Thursday, November 5, 2020

How to Solve Your Most Difficult Leadership and Talent Challenges

Guest post from Stephen Shapiro:


To find better solutions to your most difficult business problems, paradoxically, you don’t want o focus on solutions.

Instead you want to make sure you are asking the right questions. Changing the question changes the range of possible solutions.

Changing Just One Word Can Change Your Solutions

If your challenge is, “How can we hire the right talent?”, you might put your energies into time-consuming campus outreach programs, complicated recruitment campaigns, or expensive technology.

But changing the question to, “How can we retain the right talent?” may shift your focus to internal motivation and performance management strategies.

Simply changing one word yields a completely different set of answers.

You could change it again to, “How can we develop the right talent?” Now we are looking at leadership opportunities that might not have been previously considered.

Before investing in developing solutions and strategies to your problems, first make sure you are moving in the right direction.

Be More Specific to Reduce Waste

When problem-solving, it is common to start off with an opportunity that is too broad. When we ask broad questions, we invite a lot of wasted energy. When asking the question, “How can I improve the business?”, (the default question associated with most suggestion boxes), you could get literally hundreds or thousands of possible answers.

In fact, over 99% of the ideas submitted to most suggestion boxes are low value and are not implemented. This wastes the time of those who submit the ideas and those who have to evaluate the duds.

But if you make the problem statement more specific, you focus people on what matters most. 

Going back to the original statement: “How can we hire the right talent?” What does “right” mean? Maybe the question could be, “How can we hire for unique skills that make our products differentiating?”

This now focuses your efforts on a specific skillset. Of course, it might lead you to ask the question, “What differentiates our products from the competition?” Answering this gives you deeper insights into your business and the people that are required to support it.

Sometimes Being More Abstract Can Increase Creativity

Although we often start with broad problem statements, there are times when we are too specific. Either our focus is so specific that it limits our ability to find solutions. Or in some cases our questions are really just solutions masquerading as questions.

I remember a client who was focused on, “How can we use 360-degree feedback to improve performance?”

Their myopic focus on this one tool limited their ability to “see” other leadership development solutions.

The broader question might be, “How can we improve performance?” 360-degree feedback was too specific.

This then forced them to ask, “What is the performance issue we need to solve?” After some analysis, they determined that the issue was a silo mentality within the company. When they shifted the question to, “How can we break down silos in our organization?”, they found a wider range of solutions. As it turns out, 360-degree feedback was not part of the approach.

Our Best Solutions are Often Invisible

The questions we ask impact the solutions that are visible. Subtle changes to the problem statement can reveal solutions that were previously hidden.

Or to paraphrase a quote that is attributed to Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” From my experience, most organizations are spending 60 minutes solving problems that are unimportant or irrelevant.

When everyone in your organization learns how to powerfully reframe business problems, you will get better results, faster, with lower risk. It’s the simplest tool you have to find the best solutions that will grow your business.


For over 20 years, Stephen Shapiro has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm Accenture, he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He is the author of six books, including his latest: Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His Personality Poker® system has been used around the world to create high-performing innovation teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.

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