Doug Dickerson is an award winning columnist and director of Management Moment Leadership Services. He is the author of the new book, Leaders Without Borders: 9 Essentials for Everyday Leaders. Visit www.dougsmanagementmoment.blogspot.com to learn more.
Problem Solving 101
by Doug Dickerson,posted Jul 15 2013 9:12AM
No one is more definite about the solution than the one who doesn’t understand the problem. - Robert Half
A story is told about a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who used to start his first day of class by putting two figures on the blackboard: 4 2. Then he would ask, “What’s the solution?”
One student would call out, “Six.” Another would say, “Two,” and yet another would say, “Eight.” But the teacher would shake his head in the negative. Then he would point out their collective error. “All of you failed to ask the key question: What is the problem? Gentlemen, unless you know what the problem is, you cannot possibly find the answer.”
Many of the problems your organization faces will come across your desk. While this is not uncommon, especially for a small business, what should not be common is the way you address them. But unless you are tuned in to your people and their needs then what you perceive to be a problem may not be one at all.
Malcolm Forbes said, “When things are bad we take a bit of comfort in the thought that they could always be worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they have to get better.” What hope can be found in knowing that things could be worse? Here are three observations to help you understand problems and make the most of them.
Problems are symptoms. In order to correct a problem you must know what it is. When you are sick you go to the doctor because your body is telling you something is wrong. It’s after you tell the doctor your symptoms that he can make a diagnosis and give you the right medicine to make you well.
Too often in organizations there seems to be an abundance of “physicians” who think they have the cure for what’s wrong but are more like the students in the story who do not understand the problem.
The symptoms may be sluggish sales figures, missed deadlines, loss of productivity, or low morale to name a few. Your job is to get to the root of the problem and make corrections; it’s what sets you apart as a leader. But first, you have to make sure you solving the right problem.
Problems are opportunities. The real test of your leadership comes after identifying the problem. You are not in a position of leadership merely to put out fires. Problems can be blessings in disguise when you tap into the unexpected opportunities they present.
Liu Chi Kung, who placed second to Van Cliburn in the 1948 Tchaikovsky competition, was imprisoned a year later during the Cultural Revolution in China. During the entire seven years he was held, he was denied the use of a piano. Soon after his release, however, he was back on tour.
Critics wrote in astonishment that his musicianship was better than ever. “How did you do this?” a critic asked. “You had no chance to practice for seven years.” “I did practice,” Liu replied, “Every day I rehearsed every piece I have ever played, note by note, in my mind.”
Liu trained himself daily to play his music in spite of his circumstances. As a leader, you have to train yourself to not always see problems, but to see opportunities that can come from them. What opportunities do you see?
Problems are benchmarks. Charles F. Kettering said, “Problems are the price of progress. Don’t bring me anything but trouble—good news weakens me.” Progress seldom comes easy and the problems you face are the signposts on your road of achievement.
Each new challenge you overcome is a testament to your leadership and an example to the rest of your team. It’s when you successfully work though the challenges you face that you model the leadership you expect and the leadership skills that will empower your team.
When problems come be sure to identify them correctly, look for the opportunity you now have, and grow from the experience. What problems will you overcome today?