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Anatomy of a Problem Solver

By: Joe Combs

Human anatomy drawing, old, canvas

Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege to work with some incredibly talented individuals. You know the type: the person who everyone looks to for a creative solution to a thorny problem or has an uncanny knack for getting up above the fray and taking the 50,000-foot view when the rest of the team is mired in the weeds. These are the “problem solvers”. These are the people we’d gladly work with again. But what makes them so special? Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that there are four key traits that all problem solvers possess:

T-Shaped People

If you look at the career track of a problem solver, you will find a great breadth of experience. Sure, they’ve developed a solid depth of knowledge in one or more areas, but they’ve also played numerous roles working in a variety of business domains. At SEI, we frequently talk about whether a candidate has sufficient “road rash” to do what we do. What sets the problem solver apart is a breadth of experience, the ability to draw on lessons learned of past projects and to apply those lessons to the task at hand – especially when that task involves addressing some problem or piece of technology that they’ve never been exposed to before.


In his book Linchpin, author Seth Godin defines the linchpin as a person indispensable to the organization. Godin describes what makes a “linchpin” truly indispensable isn’t some secret knowledge that is kept close to the vest, but it’s their ability to create art – to define creative and unique solutions that help the enterprise differentiate itself. Linchpins are quick to share what they know, empower those around them, and are always on the lookout for the next opportunity to make things better. They are the people who aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions; they are willing to trigger somewhat uncomfortable paradigm shifts while getting everyone involved.

Systems Thinking

Problem solvers have an uncanny ability to decompose a problem. They break it down into its requisite parts and can see how those parts interact as pieces of the whole. It’s no mistake that so many problem solvers have engineering backgrounds and even those without formal engineering training still have a bent toward analytical thinking. Understanding where we came from is the first step to getting to where we need to be. It is this type of thinking that we at SEI use repeatedly to tackle complex client problems.

A Bias for Action

One of the most valuable traits in a problem solver is a bias for action. The act of problem-solving isn’t just a think-tank exercise. It’s a hands-on endeavor that seeks to turn abstract ideas into real-world working solutions and see their implementation through to completion. Many of my colleagues have written about the culture of collaboration we foster at SEI. It’s in our problem solver DNA to seek out creative solutions and it’s our shared bias for action that makes us so willing to offer advice and share our own breadth of experience with our fellow consultants and our clients.

These 4 traits are complementary and essential to becoming a true problem solver. Being a T-shaped person gives the breadth of experience needed to exercise systems thinking. That experience can then be applied to break the problem down into its fundamental parts. Couple this with a strong bias for action and a linchpin’s willingness to share what they know for the good of the team and you’ve got a winning recipe. The world desperately needs problem solvers, people who can bring their skills and experience to bear on any challenge to create a solid solution and drive that solution to the finish line. If you’re a problem solver we’d love to talk about opportunities here at SEI.

Joe Combs


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