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Work involves problem-solving – that’s how we spend a good chunk of our day. But most of us lack a systematic approach for tackling problems, reacting on instinct to each situation.

Consultant Karen Martin says in most organizations, people don’t know what robust problem-solving looks like. We let problems simmer until they become a crisis; problems recur despite repeated attempts to address them and problems never seem to go away completely.

Instead, on the Change This site, Ms. Martin offers a process called CLEAR, which revolves around five phases:

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  • Clarify and break down the problem: Understand the problem you need to solve. Too often we skip or rush through this step. After all, we wouldn’t be focusing on finding a solution if we didn’t know there was a problem. “But knowing there’s a problem isn’t the same as clearly defining what the problem is,” she says. Rushing can lead to what she calls “premature solutioning,” which will often involve moaning about what you lack, rather than highlighting the outcomes you actually want and how to attain them. So, ask basic questions at this stage such as what’s the problem, how do we know it’s a problem, for whom is it a problem, how significant is it, what are the problem components and what parts will you focus on?
  • Learn about the problem and the reasons for it: Here you dig deeper to try to understand the reality of the situation and the most significant root causes. Cast a wide net as you seek data and information, instead of just looking at one or two areas and relying on opinion rather than facts. Beware of the tendency to assume you know more than you do and to rush through this stage, as it can lead you to miss important information.
  • Experiment with countermeasures: Identify the countermeasures that can deal with the root causes of the problem that you have uncovered. She uses the term countermeasures rather than solutions to highlight the iterative nature of problem solving. “Solutions imply permanence, whereas problem solving is designed to be done continuously,” she writes. Determine which countermeasure you will try first, how you will run the experiment and what you expect to find.
  • Assess the results of the experiment and adjust as needed: Now it’s time to evaluate how you fared and whether you should adopt, adapt or abandon the countermeasure. If it didn’t work, you need to return to the clarify stage to ensure you have defined the issue properly and the learn stage to check whether the root causes were properly identified.
  • Roll out the new way of operating: Here, you need a plan to ensure proper implementation and monitoring. It’s more rigorous than the method you are probably using – but that’s her point.

Charlie Munger’s two-step process for thinking

You can supplement the CLEAR method with a two-step process championed by Charlie Munger, the long-time right-hand man for investor Warren Buffett. It deals with both the rational and the potentially irrational:

  • Understand the forces at play
  • Understand how your subconscious might be leading you astray

The key to the first step is knowing what you know and what you don’t know. “You need to understand your circle of competence. It’s just as important to know what you don’t know as it is to know what you do know,” Shane Parrish explains in his Farnam Street blog. If you’re way beyond your circle of competence, it may be best to look at the situation backward. How would you do the opposite of what you are intending? If you are within your circle of competence, it will be easier to figure out the relevant variables and forces at play.

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Much has been written in recent years on cognitive biases, and they should also be addressed. When are you being less rational than you think? “Your subconscious mind is larger than your conscious mind and yet we rarely pay attention to how we might be tricking ourselves. One way to mislead yourself, for instance, is to make decisions based on a small sample size and extrapolate the results to a larger population. Another way we fool ourselves is to remain committed to something we’ve said in the past. We might rely on an authority figure or default to what everyone else is doing,” Mr. Parrish warns.

Sales assumptions that boost your performance

Assumptions and biases also apply to the sales process. But consultant Jill Konrath takes a positive spin, outlining 17 sales assumptions you can make – tweaks and tricks for your thinking – that will improve your effectiveness with prospects and clients:

  • Assume everyone is overwhelmed.
  • Assume your prospects are pretty okay with what they’re doing now since if they weren’t they already would have changed.
  • Assume prospects don’t like change.
  • Assume it’s your responsibility to pique curiosity.
  • Assume your ideal prospects have a lot in common, and therefore leverage what you already know about your customers to ask better questions, deepen conversations and establish credibility.
  • Assume prospects want to deal with experts and therefore demonstrate familiarity with their business and processes.
  • Assume responsibility when you fail, analyzing what you could have done differently when your prospects buy from somebody else or decide to do nothing.
  • Assume 50 per cent of your forecasted deals won’t close, which is about average.
  • Assume prospects act in their own self-interest.
  • Assume prospects will struggle to get buy-in at their organization, and thus arm them with the tools they’ll need.
  • Assume you’ll hit the world’s worst traffic snarl on your way to a big meeting with the client, and therefore give yourself twice the time you need to get there.
  • Assume technology will fail at that meeting and have a backup plan.
  • Assume people will use devices during meetings and consider how you’ll get them to focus on your presentation.
  • Assume buyers won’t remember anything, and follow up promptly with a summary of key points and next steps.
  • Assume your top accounts are at risk, and therefore bring fresh ideas, insights and information to those customers.
  • Assume buyers don’t know how to buy; review typical hurdles your customers overcome at each phase of their buying process.
  • Assume your contact at the company will leave it or go on an unexpected medical leave.

Quick hits

  • Want to be more creative? Drink tea. Two studies found that tea drinking seems to enhance divergent thinking. 
  • In a world awash with images, why do only 1 per cent of job descriptions have pictures or videos, asks consultant Tim Sackett.
  • Career coach Janet Burton says it’s fine to go beyond thanking your boss personally for a job promotion and to also send them a handwritten note. She has kept the ones she has received since they are not common. Be specific about any such note, indicating what you are thanking the person for, such as extra training or mentorship they gave you.
  • Two common mistakes of bad resumes: A lack of numbers to back up claims such as being results-driven and failing to mention or making it hard to find skills or experience that are relevant to the job at hand.
  • Take control of your control panel on Windows by changing from the default “category view.” Open the control panel and use the “view by” drop-down list near the upper-right corner of the screen. It offers large icons and small icons as well as category view.
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