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. 

Calm Seas

I’ve never met a sailor who didn’t prefer sailing on calm seas. Who can blame them, it’s just easier. Everyone likes easy.

But here’s the thing, almost all of us are paid to navigate choppy seas. If you’re in sales this is especially true. Sales by my definition is changing someone’s attitude from neutral or even negative about your product, to a positive attitude. Positive enough to buy your product or service.

Those “seas” of changing someone’s attitude can be very very choppy.

If you’re in any type of customer service role you almost never experience calm seas. Customers seldom call or show up at your counter to tell you everything is perfect. It’s just the opposite, almost 100% of the customers you deal with are unhappy and it’s your job to turn that unhappiness into sheer delight. Sometimes the seas you navigate aren’t only choppy, they are downright hurricane like.

Almost every job and position have challenges. Thank goodness for that. If they were easy, if there were no headwinds, if there were never any problems, a whole lotta people would be out of work.

If customers were convinced your products were always the best and provided the best value then your company wouldn’t need any salespeople. If nothing ever broke then service people would be a thing of the past. If every customer was delighted every single time the role of customer service person would be history.

If there were no problems in business then a whole bunch of businesses would need a lot less people. You would never see the term “problem solver” on a résumé again.

All that being the case I find it amazing how many salespeople dislike having to convince people to buy their products. Service people can get bitter over constantly having to fix things that break. I’ve heard many people in customer service roles say how much easier their jobs would be if the customers would all just go away.

You and everyone else are not paid to sail your organization’s ship on calm seas. You are paid to navigate the rough spots. Your role likely exists in one way or another to solve or overcome problems. The very problems you may complain about from time to time, or maybe even more often than that.

When you stop and think of it like that it doesn’t make much since to complain…does it? So don’t complain! Be thankful for the challenges your job provides you because it’s those challenges that provide your income.

No job is perfect. No job is always easy. Every job has its challenges and that might be the best news you’ll hear all week.

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?

Do You Have a Problem?

“The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.” – Albert Ellis

The title of this post is a fair question…do you have a problem… because sometimes a problem really isn’t a problem.

Determining whether or not you really have a problem is the first step in problem solving. Trying to solve a problem that isn’t really a problem is a huge cause of unnecessary stress. It also prevents us from using our resources to solve real problems which in turn causes more stress.

Before you try to solve a problem you need to ask yourself if it is indeed a problem. Ask yourself if “this” will matter in 5 years, 5 months, or even 5 minutes. What will the consequences be if you do nothing. It is vital that you don’t lie to yourself when answering these questions. Many real problems are allowed to grow simply because someone lied to themselves about the seriousness of the problem. 

It’s poor leadership to try solving problems that don’t exist but ignoring problems that do exist is leadership at it’s worst. 

When determining whether or not you have a real problem consider the words my dad has frequently shared with me: Never make a mountain out of a molehill.

If you’ve decided that you have a real problem then stop fighting it. Just accept it. In Dale Carnegie’s great book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” he says one way to eliminate stress is to accept our problem and the worst outcome that it can produce. He also adds that once you have accepted the worst you should try to improve upon it. 

When you try to improve upon the worst never forget to ask for help. It’s unlikely that you’re the first person to have this problem so ask around. Ask what other people have done in similar situations. Ask what worked and what didn’t. When trying to solve problems there is no requirement that you go it alone so do what successful problem solvers do… ask for help.

Don’t waste your energy complaining about what is. Invest your energy and resources searching for solutions. Complaining about a problem does not solve it, criticizing the source of the problem does not make the problem go away. So focus on solutions and make your efforts count.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The problem may be too big to solve all at once so break it into pieces if that makes it more manageable. Sometimes solving part of a problem makes the overall solution come into view. Few problems were created in a day so don’t feel a need to “fix” a problem all at once. 

Virtually every problem brings with it the opportunity to learn and grow. You have the choice to look at problems as a negative or as an opportunity for self-improvement. 

Be aware, if you choose to look at every problem as a negative you may have a much bigger problem than you think.

 

Don’t Worry About Mistakes and Problems

Mistakes and problems have much in common. One (mistakes) will very often cause the other (problems). No one likes either, we complain about problems and we dislike mistakes, so much so that we often refuse to admit making one. 

The other thing that mistakes and problems have in common is that less successful people seem to dwell on them. They linger much longer than is required to learn from a problem and sometimes they hang onto a mistake (usually someone else’s) as if it were a treasured heirloom. 

Successful people learn from their mistakes. The most successful people learn from the mistakes of others. Successful people see a problem as something to be tackled and overcome. The most successful people see a problem for what it is, an opportunity to come out of a situation better than they went into it.

Some people worry about problems, successful people worry about how to solve them. The most successful people don’t worry….. they know mistakes and problems will happen and they develop plans, in advance, to correct and overcome them.

The most successful people also know this simple fact: you are unlikely to ever fix a mistake you won’t admit was made and you’ll never overcome a problem you refuse to acknowledge exists. 

Dale Carnegie said that when we make a mistake we should admit it “quickly and emphatically.” Denying your mistake is another mistake; it makes it hard for others to help you. When we accept our part in a mistake and acknowledge it then others can be more willing to help us fix it. 

That means that the first step in fixing a mistake is admitting it. Acknowledge it, be specific, be honest and straightforward. Be brief as well, you’re admitting a mistake not making a speech. There is no need to make the mistake bigger than it is as a show of contrition. Accept your responsibility, apologize if an apology is called for and move on.

Problems for the most part are dealt with “automatically.” You see a problem, something doesn’t work right, you either fix it or get it fixed. You run out of something around the house you go and get more.  Most people deal with problems all the time, the little ones we don’t even really call a problem. By the way, if you have a solution it is in fact NOT a real problem.

What are real problems however are the situations that we don’t know how to deal with. Problems may also be something we do know how to deal with but it’s too unpleasant or uncomfortable for us to tackle. So we avoid it. 

There are lots of good problem solving strategies to be found on the web but let me offer you the most important one here.

Do not ignore any problem hoping it with go away on it’s own. Do not hope “no one notices” or “no one finds out.” Somebody will notice and somebody will find out. Big problems were once just little problems that were ignored or hidden. Problems do not normally fix themselves. Problems do not magically disappear and they do not typically grow smaller. 

Delay and procrastination are the fertilizers that little problems need to grow into big ones. Solve the problem the moment you know how to solve the problem, once you have a solution there is no logical reason to delay.

The most successful people don’t fertilize their problems, they eradicate them! How about you?

 

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!