A Coaching Power Tool Created by Michèle Smole
(Executive Coach, SWITZERLAND)
Results are gained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems. Peter Drucker
The Problem Solver Mindset
The Problem with the Problem Solver
For the longest time, I pride myself on being an effective and creative problem solver. People would come to me with their problems asking for advice and insights. With a business administration background, I have learned to do a proper root cause analysis, dig out the source of the problem, and find solutions. I love the challenge and enjoyed the feeling of having achieved something and being praised for my skills and out of the box thinking. I am good at solving problems. So good that I quickly moved up the corporate ladder from team member to team leader to change manager working closely with senior management solving problems and finding solutions. So what’s the problem with problem-solving?
With every problem you seem to have solved, the next one immediately sneaks around the corner. There will always be a problem for you to solve. At some point, however, no matter how good you are or how high up the hierarchies, you will run into a problem that cannot be solved, that ought not to be solved or that is not to be solved by you even if you have the greatest solution in mind. This is what happens: You see the problem clearly, but people don’t seem to understand, or somehow you are unable to convince people that the problem even exists. Why is it only you who can see it? Why do people not get it? Not being able to implement a solution you think will solve a problem and make people’s life easier brings great frustration. Anger can push you into a negative thought cycle. So instead of solving the problem, you become the problem maker.
With a mindset focusing on problems, you will continue to see problems everywhere and miss out on actual opportunities that present themselves. So before you run into the one problem you are unable to solve and make you fall on your nose, it is time to change your focus and mindset.
The Opportunity Finder
Problem solvers view the world through a problem lens which leads to a negative view. They look at what is wrong instead of what is right, at what has happened in the past, and why and not what can happen in the future.
Opportunity finders on the contrary have a positive long-term outcome in sight. They still solve problems but see them as a barrier to the outcome they want to accomplish. They take responsibility for and make a conscious choice on the way they respond to problems. They don’t strive to be the hero manager who saves the day but see every problem as an opportunity to learn and grow.
This is how the different mindsets look like:
So how can you support your clients to change their mindset and reframe their perspective?
Shifting your client’s focus
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “problem” has two meanings. It is a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution or difficulty in understanding or accepting. On the other hand, an “opportunity” can be a good chance for advancement or progress or a favorable juncture of circumstances.
What if your client thought of every problem as an opportunity? It is how the client approaches a problem that can generate an opportunity: An undesirable event is just that – an undesirable event. What happens as a result of that is purely an outcome of the mindset. As a coach, you can help the client to choose to accept and see a challenge as a favorable juncture even though they might not yet know where the path will take them.
So how to support the client in shifting their perspective from “problem” to an “opportunity waiting to happen?” Start with awareness.
Awareness: When faced with a challenge, where does the client put the focus on? If the answer is “the problem”, then support the client in redirecting the attention away from the problem, away from any negative thoughts the client might associate with the problem and towards the desired outcome instead. Help the client focus on what he/she wants instead of what he/she doesn’t want.
Acceptance: Is the client running from the problem or avoid any anxious feelings associated with the challenge. Support the client in accepting problems for what they are – temporary – and help them move away from their problem focus. What can the client control in this situation? Support them in accepting the fact that they cannot change certain things, so as not to waste time and energy seeking possible reasons or solutions. Help them let go of the past, stop mulling over the root cause, and start to think about opportunities instead.
Curiosity: If the problem at hand does not lead to the desired outcome, then it’s best to reassess the situation. Help the client choose their problems wisely, set priorities, and stay curious and flexible, so they don’t get stuck on one specific problem. What is it, that they want to achieve, and what is the actual problem that needs to be solved on the way there? Is it theirs to solve at all? What is going well? What actions can they take? What can they learn from this and what opportunities might be opening up for them?
Support: Problem solvers might get a kick out of being the hero manager who saves the day or they might base their self-worth on external achievements and praise. This inhibits them from asking for help. However, we all need help sometimes especially if we do not focus on the problem at hand but try to achieve something bigger and strive for a greater outcome. Support your client in identifying their support network and resources. They don’t have to go it alone.
Action: Rome wasn’t built in one day. Small problems need small inventions, but to achieve a long-term strategic outcome a lot of small inventions might be needed. Help the client to be patient in their approach to solving the problems on their way to the greater goal. Patience with their team, finding support, and especially themselves will help them work steadily towards their desired outcome.
- Where do you put your focus on?
- What can you control in this situation?
- What do you want to achieve?
- What is the real problem?
- What is going well?
- What actions can you take?
- What opportunities might be opening up for you?
- What can you learn from this?
- How can you use this for your personal development and growth?
- What support do you need to achieve the desired outcome?
Emerald, David (2019) 3 Vital Questions. Transforming Workplace Drama. Washington: Polaris Publishing.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Available at https://www.merriam-webster.com (Accessed: April 2019.
Reynolds, Kathy (2017) Happy Companies Make Loyal Employees – Problem Solving vs Opportunity Seeking; Fourth in a Series, Innovative Insurance Group, viewed April 2020, <https://www.thinkinnovative.net/blog/problem-solving-vs-opportunity-seeking-fourth-in-a-series/>
Zhu, Pearl (n.d.) Problem vs. Opportunity Mindset, The Future CIO, viewed April 2020, <http://futureofcio.blogspot.com/2015/04/problem-vs-opportunity-mindset.html>
 Emerald (2019)
 based on Reynolds (2017)
 Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2019)
 Zhu (n.d.)