The Familiar Can Help Leaders Solve Problems


Think back to a time that you needed to embrace a change in your life. What were your feelings during that experience? What helped you ease into the new, unchartered situation? How did you comfort yourself to believe that your next steps on your journey would be the right ones? Reaching back to a similar or familiar part of our past can often be the ignition to propel us forward. The lessons we learned and the comfort zones we established are the very tools we can draw upon when faced with uncertainty.

 During a training program I presented on problem solving this week, we focused on creative ways to approach resolving organizational and individual roadblocks. After spending a great deal of time defining our problems, we talked about strategies to discover possible solutions. One particular technique seemed to resonate with everyone: thinking about how a current problem is similar to a challenge we may have faced previously.

 One group decided to focus on the problem of moving into a new job within the company. Both scary and exciting, the change brought great anxiety. We’ve all had that happen whether we are making a large move in our positions or taking on new tasks or responsibilities. Then I posed this question to the leaders:

 What does this problem seem similar to in our pasts?

 Eyes lit up. Smiles came to faces. Wonderful responses began to flow. We all have experienced change so we all have reflective stories to share. The analogy that the group settled on was that moving to a new job was similar to learning how to drive a car for the first time. With a new work position, it will be necessary to master the new skills and the tools like the windshield wiper location, the cruise control button or the high beams. Thinking about how it felt to acquaint ourselves with the responsibilities of driving was like learning the ins and outs of a new work team and new tasks. By drawing on how we gained the knowledge from a familiar challenge, empowers us to tackle new endeavors.

 If you have to a problem to solve that seems insurmountable, trying to look at how the obstacle is similar to a past challenge can be helpful. Let your mind roam and think of metaphors that mirror what is presently happening. The familiar lessons can carve out perspective and direction to take.

 How do you approach problem solving? Are you a good problem solver? Would love to hear some strategies you have used.


(photo credit)

18 thoughts on “The Familiar Can Help Leaders Solve Problems

  1. Dear Terry!
    It is so true that looking backward is the best teacher to advance forward. We don’t have to build anything from scratch we just need to learn from our previous experience, or someone else experience, to solve difficult problems.
    As a communication engineer, I can say that most current systems are simply modification/ upgrade of previously known ones. I guess this apply not just to ICT but to any encountered challenging problems.


  2. Your advice in this post is spot-on! I’ve always found that the best way to confront obstacles and adversity is by looking at past patterns. Sometimes it’s not the way I overcame something but the path I did not chose that creates regret. Either way, learn from your past so you can be stronger in the future! Excellent article!

  3. It is amazing, Hoda, how much we experience daily as leaders that we are able to learn from. I love how you put it that there is no need to build anything from scratch- the lessons are already within our reach.

    As a communication expert, simple tweeks can provide extraordinary change and resolution. We just need to take the time to reflect and bring those past familiar situations into our current roles.

    Thanks for the great additions, Hoda as well as stopping by!


  4. Our past experiences do empower us to learn from past mistakes or outstanding outcomes. Both provide us with lessons to grasp onto and integrate into our current problem solving and decision-making.

    I am always amazed how we repeat our choices and although they might not work in one situation, they will be just the answer in another situation.

    Thanks LaRae for validating the importance of looking backwards with open eyes!

  5. Excellent post! You bring forward a great distinction, one that we must think about as we move forward….

    Life can only be understood by looking at our past as it leads us towards our future!

    The familiar can help leaders and it can make them better.

    Thanks for your brilliant insight. I always love reading your thoughts


  6. Great use of a metaphor Terri. I could just picture what it’s like to sit in a new car and having to learn where all the controls are.

    Skills can always be learned. All of us can think of times in our life where we had to learn new skills. We can think of it as a scary task or reframe our perspective to think of it as an exciting new adventure.

  7. Yes! Sometimes when we feel stuck, we just had to gain courage from what we’ve seen before. We took our son rollerskating this afternoon. He hates feeling incompetent and was getting so frustrated as he kept hitting the floor. My husband and I have seen this movie before, and now know that when he approaches new tasks, we just need to back away and let him work through the frustration and keep trying… no attempts to help work. We were a little worried about a broken arm, but drawing on past experience helped us reduce our anxiety and let him go… cry… and go some more. By the end of the session he was skating well, smiling, and playing with the other kids.

  8. Thanks Lolly for your continued support and wonderful comments! Our past experiences can really help us think of better ways to approach our current problems.

    I appreciate you!


  9. I think analogies and metaphors are such a helpful way to think about how to approach challenges and changes. Additionally, looking at how we overcame past obstacles can remind us how to gain perspective and choose the right path.

    Thanks for your terrific additions!

  10. You are one, smart mother, Karin! Our children provide us with so many lessons that we probably should keep an on-going journal of how to approach what life has to offer. But it is true, that when we look at how we usually cope with new opportunities and what our pattern are, we can apply those behaviors to our current roadblocks or changes. I too have seen repetitive movies with my kids!

  11. What a wonderful post, Terri! It’s true, looking back can be just the thing we need to move forward with competence, confidence and creativity. Looking back can help us see lessons that were lost to us the first time around when we were too “in it” to notice! Often, we know what to do but need to pause and see what we already know to be true before we can do it. Framing the question the way you have is a great way to go!

  12. I love your additions, Alli, about competence, confidence and creativity! Those are such important leadership elements in approaching problem solving. Lessons from past experiences and thinking of problems through metaphors can help us tackle even the toughest of situations. I know you write so much about life lessons and leadership that mirror one another and empower us to grow in both our personal and professional worlds.
    Thanks Alli!

  13. Wonderful post Terri. Looking back helps us think twice and not repeat the same mistakes. It makes us wiser and experienced. Each of us are a whole person and one cannot move forward till we learn from our past.

    Love the way you have articulated your thoughts on this.


  14. It is true that we learn from our past, and hopefully apply those lessons when we encounter change as well as obstacles. I think we are sometimes so focused on new ways and ideas that we don’t pay homage to our past experiences.
    Thanks so much Lalita! I appreciate you.

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