Sizing Up Problems

Everyone has problems.  They are unavoidable.  Whether at home, at work, among family, or among friends, we all face problems.  I believe, though, that the way we approach problems separates us into two types of people:  those that complain about the problems and those that solve them.  If you find yourself on the solving side of that categorization, then you’re probably a person who, for lack of a better term, gets sh*t done.  If you’re not one of those people who immediately sees solutions, you can develop those skills and eventually become a master solutionist.

My high school instructor never gave out tests, he gave “Opportunities”.  What if we thought about problems in the same way?  What is the opportunity here?  Is there an opportunity for me to grow?  Is there an opportunity for the company?  Because we all face problems in every aspect of our lives, we can apply this forthcoming suggestion to any area, but for the sake of this platform, let’s specifically address how we need to approach problems or opportunities in professional settings.  

First of all, I like to advise people that if you’re going to present a problem, in any situation, then be prepared to also present a solution.  Am I saying that you cannot express frustrations?  No, you most certainly have a right to your frustrations, and it’s healthy for you to express them.  However, there is a time and a place for everything, so I do suggest that if you need to vent about something, do it in the appropriate setting, to the appropriate people and in the appropriate manner.  Otherwise, you run the risk of being perceived as the resident “Eeyore”.  

With the mindset of presenting a problem with a solution there are actually a couple pre-steps to this.  Before you can actually present a solution to a problem, it would be helpful to identify the size and scope of the problem, but to do this effectively we need more information.  First and foremost, we must listen.  One of the great attributes of a leader is the ability and willingness to listen.  Sometimes we solutionists are so ready to jump into action that we don’t listen and miss important pieces of information.  If you can’t tell, I’m a solutionist, and there are many times when I have to remind myself to listen.  I exercise this skill on a daily basis with my team, clients, and other partners in the space.  

Secondly, don’t be afraid when presented with a problem to ask some clarifying questions.  Depending on the temperature of the situation you can ask, “May I ask some clarifying questions? It will help me navigate as I prepare a solution.”  If the moment is not right, revert back to listening and come back to that person to gain the clarity you need.  

Now we have our problem with clarity-seeking questions, we can continue to size and scope, which will help make our solution more effective.  My daughter gave me a great example of this one day with some homework from her life skills class. Her teacher used weather as the analogy for assessing problems and how to approach them. The scale she used is brilliant, and I’ve adapted the same ideologies to the business world.

  • Windy = tiny problem, no biggie–Handle on your own.
  • Rainy = small problem–Solve on your own.
  • Stormy = medium problem–Engage with colleagues to solve.
  • Tornado = big problem–Enlist executive help or sponsorship to resolve.

Of course, problems can be complicated and multi-faceted.  I realize that the process of actually solving the problem may be a little more involved than this system of assessment, but you have to start somewhere.  That first step of assessment can make or break how you address the problem.  If you are successful in gauging the size of your obstacle, I believe you will be more likely to be successful in solving it.  Furthermore, becoming a person who can effectively assess and solve problems is an invaluable skill that is sure to open many doors for you, both personally and professionally.