Saturday, July 31, 2010

Problem Solving: The Most Valuable Skill That Won't Get You Hired

So I'm looking at my LinkedIn profile wondering what else I need to do to complete it, and this "specialities" section keeps haunting me. It keeps asking me for content, but most of the important things that come to mind are either so obscure that they will never show up in a search or worse -- they sound like tired, cheesy cliches.

Here's a perfect example: Problem Solving
One of the things that has struck me over the course of my career is how few people have basic problem solving skills. It sounds rather rudimentary and stupid, but understanding how to take apart a problem, analyze it, and produce a solution is... rare. It's surprising really. You can take some of the most competent people that you know and drop them into a situation where the environment or the problem is different than they expected and watch them break down. Many will complain right from the start.

And then there are also those people who just seem comfortable solving problems, creatively adapting solutions to fit the needs of the moment. They are the people you drop into unusual situations and they adapt and work through through the differences. Often, they question rules and assumptions and their approach may not be what you expected. But they produce results.

That's another funny thing about problem solving skills -- it becomes like a safe harbor in a storm. In difficult times, people turn to problem solvers. Drop a stranger in the office and they'll probably turn to nearest desk. For the people in the office -- if the office is large enough to have functional specialists -- they will go to the specialist. But in smaller offices or for problems that live outside of a specialization, people turn to the problem solvers.

Being able to solve problems won't endear you to every organization. Some businesses stick closely to established culture, structure, and processes. Some promote consensus over individual initiative. And while some problem solvers do thrive in those environments (possibly as the underlying catalyst for activity or change), it's probably not the personality trait that the organization screened for -- which brings me back to the focus of this post.

Problem Solving and Umami: Everybody Wants Some
While Kikkoman wants to link the idea of "umami" as a keyword for their products, the concept of umami is about savoriness and the taste of a richness of flavor -- the kind of thing that you would like to have in most things that you eat. But at the heart of it, what we're really talking about here is how you would measure it, characterize it, and differentiate on it. While it's likely that the braised short-ribs from The French Laundry will have significantly more umami than a Black Angus steak, it's equally likely that you won't see it used to differentiate the two. Both could conceivably put umami as a specialty on their LinkedIn profile and even if you were 'interviewing' them both, you probably wouldn't be able to differentiate based on that one characteristic.

The real problem with some of these soft characteristics is that they are difficult to quantify and place a corresponding value on. In the same way that Apple products are frequently recognized for their design, there is also a chunk of the population that downplays the value of design and questions paying extra for it. Is design a "specialty" for Apple?

The problem for you, Problem Solver, is that you want to be in an environment where your problem solving characteristics are recognized, valued, and rewarded. And that means finding a way to feature your design, your umami, and to reach the audience that values it. Good luck.

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