Problem-solving in stressful times

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I used to work with an inspiring executive who was brilliant at staying cool during the worst moments of tension.

When a thorny problem was making everybody anxious in the decision room, he would be wearing a big smile, reassure the team and move the conversation forward by saying we’ll solve it “step by step”.

We’ve seen it before, but does it really work?

The first time I heard this line I thought it was simplistic and generic. No matter how many steps, the problem was still there and there was no solution in sight. Over time, I learnt more about the power of this approach. It comes back to mind during these COVID-19 months when sorting out bundled problems has become part of our everyday.

Any stressful challenge is most often the combination of smaller specific issues and tensions that, with a step by step approach, can be more easily pin-pointed and successfully managed.

Mathematician and Stanford professor George Polya describes it like this: “Leave the hard bit to the last. Maybe you can knock off enough easy bits to find out that the problem isn’t as hard as you’d thought.”

Polya’s technique is called a “heuristic” approach (from Greek: eurisko = discover). Another heuristic approach that benefits from sub-dividing the problem is that of means-end analysis. When the distance between the starting point of the issue and the solution is too wide.

Think, for example, of the start of a chess game and the desired outcome of checkmating your opponent. The problem solver establishes progressive sub-goals to reduce the distance between current and end state and identifies actions to sort out each sub-goal. If a sub-goal is not achievable because of an obstacle, then an alternative sub-goal is set to remove that obstacle. And this until the end game result is achieved.

COVID-19 multiplied the number of stressful decisions we must take in our personal and professional lives. Ambiguity and risk management make solutions unpractical. It’s easy to let the issue make us feel overwhelmed as more uncertainty piles on and the implications for people and business are so significant.

But approaching a thorny issue step by step is not only good as a proven problem-solving approach. It can help manage stress and anxiety when difficulties are complex and weighing on our mental health.

Breaking the problem into smaller parts can make it easier to tackle.

This doesn’t mean we should simply take our time when pressed by difficulties. Breaking the bigger issue into more specific tasks helps avoid stress and procrastination that will make the problem balloon to the last moment and overwhelm us.

Tackling individually smaller components makes the issue more manageable, and any time we feel we reach a challenging point that is still too complex to solve, that is the time to break it down again in even smaller parts.

Giovanni Giordano is former group HR director at BAT, former chief corporate officer (global HR, legal, IT) at Ferrero and former HR director, global health and wellbeing at Procter & Gamble

Further reading:

Boosting creative problem-solving in the workplace

Balancing trust with control noted as key challenge for employers

Closing the skills gap for graduate employees

Top tips for establishing a mentally-healthy workplace

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