Looking for Problems

Someone told me recently that looking for problems is not a healthy outlook. I suggested to them that at least in business, not looking for problems was a fatal outlook.

I suppose it all depends on why you’re looking for problems. If you’re looking for problems so that you always have a fresh supply of things to complain about then obviously that is not helping anyone. Especially you. 

If you’re looking for problems so they can be changed from an obstacle to an opportunity well then that’s a completely different story. 

I think everyone looks for problems. I also think everyone looks for problems for both of those reasons. The question is, how much time do you spend looking for problems to complain about and how much time do you invest in looking for problems to solve? 

The answer to that question provides a huge clue about the level of your success. 

We all sometimes fall into the trap of complaining about problems. The most successful people don’t complain for long. 

The most successful people look for problems with the intent to solve them. They may solve a problem for others or they may want to solve a problem for themselves. They may also want to solve problems to make money cause making life easier for others can be very profitable. 

Here’s the difference between looking for problems to find problems and looking for problems to solve. One leads to a healthy outlook on life and one leads to permanent attendance at the world’s largest pity party. 

When successful people walk into a pity party they immediately start looking for a door to get themselves back out. Walking in may have felt good but they just can’t tolerate the atmosphere once they are inside. 

The exit door they are looking for is labeled “Positive Attitude.” It is labeled that way because it is impossible to wallow in problems when you have a positive attitude. 

Maintaining a positive attitude is step one in solving any problem. A positive attitude widens your vision. It allows you to not only see the problem but all the potential solutions orbiting around the problem. 

There has yet to be a problem discovered that doesn’t have a solution. There are only problems that have yet to have their solution discovered. 

I have also yet to see a problem that was solved by merely complaining about it. There are likely enough people reading this that one of you will one day solve what today is thought to be an unsolvable problem. Of that I have no doubt. 

One of you will cure an incurable disease. One of you will invent something that will make the world more livable, even if we don’t know we need it today. It’s not that hard because even if the problem you’ve solved only makes the world better for one person you have still made the world a better place. 

That all begins with making the choice to solve a problem rather than complain about it. 

Will YOU make that choice today?

How…and When to Solve Problems

I saw an article a while back that said, “problem solving is the essence of what leaders exist to do.” While problem solving is a critical skill for all Authentic Leaders it is most certainly NOT the  “essence” of what they exist to do. 

If you were to ask me I’d say the true essence of Authentic Leadership is influencing others to become leaders themselves. Authentic Leaders do not grow a bigger following, they grow more leaders. It is the leaders they develop who will prevent many problems from happening in the first place. 

If someone in a leadership position is spending the majority of their time solving problems and putting out fires it is very likely they are not an Authentic Leader. It is far more likely that they are a first class arsonist. They are better at putting out fires because they started most of them. 

But, despite the best efforts of even the most accomplished leaders problems do pop up periodically. Authentic Leaders don’t run from them, they solve them.

Here is an effective 7 Step Process that many Authentic Leaders use when facing a problem. I didn’t develop this process but I can tell you that following it will help you permanently solve a problem. 

7 Step Problem Solving Process

Step 1: Define the Problem. What is the problem? 

Step 2: Clarify the Problem.

Step 3: Define the Goals. 

Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem. 

Step 5: Develop Action Plan. 

Step 6: Execute Action Plan. 

Step 7: Evaluate the Results. 

There are two areas I want to focus on. First is step four, identify the root cause of the problem. When I think about the root cause of problems I’m reminded of the story of a top executive of a Dog Food Company speaking to his entire sales and marketing team. Sales had been slipping and his talk was one of those “rally the troops” kind of talks. He began by asking “who has the best dog food in the world?” 

The team responded with shouts of “WE DO!” He then asked who has the best sales and marketing teams in the industry?” Again he was met with shouts of “IT’S US, WE DO!” Then he asked, “So why aren’t we selling more Dog Food?” To which he was met with a deafening silence. 

Finally one brave salesperson spoke up and said, “because the dogs don’t like our dog food.” That lone salesperson had just identified the root cause of the drop in sales. Many companies would have identified the loss of sales as the problem and invested in sales promotions and marketing programs. That would not have solved the real problem because they were not dealing with the root cause. 

Without understanding the root cause of a problem the best outcome you can hope for is covering up the problem with a bandaid. The real problem still exists. You may feel better because you’ve “done something” but you haven’t solved the problem. 

The next area I want to focus on is step six, execute the action plan. See that word “action” right before plan? The best plan in the world has no chance if it’s never put into action. It may sound surprising but many many good plans fail for that very reason, they are never put into action. 

If you’re not going to put your plan into action save yourself a bunch of time and skip the first 5 steps. Then learn to live with the problem cause it’s going to be a permanent house guest.

Now let’s discuss when to solve a problem. The best time to solve a problem might be as soon as it’s identified. It also might be the worst time to solve a problem. 

If you have all the information you need to permanently solve a problem then go ahead and solve it immediately. But I’m going to guess that of you had all the information to permanently solve a problem that the problem wouldn’t exist in the first place. 

So live with the problem a bit. Invest some time with it. Get to know it. Work to understand it. Examine it from all angles. Ask others to do the same. Gather loads of information about the problem and possible solutions.

Then use the 7 step process to pick the best solution and solve the problem permanently. 

Of course there will be times when you won’t have the luxury of getting to know the complete problem. Sometimes you’ll need to use your instincts and experience to “guess your best.” But if you’re an experienced process driven problem solver your best guess is going to be pretty darn good. 

One final thought, your attitude matters when dealing with problems. So don’t see even the biggest problem as an obstacle. See it for what it really is, a huge opportunity to improve. 

If that’s your mindset then your problem is half-solved already. 

The High Cost of Low Action

Few things grow as effortlessly as a problem ignored. Yet many times that’s just what less experienced leaders do, they ignore problems. Truth be told, very experienced leaders have been known to make this mistake as well.

 

It’s an easy trap to fall into.They tell themselves “It’s not so bad” and delude themselves with the hope that their circumstances will somehow just get better over time and things will “work themselves out.” They come up with poor excuses for why staying with the status quo is a good option; why playing it safe and not putting themselves at risk of failing or looking foolish is “plausible.”  

 

In reality, things that aren’t working out well now only tend to get worse over time, not better, and issues that remain unaddressed tend to grow larger, not smaller.

 

Some people won’t even admit the problem exists in the first place. Others “decide” the problem isn’t their fault or was caused by someone else thereby relieving themselves of any responsibility to deal with it. 

 

Doing nothing is easier, faster and cheaper….at least until the bill comes due. 

 

And it always comes due.

 

Authentic Leaders and successful people in general deal with problems as quickly as possible. Yes, sometimes they will live with it a bit but that’s only because they need to know a problem in order to solve it. 

 

If you want a greater level of success in your life and a lower amount of stress then deal with the problem the moment you have identified it. By “identify” I mean really identify, the number one reason most people fail at problem solving is that they deal with symptoms of the problem and never actually the root cause. 

 

One of my favorite stories is the one about the CEO of a dog food company who while speaking to his entire sales organization began his presentation by asking, “Who is the best dog food company in the world?” “WE ARE” shouted his charged up sales team. The CEO then asked, “Who makes the best dog food in the world?” “WE DO” his team answered in unison. Next he asked, “What dog food company has the best, most committed sales force in the industry?” With their loudest answer of all his team shouted, “IT’S US!”

 

Finally the CEO asks, “Well, then, why aren’t we selling more dog food?” Upon asking that question a silence fell over the room, it lasted for what seemed like an eternity until one brave salesperson responded with a hushed reply. He simply said, “The dogs don’t like it.”

 

Now, how many companies do you think would have doubled their marketing efforts, maybe replaced their sales force or perhaps even lowered their price, all in the attempt to deal with the “problem” of low sales? 

 

That’s an example of dealing with symptoms of a problem rather than the actual problem. I would however give those companies some credit, they at least tried to deal with the problem. 

 

Problems seldom if ever go away by ignoring them. It almost always costs more in the long run to dismiss problems than it does to deal with them quickly. Low action problem solving is the shortest path to high cost problems.


Authentic Leaders don’t dodge problems, they deal with them….are you ready to Lead Today?

The Problem With Problems

A very long time ago I worked for a company that offered the finest training available anywhere. They still do. It is simply life-changing training that no other training organization has been able to duplicate, despite the fact that many have tried.

I was tasked with penetrating a very large account, one of the largest companies in the world, that we had done virtually no business with. They were all very nice people, happy to grant me time and “answer” any question I asked. The question I asked most frequently was: what type of problems do you face in your role?

The answer was always the same: nothing, not a thing, no problems at all.

With tens of thousands of employees spread around the world I knew that just wasn’t possible. But everyone answered the same. I asked my father, a 40 year employee of this large organization why they wouldn’t share with me.

He told me that they were being open, there just wasn’t any “problems.” There were issues, challenges, and opportunities but no problems, absolutely zero problems.

I changed my tactics and began to ask about challenges and issues. The combination of that new strategy on my part, and a change in leadership near the top of the organization resulted in it becoming the largest account ever for the world renowned training company.

It turns out the management team at the company I was trying to sell to was well-coached to think not in terms of problems but rather challenges and opportunities. Maybe too well coached.

Problems are real, they need to be addressed differently than mere challenges and opportunities. Left unattended problems almost always grow. Left unattended problems can destroy even the best organizations.

Here’s why I’m writing about this now. I wrote a post on problem solving a while back and in the post I recommended “living” with a problem a bit before trying to solve it. There are many benefits to getting to know a problem before rushing to eliminate it. When we “solution jump” we may address a symptom but miss the real underlying cause. Getting to know the problem makes that less likely.

So here’s the problem with my problem solving advice. Sometimes when we live with a problem too long we stop noticing the problem. We get too cozy with it. We see newer, fresher problems and begin to focus on those. Meanwhile, the first problem begins to grow under the surface until it is much harder to solve. Sometimes much much harder.

So here’s an addendum to my advice. Yes, live with a problem a bit before rushing to solve it. But LIVE with it, don’t get comfortable with it. Put a deadline on how long you’re willing to live with it. When the deadline arrives take action. Even if you have no additional insights or information take action based on what you do have. Even if you don’t have the total solution ACT on the information you have. A partial solution is better than no solution. The key is action.

That large organization I referred to had many unsolved problems because mere “challenges” didn’t seem so urgent. When we used that ugly word “problem” many things changed for the better. Working with that company is how I learned that semantics do matter.

Problem solving requires action, never put up with a problem for so long that it convinces you that it’s not really a problem. Don’t mistake a challenge for a problem. The first can help you grow, the second can help you grow or be the death of you. The first one can be your friend, the second most certainly is not.

Now, go deal with that problem you’ve been tolerating way too long!

What’s the Rush?

Haste makes waste.

That truism is never more true than when it comes to problem solving. When you rush to solve a problem you run the risk of actually making the problem worse. You may misidentify the problem and end up “solving” a symptom. It could appear that the problem is gone but it’s seldom gone for long. When it comes back it’s often bigger and it’s often more expensive to solve.

Misidentifying a problem, failing to discover the root cause of an issue, is the single biggest mistake a problem-solver can make. Yet it’s made all the time. I think it’s because too many people aim to instantly fix a problem.

We live in a world where Minute Rice just isn’t fast enough anymore. We want everything now, immediately, if not sooner. We especially want problems solved, preferably before anyone knows there’s a problem.

Sometimes it’s best to slow down and live with a problem for a while.

When we live with a problem for a bit we get to know it, we understand it more. We know it’s origins and it’s likely our solution will be much better. Not only better but permanent.

Slowing down does not mean doing nothing. Study the problem, discuss it, look at it from different angles. Learn from it, above all, learn about it. The best problem-solvers have patience and they know enough to never mistake procrastination for that patience. Never forget, there is a difference between moving a little more slowly and not moving at all.

Do not slow down because you don’t know what to do, slow down so that you will know with certainty what needs to be done.

Some people see more in a walk around the block than others see in a trip around the world. Great problem-solvers, like great leaders, walk slowly through the halls, they listen, watch and learn with every step.

Now a good number of people reading this post will say slowing down is a luxury that they can’t afford. They have to “get it done” ASAP! Time is money! You know how it goes.

But you also know that if you don’t have the time to fix it right the first time you’ll never have the time to do it a second time. A shortage of time is EXACTLY the reason you should slow down.

So save yourself some time, slow down and solve the problem once.

There’s no rush to do it twice.