problem solving skills

6 Problem Solving Skills That All Leaders Should Work On

Chances are, if you are a leader, you are also a pretty good problem-solver. You have come this far because you are proactive about finding solutions. You know how to think critically, strategize and execute. You foster collaboration in your team and make the most of the strengths of each team member. You lean on your communication skills to overcome challenges. 

If you want to take your ability to solve complex problems to the next level, however, you’ll need to actively work on the specific problem-solving skills that differentiate great leaders from excellent ones. 

“More than ever, leaders are facing highly complex, challenging situations that don’t have simple solutions. These include the intersection of employee mental health, diversity and equity expectations, supply chain issues, societal crises, and more,” according to Dr. Mira Brancu, award-winning leader, author, and consulting psychologist. “Employees and customers are expecting more from companies, and therefore the leaders that are needed today are those who have more than just technical expertise in their field – they also have the ability to solve complex problems.” 

On that note, here are six problem-solving skills that all leaders should work on these days. 

1. Calculating the critical path 

Every leader should know how to calculate the critical path in a project, according to Christina Wallace, senior lecturer of Entrepreneurial Management at Harvard Business School, angel investor, and author of “The Portfolio Life: How to Future-Proof Your Career, Avoid Burnout, and Build A Life Bigger Than Your Business Card.” 

Wondering what that even means? In project management, the critical path is the longest sequence of activities that must be completed to ensure a project is finished. Every project has a set of tasks and sub-tasks. Some of them can happen concurrently, while others need to happen in a certain sequence. Identifying all those activities and the dependencies between them allows you to calculate the critical path that leads to the project end date – in simple words, it lets you forecast how long it will take to wrap up your project while anticipating bottlenecks. 

“If you’ve ever been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic while three lanes winnow down to one, you are familiar with the idea of a bottleneck and its frustrations. It’s the moment when too many things (cars, deadlines) are demanding the same resources at once (roadway, time on your calendar), creating congestion in the system,” says Wallace. Calculating the critical path helps prevent bottlenecks before they happen. Use a Gantt chart, a graphic that displays activities against time, to visualize the critical path of a project – most project-management platforms offer the option to create one. “Visualizing the bottlenecks gives you the opportunity to move things around, add in buffers or simplify processes to ensure your plan is not only feasible but also realistic,” adds Wallace 

2. Sensitivity analysis

If you manage a budget, you’ll also want to know how to run a sensitivity analysis – a technique that tests how robust your predictions are.

“If the economy suddenly hits a recession, will that affect the demand for your work or the pricing power you have over your rates? Are there expenses that could see a sizable change, like the cost of living significantly increasing in a fast-growing city? What about one-off costs that you don’t regularly budget for? According to Wallace, ” do you have a plan to mitigate them?” are questions to ask yourself about your financial planning. The idea of a sensitivity analysis is to consider the assumptions built into your financial model – say, assuming that your team is going to hit certain targets– and assess the likelihood of those assumptions being wrong. 

“A sensitivity analysis gives you the ability to consider multiple scenarios and understand how your financial plans may need to change if the future looks different than you anticipate,” says Wallace. No need to be a CFO to do this either – if you have a budget, you should unpack the assumptions involved in your plan. 

3. Critical thinking 

Speaking of assumptions, how often do you challenge your own biases and seek to look at problems in a variety of ways? It’s a crucial aspect of critical thinking – and critical thinking is a crucial aspect of solving problems. To flex your critical thinking muscles, you’ll want to look at issues from different perspectives. 

“Critical thinking involves seeing an issue from many angles, zooming out to the big picture and zooming into the details and back, and being able to imagine the impact of making different decisions on multiple stakeholders before making a final decision,” says Brancu. 

Practice this with every problem you solve and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at the solutions that you come up with and the opportunities that open up as a result. 

4. Data gathering 

Data gathering is another important problem-solving skill to work on. Knowing how to gather both qualitative and quantitative data to solve problems is key, according to Brancu. 

“This involves taking the time to speak with critical stakeholders, and business data, and garnering other information to ensure that you are not missing anything important before making a decision. It helps you address your own blind spots,” she says. Gathering information about a challenge before making a move is not time wasted – it’s time gained down the line. 

5. Leveraging advisors 

Wallace says that leaders should build their own personal “board of directors” to solve problems more effectively. Leveraging your relationships in that way is an underrated but powerful problem-solving ability. 

Your advisors should include a collection of folks that you go to for advice, introductions, a fresh perspective, or some hard truth, says Wallace. “They bring their experience, judgment, and network to the table, providing counsel, access, and feedback. Rather than looking for one mentor who can be all things for an indefinite period of time, you can seek out directors who may do a rotation on your board for a few years, maybe more, maybe less.” 

To be clear, you don’t need to officially ask them to be part of your “board.” You simply have to make a point of connecting with them on a regular basis because you appreciate their experience and trust their advice. According to Wallace, you should seek to cover five key roles: a coach, a negotiator, a connector, a cheerleader, and a truth-teller. Turn to them when you’re unsure about how to move forward. 

6. Change-management skills 

Every leader should possess change-management skills when solving problems in this day and age. “Any decision that is made to address a problem needs to consider both the actual change that is required, as well as the people who would be affected. Most leaders overlook the impact and reactions of the people who are affected by any change, or they spend insufficient time considering how to involve different groups of people at different phases of a change process,” according to Brancu. 

“As a result, the problem might get worse because the leader didn’t get buy-in, didn’t communicate the concern or plan sufficiently or didn’t sufficiently address concerns raised,” she adds. 

If you become adept at change management, you’ll solve issues before they even happen. Talk about a useful problem-solving skill.