Been Told to 'Work Smarter'? Try 'Working on You' Instead

11 Tips on How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

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Barbara Benjamin
Barbara Benjamin
Many of the people I work with have been "left behind" (after others have been laid off) and told to "work smarter." Dealing with the remorse for others' loss, missing colleagues and that vulnerable feeling of wondering when the other shoe will drop are enough, but having to "work smarter" too? Right about now might be a good time to freshen the well of ideas on how to keep working smarter and improve the solutions for the problems we're solving.

Take a minute to brainstorm more options.
Having choices usually leads to better decisions. Taking a few minutes to force yourself to come up with five or 10 more solutions usually leads to improvement, or a wholly new idea that we like even more than the one we were about to run with.

Try on others' perspectives.
Look at your challenge from the perspective of other stakeholders and external audiences. What do they want you to do? What outcome are they expecting? What might surprise them? For example, what do finance or sales want to see? What about customers? What will competitors think? And consumers -- both target and off-target? What cheers or jeers could bloggers find?

Consider what's holding you back.
What's your preferred solution? What's stopping you from doing it? Have you given alternatives to the ideal a fair shake? Could stakeholders help reduce barriers if they knew what was holding you back from the ideal? Even if the preferred solution isn't feasible, explaining the case often makes for smoother buy-in to the alternative solution.

Don't dismiss potential solutions too quickly.
While a specific solution may not be "just right," aspects of it may be useful. Before leaving the idea behind, fully look for the good in what appears to be an inappropriate solution and consider those aspects for inclusion in the final recommendation.

Find the silver lining and leverage it.
Every problem has its silver lining. Have you looked for it in your problem? For example, what's the silver lining in your team's budget constraints? More opportunity for cross-functional collaboration? More inventive ways to do research? Updating competitive monitoring? Having the team test new entries and brainstorm implications for your brand?

Say it differently.
When you think about your problem and potential solutions, remove negative language and rephrase them positively. The exercise can bring insight to the problem or uncover alternatives you hadn't thought of before. Instead of opening with "Budgets have been cut in half," would "We've taken a new approach to planning given current conditions" work? Does the change make you think more optimistically or focus on potential within the change? It also helps to position yourself as in control, given the circumstances, rather than being controlled by circumstances.

Look for analogies.
Seeking analogous situations can help bring forth solutions. For example, pruning is important for keeping plants healthy. If you look at the budget issue as pruning the business, do you have different thoughts about where to focus pruning or potential benefits of pruning? Or when a barrier is put in front of a plant, it finds a new path but never stops because of the barrier. What ways around the barrier might you take? Analogies in nature work best for me, but there are so many areas: sports, technology, entertainment.

Review in light of objectives.
This can include the project's objectives, your professional objectives and the company's objectives. When your problem is viewed in this larger context, are there possible solutions or modifications to your recommendation that you hadn't seen before? Can you improve the recommendation or planned solution to focus even more on what matters to the team and the company?

Review in light of personal leadership goals.
Similar to the above, step back to consider your goals as a leader as well as feedback you've received on your leadership-development needs. If you've been asked to work on your team-building skills, how can you use this problem to engage the team? If you've been asked to work on thought-leadership, is there a larger or additional goal that could be supported through these changes? An example might be adding a new priority of strengthening a customer relationship as a result of budget reallocation.

Consider what the boss needs.
Sometimes, after being mired in the problem, we lose sight of the simple question of "what does my boss want?" Is there anything your boss or the company may be particularly sensitive to now -- whether good or bad -- that you can align your recommendation with or avoid? What pushback can you expect from the boss, and can you modify the recommendation to reduce that pushback? Is the situation and recommendation clearly and succinctly conveyed so the boss can help you sell it up?

Improve the solution.
Before finalizing the recommendation, is there anything else that can be added or adjusted to reinforce the intended outcome? If the goal is "simplification," how can the recommendation be simplified? If the goal is "fun," how can it be more fun? If the goal is fostering subordinate leadership, are there enough leadership opportunities? You get the idea.

Working smarter usually means "working on you," because often that's all that's left that you can control. And "working on you" is the first place to start if you need to ask others to work smarter too.

Barbara Benjamin is a principal with Consumer Connections, a new-product-development research consultancy that works with companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Quaker, Kraft and Clorox.
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