Leaders and other decision-makers often paint themselves into a corner by refusing to consider more than one option to achieve their aims. But, as I was taught in the military, there is always more than one route to the objective. In tactical terms, you can at least go left, right, and centre. Sometimes you can get even fancier and go over the enemy – such as in an airborne or heliborne assault. In naval warfare, a submarine is a way to go under the enemy’s warships. In the days of siege warfare, besieging armies would tunnel under the enemies walls to lay explosives. This was known as “undermining.” Get the picture?

In working with my consulting and coaching clients – senior executives, entrepreneurs, and their teams – I’ve noticed that they can often see their problem (or at least can be brought to see it fairly easily), but then they immediately jump to a solution or a way forward. While this may work in routine situations, when you’re in a crisis or considering the future strategy and plans for your group, it can be very dangerous. By focusing only on one means to your end, you fail to see the many other ways of achieving your desired outcome. Considering multiple alternatives and options forces you to be more creative and to consider possible obstacles and hindrances. When you know what might occur, you can make provision for the inevitable setbacks.

Think of as many ways as feasible to solve your problem or to get to where you’re trying to go. At the very least you should consider a minimum of three different options. Sometimes you can consider even more. This opens up the possibilities to increased creativity in problem-solving and decision-making. A powerful approach is to get your team and other collaborators involved in generating potential solutions and alternative routes to the objective.

When I’m helping others in planning and problem-solving, my first question when they ask me what to do is to respond: “What options do you have?” This always leads to a fruitful discussion about alternative paths to resolution or achievement. If people are having a hard time coming up with options, I start listing ones, or simply ask “what if” type questions. Within seconds the creativity starts flowing and they are discussing real possibilities, as opposed to just seeing one way forward.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted for non-commercial purposes with full and proper attribution.

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