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8 Problem-Solving Tips for Leaders from The Martian

Sperry Van Ness Falvey Group - Thursday, January 14, 2016

Leaders on Earth and Mars: To Infinity and Beyond?

If you have read the book The Martian by Andy Weir or seen the Matt Damon movie version, you can’t help but wonder, “Would I be able to survive alone on Mars?” Fortunately most of us won’t be stranded on a planet forced to solve problems that have life or death consequences. But, as leaders, we face a number of seemingly insurmountable problems that need solving on a daily basis. Here are eight tips that can help us all become better problem-solvers – and leaders – at work.

1. Reframe the problem

The bigger the problem; the greater the anxiety. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially when juggling many problems at the same time. The first step is to stop thinking about them as problems. Instead, reframe them as challenges. This entails more than simply substituting the word, but seeking out the challenges within your problem. (Warning: SPOILER ALERT ahead).

In The Martian, Mark Watney, the main character, was traveling in a solar-powered vehicle across mars when he ran into a massive dust storm. This was an enormous problem. The dust blocked the sun he needed to power his vehicle. Instead of focusing on the problem, i.e. the dust storm, he found the challenge: he needed his solar panels to receive more light from Mars’ sun. By focusing on how he could get more solar energy, he eventually found a way to navigate out of and around the storm.

2. Break the big problems down into manageable steps.

Along the way to solving any big problem, there are always smaller steps. While it helps to understand and communicate the desired end result, focus on the first step. Steps are smaller and less anxiety provoking. For Watney on Mars, there was a point when he needed to find a way to get from one small airlock back to the main one. That was the big problem. But before he could even think about that, he needed to buy some time. The first step was to fix his Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit to preserve his air. If he focused on the bigger problem and not the more immediate first step, he would never have made it.

3. Surround yourself with experts.

While Watney had a lot of time and problem solving by himself on Mars, whenever he had communications with Earth, he took their advice … at least most of the time. There were occasions when he went with his gut because as he noted, he was now the world’s expert at surviving on Mars. Regardless of your expertise, the best teams contain diverse experts who not only know their expertise but also their limitations. See 7 Signs Your Team is Functioning at Top Capacity for tips on how to build a team that works well together.

4. Science the sh*t out of it.

This is the most famous line in the movie (although it does not appear in the book!) and it applies to even us non-scientific types. The scientific method works by testing, observing and measuring; in other words, actual facts. Lay out a plan that helps you test and observe the possibilities. Facts are not as subjective; they help extract the emotion so you can handle the pressure and make the right decision.

5. Learn from failures.

If you are sciencing the sh*t out of the problem, that means you will be having one little failure after another.

6. Know when to switch to plan B

Any leader can come up with a Plan A and even articulate the plan to the entire team. A good leader will also have a Plan B in mind. A great leader will know when to abandon Plan A and switch to Plan B. This is never easy because a lot of time, money and resources may have gone into Plan A. Stakeholders may be personally invested in Plan A and leaders are only human and can get attached to their own plans. But if you are learning from failure and sciencing the sh*t out of it, it will be easier to identify when it is time to switch, plus you will have the data to stand behind your decision.

7. Be an optimist.

If you are stuck alone … on Mars … you need to be an optimist. The same goes for leaders, even when they don’t know the answers. If leaders are not optimists about their own businesses, then who else is going to be? Read more on 5 Reasons Why Optimists Make Better Leaders.

8. Keep your sense of humor.

In The Martian (book version) the astronauts’ psychologist opined that of all the astronauts to be left behind on that mission, Watney had the highest chance of survival, not due to his expertise as a botanist and engineer, but due to his sense of humor. In 2010, the New York Times covered research that connected humor to creative problem solving. As a leader, you don’t have to be funny. Trust me, if your team is under pressure, almost any chance to laugh off nervous energy is welcome. Humor is bonding. And it opens the door for the much funnier members of the team to chime in.

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower