Whether your boardroom is in a downtown skyrise or at your kitchen table, we all encounter problems that need highly effective solutions. The very nature of problems, though, is that we don’t see them until the damage has already been done. We tend to start by focusing on the damage we need to repair first.
With a focus on repairing damage, we push forward and soon, fixing immediate damage becomes our only objective; we lose sight of the fact that something caused the problem and that there may be bigger implications. We repair the damage without solving the problem. We may have the ability to solve it, but we’re starting in the wrong place.
Here’s My Experience
When I ran my second company, we would often work with hardware that needed to be installed at the client’s location. It seemed pretty straightforward, mostly plug-and-play. I once arrived at a client’s location and began the installation when, suddenly, the computer went black. We didn’t worry much about it until we realized that it wasn’t just an issue with the monitor; the computer had crashed. The situation turned dire when the client informed me that their CRM data was stored on that hard drive and nowhere else. I worked frantically to repair the damage. I struggled with constant stress and anxiety for two days as I tried to retrieve the database from a dysfunctional computer. In the end, I retrieved their database and bought them a new computer. It took nearly 9 months for me to break-even on that client and while the damage to the computer had been fixed, my relationship with the customer was strained and never fully recovered.
I struggled with constant stress and anxiety for two days as I tried to retrieve the database from a dysfunctional computer. In the end, I retrieved their database and bought them a new computer. It took nearly 9 months for me to break even on that client and, while the damage to the computer had been fixed, my relationship with the customer was strained and never fully recovered.
Not long after that incident, one of my account managers was installing a different piece of hardware when they knocked a prototype off the desk they were working at. Naturally, the prototype did not survive the fall and we were left to once again fix the damage.
3 Tips to Help You Solve the Real Problem
As incidents like this piled up and we repaired one thing after another, I began looking for insurance that might protect us from another crashed computer or busted prototype. Had I instead taken the following three pieces of advice, the solution to my problems would have been much simpler and effective.
Tip #1: Assume it’s the wrong problem. In this HBR article, Peter Bregman suggests asking the question, “If the problem you’re trying to solve weren’t the problem, what else might it be?”
Sometimes, we’re just trying to solve the wrong problem. One clue that you’re working on the wrong thing is if you’ve explored every possibility and still can’t solve the problem. As Bregman points out, “if you’ve tried to solve a problem with every solution you can think of, your challenge isn’t finding a better solution. It’s finding a better problem.”
My problem wasn’t paying for the damage, as my search for insurance might indicate; my problem was that the damage was occurring in the first place. If I had tried to solve that problem rather than repair the damage, I would have come up with a much stronger solution.
Tip #2: Ignore the damage. Instead, ask yourself, “If I could ignore the damage, how might I solve this problem differently?”
It is a human tendency to focus too heavily on the first piece of information we receive. In psychology, this is referred to as an anchoring bias. The nature of problems is that we often encounter them after some damage has been done. So, our anchoring bias
—or the information we tend to focus too heavily on —is the damage. We can subconsciously get tunnel vision and begin to focus exclusively on the damage. By asking the question, “If I could ignore the damage, how might I solve the problem?” we can override our anchoring bias consciously. We can free ourselves to think about alternative solutions that actually solve the problem rather than focus exclusively on the damage we’ve done.
In my example, my anchoring bias was the cost, associated with the hardware installations, gone wrong. Instead, my focus should have been on why the hardware installations were causing problems in the first place. If I had been able to get my thoughts away from the damage, I might have come up with some really simple and powerful solutions as I do now.
Tip #3: Find an easy solution easy rather than looking at a hard problem. Don’t overcomplicate your life; there’s usually a simpler solution to a hard problem than you think!
One approach to problem-solving is to make the behaviors that cause the problem harder to accomplish. So we turn to rules, policies, consequences, and barriers –believing that if behaviors leading to the problem are harder to do, they won’t happen…which isn’t entirely right.
History shows that we can never really place enough barriers in order to completely prevent the problem. Another and more powerful approach is to make the solution easy to execute rather than just making the problem harder to do. This is especially important when the solution requires a change in behavior, which it almost always does!
In the context of my company, we tried training two employees whose only role was to install the hardware. The policy was that no one else would perform those installations. This approach made it harder for everyone else in the company to create a problem by installing the hardware. It didn’t, however, make the solution any easier.
Eventually, we arrived at the right solution. But for it to work, it actually solved a different problem. In the end, we ignored the damage and made the solution easy: we stopped installing the hardware altogether.
Next time you jump into problem-solving, remind yourself of these three tips to arrive at a more effective solution more quickly.