Sticky Notes: Teaching Employees to Get Better at Problem Solving

The key is ready-made solutions: best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids.

Show me any employee who is making lots of bad decisions and I’ll show you someone who needs to be making a lot fewer decisions, at least for a while. And most of those decisions have already been made. Most “mistakes” in problem solving are decisions that were never up to that employee in the first place. Instead of trying to “make a decision,” that employee should have just implemented the ready-made solution, a decision that was already made a long time ago.

Ready-made solutions are best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids. The most common job aid is a simple check-list. Imagine how much better most employees would solve the regularly recurring problems if you were to prepare them in advance:

If A happens, you do B

If C happens, you do D

If E happens, you do F

Many organizations are able to provide not just step-by-step check-lists, but automated menu-driven systems. These tools are common in workplaces where there is very little tolerance for error: hospitals, airplane cockpits, nuclear weapons launch sites, accounting firms, and so on. If you have ever been in a hospital, you have seen these tools in action. Healthcare professionals are among the most highly educated, highly trained people in the workforce. Yet, rather than just count on their education and training, they are constantly utilizing check-lists and menu-driven systems as job aids to make sure they do not deviate from best practices.

Tips for Managers

As a manager, the question you need to ask yourself is this: What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your employees master best practices for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to “problem solve” anew each time?

If you do already have such job-aids at your disposal, then make sure everybody on your team is using them. Go on a campaign. Spread the tools and spread the word. Use them as a centerpiece of your regular one-on-one dialogue with each person until they know the check-lists backward and forward and use them without fail.

Sometimes managers will ask me, “Yes, but doesn’t this approach actually end-run teaching problem solving? If they never have to puzzle through a problem, how do employees learn to solve problems on their own?”

For starters, they will learn and practice the best step-by-step solutions to as many recurring problems as you can possibly think up in advance. Over time, together, you and they will add more and more recurring problems—and solutions—to that list. Employees who study those best practices and use those job aids will develop steadily growing repertoires of ready-made solutions. There will be a lot of problems they can solve very well.

What Happens When Unanticipated Problems Arise?

“But wait,” a manager might protest: “What happens when the employee runs across a problem that was not specifically anticipated? If they are taught to implement ready-made step-by-step solutions, like robots, they won’t know how to think for themselves. Won’t they freeze up in the face of an unanticipated problem?”

The answer is no. It turns out that by learning and practicing ready-made step-by-step solutions, employees get better not only at solving the specific problems anticipated, but also at solving unanticipated problems. By teaching employees to implement specific step-by-step solutions to recurring problems, you are teaching them what good problem-solving looks like— like so many case studies.

This is the point at which some managers will say, “I’m sorry, you never really learn unless you face some big problems and make some of your own mistakes. I like to let people learn from their own mistakes.”

Why not help them avoid making unnecessary mistakes? It is simply nonsense that a good way to learn problem solving is to stumble through problems alone, unguided, trying out solutions based on relatively inexperienced guesses. Why would experience having unsuccessful encounters with problems be a good way to learn problem solving? Experience solving problems successfully is what comes from learning and practicing ready-made solutions. Employees get in the habit of solving problems well.

Leverage Those One-on-Ones

In your one-on-ones, when you talk about those ready-made solutions, you have the opportunity to help your direct reports begin to understand and appreciate the common denominators and underlying principles. Talk through with them how they might draw on those common denominators and underlying principles when facing an unanticipated problem. Talk through how they might draw on elements of ready-made solutions, even mixing and matching, to come up with solutions to unanticipated problem. Talk about how they might extrapolate from ready-made solutions should the need arise to improvise.

With this approach, you can radically improve your team’s—or any individual employee’s—record on basic problem-solving. You will have fewer problems because anticipated problems with ready-made solutions are not really problems anymore. You will have many more problems that are solved quickly and easily. You will have fewer problems that are mishandled and fewer problems that hide below the radar and fester and grow unbeknownst to anyone.

On top all that, you will have given your direct reports a strong foundation in the fundamentals of problem solving. Upon that foundation, they can build more advanced problem-solving skills.

How Do You Help an Employee Develop “Good Judgment”?

Good judgment is the ability to see the connection between causes and their effects. If you are trying to help an employee improve their judgment, then start spending time in your one-on-ones discussing with them what they are doing to purposefully and systematically draw lessons from their experiences at work every day. One day at a time, in your one-on-ones, spend time talking about their day-to-day actions:

  • Do they think about cause and effect?
  • Do they stop and reflect before making decisions and taking actions?
  • Do they project likely outcomes in advance?
  • Do they look at each decision and action as a set of choices, each with identifiable consequences?

Teach people to turn their own workplace experiences into case studies from which to learn on an ongoing basis. This is like the case study method that is used by most business schools. Students then are taught to apply the methods of critical thinking to the facts of the case. They are taught to suspend judgment, question assumptions, uncover the facts, and then rigorously analyze the decisions and actions taken by different key players in the case study. The pedagogy is simple: Look at the outcomes and trace them back to see the chains of cause and effect. You can teach them to apply the case study method to their own experiences.

Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done” ( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: