Solving Tough Problems

That big-ass problem that’s been keeping you up from 2-4:00 am? It hasn’t been solved for a while right?  Perhaps it’s been a month, a year, or seemingly forever …

Have you really thought about it? (And no, those adult witching hours of 2:00 am to 4:00 don’t count; they just torment.)
It is easy to think you ARE working on your toughest, most strategic problems. But most of us are caught up in the running of life, not the thinking of big forks in the road. After all, it’s not in front of you, yet.

An ecommerce company I was just working with had their “killer strategic issue” on the whiteboard for a year. They even had the date they wrote the core issue up. But the amount of dedicated brainpower put on that problem? About 20 minute segments of other meetings where it wasn’t even clear they were going to talk about it in advance. And they wondered: why is this issue not getting solved? Those 20 minute sessions weren’t problem solving sessions; they were venting moments. 20 minutes just isn’t enough time to warm up the issue let alone solve an issue. At least not for the big-ass problems.

Tough problems take dedicated focus. First you need to disassemble the issue down to its core parts, make sure you understand the crux of things, then problem solve components of the situation, to come up with a solution that will work. Deep understanding, a turning-over-of-many-rocks dialogue, and ultimately clarity of what it is and what needs to be done.

Quite often what stops a big problem for being solved is that we don’t all even “get it” the same way to begin with. That takes discernment. And discernment often takes time.

Whatever your big problem is, find a half-day or day to really work on it. Take apart the issue long enough to understand what it is; this is key to building the solution. Bring together your best talent. Why together? Because it is easy to blow off one person at a time, but tiger teams allow for questioning, and debate, and the elimination of options that aren’t quite right. It holds you more accountable, too.

That e*commerce team? They solved their core issue that had plagued them for 1 year in 2 days. A comment was “this buys us clarity on everything else…product roadmap, web UX choices…” Suddenly, they could move faster because the “wondering” and worry were gone. That’s what clarity brings. Speed. You get the time spent into the thinking back, almost immediately.

How to:
  1. Define the problem. Name it clearly and the consequence of the problem on the business. Like the great myths of olden times, where dragons lost their power because we could name them, problems become solvable when we name them out loud.
  2. Organize dedicated time to work on the issue. No blackberries, or “parallel processing” cause full brainpower is needed. We are thinking together which means being present together. Take 30 minute email breaks to give people a chance to have their email time. Do it in a neutral, new location. Borrow someone else’s office space (and let them borrow yours).
  3. Figure out if you need 4 hours, 8 or multiple days. But set a limit. A time constraint enables a certain kind of creative tension. Having an overnight break gives some stewing time that always bears fruit.
  4. Bring in help. Advisors, People from other divisions, Board Members, Peer Tiger Teams — get people who want you to be successful and ask them to come help. They will. And they will challenge your status quo thinking or assumptions that are limiting your frame of reference.
  5. Don’t keep “hoping” that problem will get solved while you are hiring more people and addressing today’s issues. That killer issue will still be there until you get to it.
So get to it. Go on. Organize that now. Not later. And then maybe you can get those adult witching hours back for sleep, too.

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