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Become a better problem solver in the workplace

Are you a born problem-solver, or is it a skill you learn?

Miami Publicist Lisa Palley says it's a skill you learn and she was taught it at a young age. Her parents told her to stay calm when she had a problem and think it through. Over the years, they showed her how to sharpen her ability to be a problem solver by believing there's always a solution.

At the same time, I have friends who just seem to be totally incapable of doing anything but complaining about a problem. The inability to think like a problem solver hurts them in business and often destroys their work life balance.

This week in my Miami Herald column, I decided to go to the experts and offer readers advice on how to be a better problem solver. If you have strategies that have worked for you, please share.

  Lisa & Myrna

(Lisa Palley and her mom, Myrna) 


Learn how to find solutions on the job


Don’t be a workplace whiner. Here’s how to become a problem solver in your workplace.



Most days, real estate agents storm into Ron Shuffield’s office with problems. They might have a closing that’s about to blow apart or a commission in dispute. They lay out all the obstacles and argue that there is no possible resolution.

“I tell them to stop, listen a little longer, learn all the pieces and focus on a solution,” says Shuffield, CEO of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell Realtors.

With the recession and cutbacks, it has become easy to be a workplace whiner or someone who points out roadblocks. What’s more difficult is being the person who calmly puts on his or her problem-solving cap and bring ideas and solutions.

“Companies are dying to have people play these roles,” says Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of InnoCentive, a Massachusetts-based crowd-sourcing company that helps businesses identify problems and connects them to solvers all over the world.

Being viewed as a problem solver can put a career on the fast track, even lead to better work-life balance. Problem-solving ability ranks high as a desirable trait for job candidates and it should become even more in demand from all level of employees. “It’s a key skill workers of the future will need to tackle the technology and global changes that lie ahead,” says Sayed Sadjady, talent management and organizational design leader with PwC’s advisory practice in New York City.

With a little effort and some know-how, you can become a problem solver. Here’s how:

•   Define the problem. Before jumping in with a quick and easy solution, become better at asking the right questions so that you tackle the right problems, Spradlin says. Recently, a manufacturer hired Spradlin’s InnoCentive to help find the right lubricant that would work for its machinery. But by asking questions, he learned that rather than finding a new lubricant, the company actually needed a new way to make its product. “It takes asking lots of question and brutal introspection to understand what the real problem is and why it hasn’t been resolved.” Spradlin says. “A better-defined problem is already closer to a solution.”

•  Think bigger. Craig Robins, a Miami real estate developer, has built projects that have been on the forefront of neighborhood turnarounds. As a pioneer in redevelopment, Robins has encountered all kinds of difficult situations. But he has become a problem solver by “getting out of box and not being consumed by conventional thinking or process.” Robins now has an ambitious plan to turn Miami’s urban Design District into a super-high-end retail destination. He has partnered with a Paris-based investment fund that owns high-end brands to make it happen. “Usually, innovative solutions involve collaboration,” Robins says. Most important, though: “It takes looking at things differently and perseverance to come up with a solution that’s better than what’s currently contemplated.”

•   Examine a failure. When faced with a challenge, be the person who does his or her homework. Learn the history of problem-solving efforts and what went wrong with already-attempted solutions. Shuffield, of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell Realtors with 10 offices in South Florida, says he encourages real estate agents to come to the negotiating table prepared for possible problems to crop up and with research on previous solutions that have been successful. By doing that, he says, you can enter a situation with a problem-solving mind-set. “You are prepared to take charge of the situation. People want to do business with you.”