Problem solving is so much more than coping with mathematical equations.

‘Visionary’ is a commonly used term to describe the incredible Mr. Steve Jobs of Apple. But what do we actually mean when we describe someone as having vision? Obviously, there is the implication of seeing something, but there must be more to it. Why was Mr. Jobs’ particular vision so effective in differentiating him from so many other people? Where did this vision come from, and where can the rest of us get some of it?

Mr. Jobs had an exceptional ability to ‘envision’ practical solutions to very complex problems very far into the future. In other words, he had exceptional problem solving capability. While others focused on more immediate technical issues, Mr. Jobs was looking much father into the future, more easily seeing what so many people could not. His substantial cognitive scope (“visionary time-horizon into the future), and his ability to see problems in abstract terms, were key contributors to his innovative business success. While he was not perfect by any means, this one personality characteristic was so prominent that his other managerial weaknesses (which we all have) were rendered less significant.

Mr. Jobs was a member of a very rare group of people, all of whom are distinguished by this extraordinary ‘vision’.

But not everything came easy to Mr. Jobs. He had his fair share of challenges in his career, and he had to work hard for his success. In addition to exceptional problem solving capability he, like so many other successful people, also maintained a very high level of persistence. And this leads me to one of my favourite quotes…

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”.

Calvin Coolidge - 30th president of US.

Mr. Jobs not only envisioned innovative solutions, he persisted in bringing them into reality! Just think about how much the world would have lost if he failed to push his ideas forward. As Mr. Coolidge suggests, Mr. Jobs’ persistence ‘trumped’ his lack of significant technical education. His decision to not complete his university education did not hurt his ability to accumulate some impressive business credentials. Mr. Jobs was not alone in this – Mr. Bill Gates of Microsoft chose the same path. And, while not as famous, we all know others who achieved success without having significant education or overt ‘talent’. For Mr. Jobs and Mr. Gates, beyond basic technical ability, their success was greatly influenced by extraordinary problem solving capability AND persistence in seeing their vision through to successful implementation.

Here is another quote for you to consider…

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Henry Ford - Founder of Ford Motor Company.

Rather than take the limited and easier route of giving people what they ask for (low value sales), Mr. Ford, Mr. Jobs and Mr. Gates all led people to what they envisioned was really needed. Rather than provide short-term solutions to immediate challenges and problems, rather than listen to the “naysayers” or acquiesce to requests from people with more limited vision, they all used their incredible problem solving capability and their ongoing persistence to develop innovative yet practical solutions that were beyond the thinking of most other people. And because they persistently led the rest of us forward, they rightfully reaped the financial rewards of doing so. “Can’t” was not in their vocabulary simply because their forward thinking vision was focused on capturing potential opportunity.

Why is problem solving capability so important?

Okay, we are not all Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Henry Ford. But, problem solving capability plays a highly significant role in all of our business and managerial lives. We may not be at the same level as these gentlemen, but we all have some level of problem solving capability. The important point to remember is that difficulties will occur, and performance will suffer, when there is a mismatch between our actual capability and the requirements of the work that we have to do. And, a capability mismatch does not only negatively impact an individual’s performance and career success – it affects everyone directly connected to them. So, when many people within a group do not have the problem solving capability to fulfill their responsibilities, the negative impact spreads exponentially affecting whole departments and organizations.

From an organizational perspective the question has to be asked; “do we have the most capable people in place at each hierarchical level within our organization”? Sometimes we do, but in many instances we don’t. Many people are simply not performing at optimal levels, and this has become more noticeable, in both managerial and organizational performance, when under the greater scrutiny that occurs in times of high economic stress (recession). Now, facing a new set of challenges in the “new economy”, positive organizational growth, job creation and economic re-energization will all depend on our having capable managers in place throughout all organizational levels in both the private and public sectors. If we don’t, organizations (and societies) will struggle to adapt to the new economic realities and to find new ways of stimulating individual and organizational performance. There is nothing wrong in admitting that we need to improve, there is something wrong if we fail to try.

Unfortunately, many of the mediocre (lower capability) managers who are in place will justify inaction and will attempt to further entrench themselves in their current positions. Because of their challenged capability, they will have difficulty seeing what has to change, and rather than respond to the need for new ways of thinking in the new economy, they will actually resist change. Returning to their more comfortable former managerial approaches, it will be their departments, and their organizations, that will be the slowest to adapt and respond to changing circumstances and the need to do things differently.

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the need for organizational and individual innovation. But low-capability, change-resistant managers will not only retard the evolution of their own personal thinking and development, they will fail to encourage and facilitate change in others. Too many of them will mistakenly continue to over-emphasize the need for technical skills in order to facilitate innovation, while they neglect to give appropriate additional focus to the further development of performance enhancing personality characteristics. Mr. Jobs, Gates and Ford all had technical aptitude.

But what distinguished them from everyone else, and what supported their innovative and entrepreneurial thinking – was based in their specific personalities, not in their technical skills. To affect real change, our managers will have to think more along the same lines as these gentlemen – and then convert their thinking into ACTION.

What should we do differently?

We need to ensure that problem solving capability, and other performance-related personality characteristics, are given due consideration in personnel related decisions. Whether hiring new managers (or staff), considering the promotion of internal personnel, identifying potential candidates for managerial development programs, evaluating the viability of individual performance improvement requirements or even monitoring our own career track, we have to start approaching things differently if we want to see better results. First we need to ensure that the person has a suitable technical foundation for their specific role. Then we need to ensure that there is a direct match between the problem solving capability of the individual and the requirements that are present in their position. Here, it is crucially important to determine the scope requirements of the position first and then to determine if an individual has a scope that is a suitable match to what is required in both the short and long terms. Once accomplished, we can then go even farther and focus on the further development of performance enhancing personality characteristics.

Mismatches between problem solving capability and positional requirements

are the most significant contributor to sub-standard managerial and non-managerial performance.

If you are interested, in Part 2 we discuss; how to determine the capability level for a position, how to determine the current capability level of your personnel, and how to determine the future capability of your personnel.

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