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  • Writer's pictureBrett Simpson

In my experience… problem-solvers are a leader’s secret weapon

In a previous role I had accountability for quality-engineering (aka testing) at a software company.  Our job was to find defects in the code the developers were churning out.  Essentially, we were problem-creators.  We came up with thousands of potential problems (i.e. test cases) and tested them either manually or using automation (i.e. test script execution) nearly 24x7.  Sometimes though we learned of new problems from the most unlikely sources.

On a bring-your-kid-to-work day, one of the activities for kids was to ‘test’ the software.  It was B2B software so not something particularly interesting to kids other than the fact that it was technology and they were asked to break it.  It was going smoothly until one kid did something that made the software completely unusable (thereby stopping the entire activity) and the only fix was to have one of the DBA’s go into the backend and reset parameters.  Over multiple years and thousands of hours of testing hundreds of thousands of test cases no employee or customer of the company had created this problem.

What was it?  The kid found the ‘look and feel’ settings console and selected black as the background color and black as the text color, essentially rendering the system useless because it was just a black screen, and impossible to navigate.  The functionality worked exactly as designed, but from a user perspective the experience was less than optimal.  The good news was that the process / activity worked.  A new design requirement was identified and became high priority that day…Don’t allow the background and the font to be the same color simultaneously.

While many people viewed the quality-engineering team as problem-creators, I preferred to think of us as problem-solvers.  We ensured the highest quality product went out the door.  Our solution was to identify creative ways to break the software.  We had a great team.

In my experience, problem-solvers are a leader’s secret weapon.  It’s easy to create problems.  It’s easy to identify problems.  It’s harder to solve problems.  As a consultant I’ve been asked to do all of these.  (Side note: Why pay a consultant to create problems?  To test people, processes, tools or ideas…it happens all the time.)

My observation is that the most valued people in an organization are those that solve problems.  They may not have the biggest titles, get paid the most or even receive much recognition.  However, when issues arise, those ultimately accountable know who to go to, whether anyone else knows it or not.  Usually these problem-solvers are few and far between and their problem-solving ability is either inherently built-in or something they’ve learned.

This isn’t to say the non-problem-solvers aren’t valuable or needed.  In fact, the opposite is true, just for different reasons than problem-solvers.  

So how do you know if you’re viewed as problem-solver?

  • Do others bring problems to you to solve that have nothing to do with your role?

  • Are you asked by leadership to join special efforts to fix troubled projects?

  • Are you brought in to provide advice or counsel to leaders about confidential issues?

  • This one should be obvious…When you escalate issues, do you also present solutions?

Problem-solving is a unique capability and highly valued by leaders.  It’s not always well-publicized and rightfully so because of the sensitive nature of many problems.  If you’re already a problem-solver, nice work.  If you’re not and want to be, your starting point is the 4thbullet point above.  You won’t get an email welcoming you to the club, rather over time you’ll start experiencing bullet points 1-3.

Special thanks to Victoria Brumfield, who brings tremendous energy and innovative solutions to the problems she encounters, and to Aaron Atkinson, whose creativity when it comes to solutioning seems to know no bounds.

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