“Some of the greatest advances happen when people are bold enough to speak their truth and listen to others speak theirs.” – Ken Blanchard
“Disruptive, controversial, futuristic, and unique,”[i] are the words writer Ken Carlton uses to characterize the extraordinary minds that gathered in November 2014 at the World’s Greatest Problem Solver’s Conference. The event united an eclectic group of individuals with a common mission: “to advance a cause that was not about themselves.”
Carlton summarizes the thought-stream of the event: “Preventing terrorism by enlightening the mothers of extremists. Plopping sensors down every water well in America to understand drought. Confronting violent crime like an epidemic (think Ebola) to apply science to reducing inner-city murder rates. Treating crop data like a renewable resource to empower farmers. Harnessing wind to create untold power and create new jobs. Placing the safety of children in the hands of the community through the use of technology to keep our kids safe.”[ii] All are bold-faced problems in dire need of lasting solutions that were engaged by the world’s greatest minds to initiate progress toward alleviating such global scourges.
Another initiative for changing the world is called Solve: “This MIT-based program asks extraordinary people to work together to find solutions to the extraordinarily hard problems facing our global community.”[iii] With a sense of urgency, the group focuses on specific themes to tackle serious problems, including inaccessibility to education, substandard health care, lack of water and energy, and limited meaningful opportunities for the majority of the planet’s population. The program’s website explains exactly what the group does to carry out its purposes: “Solve convenes technologists, philanthropists, business leaders, policy makers, and change agents to examine and address the problems where technology, business innovation, and smart policy can be leveraged to bring about real and lasting change.”[iv] MIT President, Rafael Reif, proclaims, “We will do more than talk about the greatest problems facing our world. We will set the course to solve them.[v]
A third approach to arriving at answers is outlined by Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin: “A great problem-solver is usually open to new ideas, innately curious and good at working with others.”[vi] Having started his ambitious venture with minimal experience in building a company, Branson developed phenomenal listening skills, which he insists are absolutely essential for effective problem-solving. In fact, he attributes much of the company’s initial progress to that factor: “One of the reasons my friends and I were successful early on was because we always asked a lot of questions. I was willing to listen to anyone who could help, and over the years many people volunteered their advice.”[vii]
In each of these examples, the doors of innovation were opened wide by building channels of communication that led to collaboration in solving problems bigger than any one person or organization is able to handle alone. There is across-the-board recognition that the greatest promise in tackling serious problems lies in diversified collaboration and shared responsibility. In order to implement the most effective solutions, leaders must continually challenge themselves to depend in greater degree on the strengths and contributions of others. They must believe in the power of teamwork over individualism. They must realize that the world’s gravest problems will not be solved in siloes.
There is a wide variety of tools and thought-exercises available to help ignite the collaborative problem-solving process. But before gathering in the boardroom or putting pen to paper, we must consciously choose to be a part of the solution. It begins with cultivating a trust in and a respect for every person involved, regardless of individual differences. Because when it comes to problem-solving, diversifying the team always multiplies the potential for breakthrough solutions.
- What expertise do you bring to problem solving within your organization?
- In what areas do you seek advice or support?
- What assumptions or personal biases should you leave at the door?
- How do you leverage individuals’ strengths to approach problem solving collaboratively?
Taking ownership of our potential to influence problem solving is crucial. By heightening our own self-awareness and inviting others to do the same, we create bridges instead of walls. Diverse perspectives and ideas expand the repertoire of possibilities that enable impactful solutions. It brings us to the starting line and prepares us to engage the most difficult problems by employing the full spectrum of insights from all kinds of minds.