Why Solving Problems Always Leads to More Problems, and How to Stop the Madness

Business leaders are taught to be relentless problem solvers. But that focus traps them in a downward spiral of reactive problem-solving that feels more like a hostage situation than leading. There is a better way.

Problem-solving skills are at the top of everybody’s list of what makes for a great leader. The mindset is that if you can solve problems, you’re going to go far. But in reality, only people who solve specific kinds of obstacles are truly successful. The rest, who focus on solving any and every problem that comes their way, just get tired and eventually quit or settle for a lousy, busy existence. They don’t make good leaders at all.

It turns out that solving problems generically isn’t all that valuable. Figuring out which issue to address is the real skill, and it’s much rarer than basic problem-solving skills.

Problems vs. Obstacles

There are two levels of issues that we deal with every day: problems and obstacles. Successful leaders spot the difference and invest all their energies in the second level, obstacles. This ability separates great leaders, who focus only on obstacles, from poor managers, who focus largely on problems.

The difference is simple, but profound.

A problem, once solved, merely restores the status quo. Solving it gets you back to where you were before the problem arose, but brings no lasting difference to the situation. A staff member quits, we recruit a new one, and now we’re right back where we were. The customer gets angry, we send them flowers and give them a credit, and we’re back on an even keel with them. But nothing has changed.

An obstacle, when solved, measurably changes the situation, or even the business as a  whole; things are never the same again after we solve it. And because we solved the obstacle, it dramatically reduces the number of problems we will have going forward. That’s one way you know you’re solving obstacles, because the number of related problems are permanently reduced.

Solving problems is playing whack-a-mole. Solving obstacles is unplugging the whack-a-mole machine.

Managers Solve Problems. Leaders Solve Obstacles.

Great leaders don’t solve problems. They solve obstacles. If someone quits, the harried manager goes to work, doggedly pursuing a replacement until the hole is filled. The leader does something quite different, they ask a question, “Why did that person quit? What can we learn from this problem so we can solve the true obstacle behind it, and prevent the next person from quitting?”

Solving for the obstacle focuses our attention on the broader strategic infection that caused them to quit; was it pay, advancement opportunities, a lousy manager (75% of the reasons people will quit are about the manager), or a generally poisonous company culture? Fixing these obstacles goes well beyond solving the problem.

Don’t Solve a Quitting Problem, Solve a Hiring Obstacle

A client complained regularly that constantly rehiring because of a 65% turnover problem was wearing him out. Once we got that CEO focused on fixing the obstacle (their culture) the problem went away. Wegman’s grocery store chain has about 3% staff turnover in an industry that normally experiences 35% turnover. They solved the obstacle while everybody else is just solving the problem. And look at the hidden cost of solving problems – it is astronomically higher than solving obstacles.

Solving obstacles saves us both time and money, increases productivity, and because it permanently solves what used to be ongoing problems, it allows us to focus on things that will help us build a great business, not just playing wack-a-mole.

It’s All About Long Term Decision-Making

Why do we focus on problems when it is so clear that solving obstacles takes care of the problems, too? The answer is always the same – short-term decision-making. We are too busy filling that staff vacancy to think about how to stop losing people. We’re too busy responding to customer complaints to develop solid processes that would make our customers love us. In short, we see that solving obstacles will cost us both time and money up front, while solving the problem can be done quickly, and maybe get us a little more short-term money.

Take The Long Road – Be Ambitiously Lazy

I’m ambitiously lazy. Through ten businesses I have gradually learned to solve for obstacles, because I can’t stand the thought of dealing with the same stupid problem over and over. I’d rather work hard up front on the obstacles. We’ve focused on building a great value system, a great culture, creating great processes, training great people, building great products, and focusing heavily on where we are headed – all so we can avoid as many problems as possible. Solving obstacles is actually harder up front. But in the long run, it’s so much easier because the number of ongoing problems is reduced exponentially.

Every time you are faced with a problem, see if you can instead solve the obstacle behind the problem. It will likely keep you from having to ever solve that problem again, and it will free you up to lead (ask questions) and stop managing (solving problems).

Get off the treadmill – solve obstacles instead of problems.

Article as seen on Inc.com