Strategic Leadership Problem Solving for Innovation

by Holly Green

As a strategic leader, you have many good ideas to choose from, but how do you decide which ones to implement? Here’s a problem solving technique for selecting the best ideas for your business.strategic leadership decision making process

Recently, I wrote about the first phase of the creative decision making process (divergence), which consists of stimulating new critical thinking skills by diversifying and exploring.

The second phase in the decision making process is convergence, which involves refining and choosing the best possibilities from the ideas generated during the divergence phase.

In today’s global economy, market opportunities abound. For the strategic leadership in most companies, the problem is not coming up with enough good ideas. It’s deciding which ones to execute. Convergence tools help to make sense of what often seems like an overwhelming decision making process. They enable you to narrow the range of choices in order to make an intelligent decision. And they provide a starting point from which to implement those decisions.

To get the most out of the convergence phase, I recommend using the “SOARS” decision making process:

Sort to bring order out of chaos
To make sense of all the different possibilities in front of you, start by grouping them into meaningful problem solving categories. These categories might be related to time, feasibility, market demand, availability of resources, type of possibility, or any other category that would help to bring order out of the chaos.

I like to use a three-color sorting technique to simplify the sorting decision making process.

  • Green represents ideas that clearly fit with your criteria.
  • Yellow is for ideas that have some fit but probably need further problem solving.
  • Red identifies ideas that do not fit the strategic leadership criteria.

Order for the Best Ideas :
Once you’ve sorted your ideas by category, rank them against established strategic leadership criteria to create an order of preference. A basic quadrant chart that incorporates two important criteria offers a simple yet powerful way to see your critical thinking skills in action. You’ll see which ideas best fit your strategic leadership criteria. For example, if you choose “cost” and “feasibility” as your criteria, you end up with four distinct quadrants in which to place your ideas:

Critical Thinking Skills Strategic Leadership Quadrants

  1. High cost, low feasibility
  2. High cost, high feasibility
  3. Low cost, low feasibility
  4. Low cost, high feasibility

You can also use other problem solving criteria — such as time to market, probability of success, relevance to customer wants and needs, anticipated return on investment, etc. — to help you narrow down the list.

Adapt Critical Thinking Skills Creatively
When you have identified your list of possibilities, you can expand and adapt them create even better ideas. “Take Away” offers a simple tool for engaging in this process. Identify all the critical components of an idea, then take one away and see what you would have to do if that component wasn’t available or didn’t exist. For example, if you didn’t have access to electricity, you might start thinking about phones that didn’t have to be plugged in.

Refine Critical Thinking
Now it’s time to start critiquing the idea by identifying weak spots and potential failure points. The goal here is to “bullet-proof” an idea before deciding to move forward with it. Start by thinking of all the ways the idea could fail, what external events might create a disaster, or who could and/or would say “no” to the idea. Then begin problem solving by brainstorming ways to avoid these possible obstacles. If the obstacles that remain are too complex, costly or difficult to overcome, the idea doesn’t pass muster.

Select the Best Ideas
“Dot Voting” offers a simple technique for selecting ideas. Make all of the choices available, and give each participant a certain number of dots to vote with. If you’ve established the criteria in advance, this innovation process can be very effective for selecting the best ideas and getting buy-in from people as they see that certain concepts match the strategic leadership criteria more than others.

Keep in mind that ideas are only ideas until they get implemented, and implementation requires that someone take ownership. Getting the right people to take ownership of an idea is a critical piece of the process.

Also, it helps to have a critical thinking process and/or methodology for turning your newly selected ideas into practical products or marketable services. Start by identifying what innovation means to your organization. Why is it important and what will happen when you achieve it?

Choose an innovation model or critical thinking skills approach that fits your type of business and your available resources to drive your innovation efforts. Then identify metrics for inputs, development, and output. If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Mobilize the organization by clarifying and communicating your vision of what successful innovation looks like in your business. Provide the tools and support people need. Hold them accountable for new ways of thinking and working. And keep people inspired by sharing stories of success and failure.

Hopefully, people in your organization are coming up with lots of new ideas. When they do, the SOARS decision making process will make it much more likely that you act on the best ones.

Holly GreenHolly is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc., and helps business leaders and their companies achieve higher levels of performance and profitability.

Holly’s top selling book, More Than a Minute: How to Be an Effective Leader and Manager in Today’s Changing World (available in 9 languages globally) goes beyond the theory of leading and managing by providing practical, action-oriented information.

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