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 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!