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Problem Solving and Decision Making

Probably a manager’s biggest responsibility is to solve problems and make decisions. You are likely to do this in some form every day. Maybe a team member calls in sick and you need to apportion that day’s work to others. Or an important engineering process fails and you must decide what to do next. Or your manager has either cut your budget or increased it, and it’s your job to decide where to cut or add. Possibly, on some days, all of the above and more come your way.

Leadership involves sorting through competing demands and making the best decisions you can, given your resources and your current information. How well you analyze problem situations, and the success of your decisions, will impact your team’s functioning and may even influence the rest of your organization.

Naturally effective leaders or managers probably enjoy the challenge of ambiguous situations and thrive on the exhilaration of analyzing complex problems. Even if you these skills don’t come naturally to you, however, you can still be an effective leader or manager. Like all management and leadership skills, these can be learned.

It might be helpful to decide whether your biggest struggle is with decision making or analyzing complex problems. These skills overlap but may be approached somewhat differently. For example, if you don’t like making decisions, you may be afraid of making a mistake. Maybe a past decision hasn’t turned out well. The truth is that everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t allow you to avoid decision-making. If this is your concern, try these tips:

  • Talk to someone who is good at making decisions. Ask that person what he or she does to manage the stress of decision-making. Listen carefully and begin to implement some of the ideas you are told. Report back to the person after you’ve made a decision. If it worked out well, great! If not, try again. Keep trying until your feel more confident about
    your decisions.
  • Maybe you are afraid to make a decision because you don’t have enough information. If you have time, put off the decision and gather more information. If you don’t have time, make the best decision you can and move on. Remember that, if you don’t have enough time or information to make a good decision, nobody else would, either.

If analyzing a situation is more difficult for you than making decisions, you may struggle with differentiating important details from irrelevant ones. You may feel overwhelmed with data and not know how to move forward. If this is your concern, try these tips:

  • Learn how to use brainstorming as a technique for solving problems. For every problem, there are numerous possible solutions. Some of them are better than others, but challenge yourself to write down a variety of solutions without judging their merit, and then pick the best one. You might discover, if you give yourself the freedom to think widely, that you are a more creative problem-solver than you thought.
  • Ask someone who is good at solving problems to share his or her process with you. It might be as simple as taking some time alone to think through the options, or asking team members for their ideas, or remembering what worked the last time this problem presented itself.

However you decide to proceed, realize that analyzing problems and making decisions are a large part of your role as manager or leader. With practice and awareness, you will improve.