.”

It’s instantly quotable and memorable, but are we really following the advice?

Consider how you typically go about solving a problem: Whether you’re a “numbers gal” who prefers to gather and analyze the data to form a logical theory, or you’re a “big picture guy” who prefers to listen to your gut and come up with innovative ideas, the tendency is to work at leveraging our preferred approach to the fullest to get to a solution. We put our energy and effort behind the skills and approaches we’re most comfortable with.

But is that really the “smarter” way to go?

On the surface, it seems to make a lot of sense: Why not take what you do well, the methods that come naturally to you, and really put those to work to get to the solution?

The problem lies in the problem.

Depending on what kind of problem you’re dealing with, your preferred approach may not be best suited to solving it. The way we approach problem solving is often rooted in our thinking preferences — if you prefer analytical thinking, for example, then you might decide to gather the facts, analyze the issues, form a theory and come up with the most logical answer. But that may not be the fastest way to solve the particular problem (Is there a riskier but more innovative solution?). And it may ignore critical elements (How will people react to the solution? Are there hidden flaws?) that could eventually crop back up and cause new problems.

In a recent article about the Wharton program Building Relationships at Work, one of the participants, Chris Alexander, spoke about why he decided to take the course, and his comments are particularly relevant to this problem-solving challenge:  “Most people rely on their strengths, and continue to use the same approaches even when they don’t work well.”

It’s important to remember, though, that thinking preferences are just that — preferences. You’re not restricted to them. You have access to all kinds of thinking, so even if you’re a “numbers gal” you can learn how to listen to your intuition, too. And you can also learn to deliberately seek out the people who have thinking preferences that are different from yours. Ultimately, the goal should be to put the best brainpower to work for the issue at hand.

In fact, all styles of thinking play a role in the problem-solving process. We’ve found that using a Whole Brain® process — one that encompasses analytical, organized, interpersonal and innovative thinking approaches at various phases — provides the best chance for solving a problem thoroughly and permanently.

This is a mindset that can extend to virtually any situation, both at work and in personal life. In explaining how the Wharton program (which teaches business leaders Whole Brain® Thinking tools and techniques) made a difference in his communication and leadership abilities, Alexander said it helped him “reframe mental models. It’s not about fine-tuning some of the skills you already have, but about changing the way you think and act to get better results.”

So rather than continuing to approach every problem with the same, very narrow set of tools, try stepping outside your mental defaults to become more efficient and effective in the way you use all the brainpower that’s available to you. That’s working smarter.