Rotman Management

The Most Underrated Skill in Management

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, we have worked with dozens of organizations, helping them with everything from managing beds in a cardiac surgery unit to sequencing the human genome. While the work itself has been highly varied, one thing has become clear to us: Problem formulation is the single most underrated skill in all of management practice.

There are few questions more powerful than, ‘What problem are you trying to solve’? In our experience, leaders who can formulate a clear problem statement get more done with less effort and move more rapidly than their less-focused counterparts. Before we describe how to improve this capability within yourself, let’s take a quick look at something that often gets in the way: the workings of the human mind.

Resisting the Associative Machine

Research indicates that our brains have two primary methods for tackling problems, and which method dominates — and thus determines the final answer — depends on both the surrounding context and the current state we are in.

As the name suggests, represents the part of your brain that you control. Whenever you are aware of your mental effort or tell someone that you are thinking about something, you are using conscious processing. This and — the abilities to form a mental picture of a situation and then play out different possible scenarios, even if those scenarios have never occurred before. Conscious processing is the domain of logic, in that it uses knowledge about the world to construct possibilities that extend beyond our own experience.


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