Think Your Problems are Too Big to Solve? Think Again


After years of helping businesses improve their performance, I’ve learned a secret I’ll let you in on – there’s no magic fairy dust for overcoming difficult problems. It can be done if you’re willing to think differently and take action – but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Anytime you try to change and grow, it feels awkward.

Concentrate on the Horizon, not the Mountain

For starters, you need to focus on the outcome you want, not just the problem. Not enough clients coming through the door? Not engaged in work that fulfills you? Or maybe your firm has staffing concerns. Whatever it is, the good news is that you have way more power to overcome your problems than you probably realize. 

In my experience as a professional mediator, I was constantly struck by the power of attitude when it came to tackling problems. As a hospital president and strategic advisor to other firms, I see the power of attitude all the time, as well as in everyday life. People are quick to say what they can’t do, but ask them what they can do, and you often get deafening silence. Conversely, if they think they can do something, they often will. 

Accepting a situation as “just the way it is” robs you of getting what you really want. Given the ever-changing business environment, such complacency can also hamper your career. The World Economic Forum asked 350 executives to list the top 10 skills employers will seek by 2020. Complex problem solving was number one.   

Developing or sharpening the problem-solving mindset also gives you an edge in competition. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, about 49% of work activities can now be automated with current technology. How do you amplify the work only you can do?  How do you add value for your clients?  

Articulating what success looks like to you is critical and gets you started on a positive foot.  Make sure you can clearly say what you are seeking as an ideal outcome. 

Separate What Matters from the Noise

This part of problem solving is closely linked with focusing on your ideal outcome. Having a clear vision of what you want will help tune out distractions. We face competing demands on our time almost every minute of every day. Emails, social media, requests from others, you name it.  When deciding if you should spend time on something, ask yourself:  will this help me achieve my goal [and solve this problem]?  If so, then should it be a priority?

I won’t say it’s easy to set boundaries and say no (no matter how nicely you say it), especially in the beginning. But the more you recognize and accept that you have finite time and energy, the easier it becomes to keep your eye on the proverbial prize. I advise my clients to pick a limited number of priorities, two or three at most.

It is vital to recognize that when you are unwilling to say “no” or “not now,” whether personally or professionally, you are giving away control over your time and your priorities.  If you aren’t okay with that, give yourself the freedom to take action on YOUR priorities by saying “no.”

Embrace Discomfort

Avoiding the pain or discomfort of working through a problem, while tempting, is simply prolonging the current pain or discomfort. I once had a client whose business had a long-standing issue he’d been afraid to address. As his adviser, I commented that he was playing a mix of Russian Roulette and ostrich, and I wasn’t sure why.  It just prolonged his agony. After our conversation, he decided to act, and his relief was palpable as we conquered the problem. While he succeeded eventually, he lost years of potential growth and revenue by not taking action earlier.

Discomfort can come from a variety of sources — needing to make a difficult decision or trade-off, having an awkward conversation, or perhaps letting go of a traditional approach or way of doing things.

Acclaimed author Dr. Seuss captured the need to endure discomfort in his best-selling book, Oh the Places You’ll Go: “On you will go, though the weather be foul, on you will go, though your enemies prowl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak.” 

I hope you will not have to endure prowling enemies or wet sneakers (ick) but you will have to get out of your comfort zone if you want to get to the other side of a problem. 

See Problems as a Good Thing 

A parting thought I want to share with you relates to gratitude. It may sound bizarre, but you should be grateful for the endless round of ‘new’ problems to solve. Why?

If you’re growing and changing, you will, by default, be faced with new issues. The opposite of growth is stagnation. Having no new problems (or none at all) indicates that you’re not pushing past your current competencies. That’s stagnation. And that is a very unsafe place to be.

A few years ago, one of my direct reports said to me: “I don't know what the problem is, I’m doing it (the work) the same way I did 20 years ago.”  Really? You can probably see how incredibly wrong that statement was.  The sad truth was that this person didn’t even realize how horribly unaware it sounded.

But that won’t be you if you’re willing to take some risks and make your motto “yes, I can do this” instead of “that won’t work.”

Oh, the places you’ll go!  


To learn more about complex problem solving check out the Human Intelligence segment below with Cheryl Mobley.

Cheryl Mobley is the Founder and CEO of reCalibrate, a strategic advisory firm for leaders and companies who want to take their company performance to the next level. She has served as president of Texas Health Specialty Hospital in Fort Worth, TX for 5 years, and will soon be stepping down to focus on serving other leaders who want to achieve 99th percentile performance.  Cheryl works with clients in many industries across the U.S. and abroad and is frequently invited to speak about simplifying complex problems, leadership, and identifying and closing the gaps between organizational potential and performance.

Human Intelligence: Simplifying complex problems

Posted by CGMA on Thursday, June 14, 2018