Transformational Leadership: Problems, Solutions, & Structure

Patrick O’Shei, in “Uncommon Wisdom“, writes about the link between “problems” and “solutions”.  Capable leaders have the awareness to recognize what the “frame” around these two orientations is, within which they and their organizations might operate:  When confronted with a challenge, do you see problems? or do you see solutions & possibilities?

A solution orientation is always broader and longer in scope, results-oriented and anticipates future implications.  Seeds of both new opportunities and future problems get planted along with new solutions.  A solution orientation is akin to playing chess where past play and the current board both provide data and guide the player; she subsequently can evaluate each potential move in terms of the potential impact on the future.

As an analogy:  A sinking ship is a problem–but what is the best solution? The solution orientation discerns between:

  • Immediate problems and urgent failure (a penetration to the hull of the ship, leaking seams or joints in the hull of the boat, a terrible storm),
  • Constraints on current performance (poor ship design, misuse or neglect of the ship) and
  • Faulty application/ approach (using the wrong ship for the task, using a ship instead of a bridge).

While urgent problems may require pumping quickly and getting the sinking boat back to harbor, most long term leverage comes from understanding what outcome you seek and the possible solutions for creating that outcome.

Organizations and people who see first and predominantly “the problems” they face, may both effectively handle current problems–and entrap themselves in a world where they accomplish less, spend too much (over and over again), and ultimately fail. This occurs because they can only see solution of their problems in terms of eliminating the problem itself.

In his book, The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz declares that “structure determines performance”. When we implement solutions, they create structure. “Excellent” solutions–generated from a robust consideration of possibilities, alternatives, questioning of desired outcomes, and reflecting on underlying purposes–produce desired results for longer periods of time without creating significant new problems. Excellent solutions leverage strengths across “what works” in the world.

As a leader, visualizing the desired outcome, in full, rich, clear detail–is an important part of generating solutions, as the gulf between current problems (reality) and the desired outcome may only be bridged in the mind initially. Some excellent solutions require a number of steps. Each step addresses current reality with an implementable solution–and each fully anticipates a future solution, naturally producing both interim results and providing leverage for achieving the future solution. This path of leveraged solutions is akin to building bridges, where organizations take intermediate steps in coordinated fashion, to bring into being one overall solution that really works.

excerpted from “Uncommon Wisdom/ A Solution Orientation:  What Floats Your Boat“, Patrick O’Shei, 2/2010.