Problem Solving Is a Productivity Issue

by Annie

in systematic

UPDATE: One of my fellow Carnies, the fabulous Sandi Amorim of Deva Coaching, shared this quote today and it’s so fitting, I had to include it here: 

“Always be on the lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success. Always be on the lookout for ways to nurture your dream.” – Lao Tzu

In a sense, all of us couch warrior solopreneur types are perennially, constantly engaged in the process of solving problems.

Think about it: Our very livelihood is based on solving problems. We sell solutions to our clients & customers for their problems.

When we’re not solving their problems during work hours, we’re solving various problems of our own. And when work’s over, many of us continue to solve problems – the problems our kids create, or the problems of our relatives and loved ones, our spouses and significant others, life problems, love problems, pet problems …

With all that problem-solving going on, you’d think we humans would have this problem-solving thing down.

And yet, the reality is far different, isn’t it?

Problems have the capacity to knock us on our couch-lovin’ asses. Especially the ones we don’t see coming.

Here’s the thing: problem-solving is a productivity issue.

If we don’t get a handle on the process of figuring out our problems, deciding on a solution, implementing it, and moving the hell ON, our problems problem will quickly morph into a productivity-killing, time-sucking mess that, if allowed to rage unchecked, can kill our businesses.

Productivity Public Enemy #1: Ineffective Problem Solving Systems

There are so many ways we can screw the productivity pooch with problem solving.

We can mope around endlessly without ever getting clear on the problem itself, wallowing in our icky low-level anxieties and fears. (Or so I hear.)

Or we can dive into the warm, welcoming waters of the research pool and swim there for a few dozen days (weeks, months… um, not that I have any personal experience there, either).

Or maybe we just keep playing the spaghetti game with possible solutions – you know, throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks – but not giving any single strand nearly enough time to actually work so we just keep cycling endlessly through possible solutions, that we keep discarding because … well, we’re not sure why, really … Yeah, me neither.

And if you’re really talented at the time-wasting thing, you can manage to work all three (bad, awful, destructive) strategies into the same damn problem.

Yes, that would have been me, during the Cat-5 crap storm. (The specific problem – just one of many – I was attempting to solve: client info/data intake, storage, and retrieval.)

Getting Your Problem-Solving Shit Together

So what’s the solution, then?

Well, if you’ve been paying any attention at all to this space, you’re probably able to guess the next two words that are gonna pop up on this screen …

Systems, baby.

You need a solid business system in place to deal with business problems.

Here’s a good example – feel free to mold, modify, adapt and adopt as you deem appropriate.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

No, I mean really identify the problem.

Where a lot of us get hung up: we’re not really crystal-clear on what the problem is to begin with.

We might know what the problem’s about, but we aren’t sure about the exact, precise contours and consequences.

So step one is get clear. Be as precise as possible, as clear as you can be on each specific facet of the problem. What is that you need to be different?

Step 2: Brainstorm Solutions Without Editing

Remember the thing about the hats?

And how if you wear the wrong hat during a task, you’re shooting yourself in the foot?

Yeah. That.

Brainstorming solutions requires creativity and an open frame of mind.

Critiquing and analyzing solutions requires a whole different skillset, a whole ‘nother (critical, in the good sense) frame of mind.

So don’t edit or critique your possible solutions while you’re coming up with them.

Step 3: Identify What You Don’t Know and/or Don’t Have

Before you can adequately solve a problem, you need to know what gaps you’re working with. The gap can be one of knowledge or one of resources, or both. (Usually for me, both.)

What are you lacking? What don’t you know?

Who do you know that can fill those gaps?

Again, don’t edit. Don’t start talking yourself out of listing Joe Black, that guy you used to work with who has a knack for setting up wireless networks, just because you’re not sure he’s forgiven you for eating his turkey and avocado sandwich out of the fridge that one time.

List first. Edit later.

Step 4: Crowdsource the Analysis

Once you have a fairly clear notion of what the problem is, and what the possible solutions are, consider crowdsourcing your next step: analyzing the options.

Please note: I wrote “analyzing” – not “analyzing and choosing among.”

There’s a reason for that, and it goes right back to that same “wearing the correct hat” concept.

Analysis is its own special game, and I’ll share more suggestions on how to do this step in the next section down.

But this is a very good area in which to seek the help of others.

One of the best parts about my little mastermind group is our process of putting one person on the hot seat in each bi-weekly call.

That person selects a problem she’s currently facing, and shares some critical, basic information about the problem with the group – what the problem is, what she’s already tried, what she’s looking for from the group specifically.

And then we go to work on that problem.

We ask questions first – getting information from her to flesh out our understanding of the problem. Then we segue into solving.

Now, these are incredibly smart women, all of them. Individually, each of us would be capable of solving the problem on our own. If we couldn’t do it ourselves, we’d find the right person or business for outsourcing purposes.

But there’s an inherent energy in a crowd – especially when the crowd is made up on members who know each other and each other’s businesses well – that makes us as a group greater and more powerful than the sum of our individual parts and talents and skillsets.

You can tap that same energy yourself. If you haven’t already created a mastermind group (or advisory board or “Council of Jedi Knights” if you prefer), give it some thought now. Or just use your personal Facebook page.

Step 5: Make a Decision

At this point, if you’ve followed each step fully above, a decision is much easier to reach and make.

A few strategies here I’ve employed over the years:

  • The five-second gut check. Especially helpful when you’re evaluating two options side-by-side. Close your eyes and try each one on for size, imagining you’ve implemented first one option, then the other. Visualize what that looks like and then – this is the important part – check in with your body. How do you feel? More times than not, the best decision for you is the one that makes you feel energized and pulls you forward slightly in your seat. The less-right one makes you feel a little dead inside.
  • Pros and cons, pleasure and pain.  A twist on the old two-columns, pros vs. cons approach, this exercise asks you to look specifically at the pleasure you’d get from each approach as well as the pain you’d avoid. Sometimes phrasing it this way makes the decision-making part of problem-solving easier and more intuitive.
  • Head-heart-soul-wallet voting. Each part of you – your head (intellect), your heart (emotions), your soul (spirituality and morality) and your wallet (financial interests) – gets one vote each. Tally up the votes.

Solve the Problem, Win Back Your Productivity

By adopting just a few simple strategies and a clear systemized approach to problem solving, you can stop the productivity-busting in its tracks.

How about you? Do you have a system for problem solving that’s different from the one I just outlined? What are your favorite strategies and tactics for making those hard decisions about which solution to implement? Share in the comments!

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnivals, a round-up of small-biz bloggers writing on a common theme. This month’s theme: The Art and Science of Problem Solving. Check out all the Carnie bloggers here!

photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Hurley Hall September 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm

This is a great problem-solving process, Annie. I especially like the ‘head-heart-soul-wallet’ voting process because whether a solution is affordable might make the difference when deciding which one to choose.
Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..The Art and Science of Solving Problems in Your Writing Business

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Annie September 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Thanks Sharon! Yeah that one’s particularly helpful for those of us with money fears, I find. You have to confront the financial reality, and work within those limits sometimes.

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Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef September 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm

The crowd-sourcing thing? Yes. Especially, right now. Sometimes the bigger the challenge, the more brainpower you need.

And for me, one of the things I’ve been able to “master” over these many long years is the ability to cut off the wallowing and shift into the objective observer. I let my emotional self do her thing, and then I say enough. When you’re able to look at something from a detached non-emotional place (a la Mr. Spock), you can sometimes see exactly what needs to happen in order to get where you really want to be.
Tea Silvestre, aka the Word Chef recently posted..From Pickles to Possibilities: A Small Business Parable about Asking for Help

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Annie September 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm

You had me at Mr. Spock.

You’re so right, Tea – that’s an excellent point, about giving yourself a deadline to cut off the wallowing, AND giving your emotional reaction enough time and space. When we cut off too early, we just end up rehashing and reliving the same crap over and over. But at some point, yes, we do need to ACT. Knowing when that time comes — when the emotional stuff has been adequately processed and we’re ready to move — that’s key.

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Carol Lynn September 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

Ooooh I love the vote thing. Your process is great, especially the first part where you identify the problem because it’s not always – or even mostly – what you think it is. I go through this a lot with clients on a technical sort of side of things. They’ll call me up and say “my website isn’t working” and I’ll go into “fix website problem solving mode”. Except it’s not that the website isn’t working. It’s that their internet is down. Or some such nonsense. So it does me no good to fix a website that isn’t broken and we all waste a lot of time. I’ve learned to talk back to the root of a problem, whether it’s technical or a bit more ethereal.

Otherwise, whenever I’m faced with a PROBLEM-problem I always sleep on it. There are just some things you can’t solve until you stop thinking about it. It pays to get some perspective. I find that “gut check” works really well on day 2. Especially since my initial gut check on a problem is usually “quit. move to montana. throw computer out window.”
Carol Lynn recently posted..When Customers Attack: 5 Hair-Pulling Scenarios And How To Deal With Them Gracefully

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Annie September 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Hi Carol Lynn – yeah, I have had the same experience! Or my favorite version: “I don’t have enough time to do _____.” Well, yes you do, you had time to play Words With Friends last night with me. So then we have to keep digging to get to the root issue.

Or another version for my website clients: “I don’t like the contact form, can we change the plugin?” “Why do you want to change it? What’s it not doing that you need it to do?” “We just need a different one.” “Again: Why? I have to identify the function that’s missing before I can recommend a replacement.”

And we keep going like that for awhile, until I realize it isn’t the plugin, it’s that they haven’t taken the time to learn about all the fields you can ADD to the contact form. Had they insisted on a problem of “wrong plugin” we’d have cycled through every single available contact form plugin available, because none of them out of the box would have solved the REAL problem.

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Sandi Amorim September 26, 2012 at 7:23 pm

OMG…playing the spaghetti game with possible solutions? Must use as soon as possible in a coaching conversation!

Also love the Head-heart-soul-wallet voting! So much quicker and more useful than endless analyzing!
Sandi Amorim recently posted..The Art (and Science) of Solution Focused Living

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Annie September 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Analysis paralysis! It’s an epidemic, Sandi, I fear….

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Clare Price September 27, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Great stuff Annie! I especially love #1 – ineffective problem solving solutions. oh, how we rely on them! And step 4 — crowd sourcing the problem. WOW! How often do we (especially we analyst types. Me) roll things around in our heads without getting an outside opinion or two that would clear things up.
Clare Price recently posted..Would You Skydive Without a Parachute?

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Annie September 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Crowds: SO necessary. I used to joke “I can fix any problem – as long as it isn’t MY problem.” There’s more than a little truth there, alas!

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Nicole Fende September 28, 2012 at 4:36 am

I knew this post would be great the minute I saw the picture. Stormtroopers and a Rubik’s Cube. Awesome.

Then there’s the Council of Jedi Knights. I’ll have to bring one of my 8 life size light sabers to the next one. Yes 8.

I think I’ve unknowingly used all of the methods in Step 5, although never really crystallized Head-heart-soul-wallet voting. before.
Nicole Fende recently posted..Inside the Mind of a Compulsive Problem Solver

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Annie September 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Is that not the most awesome image ever?? Well – top ten, anyway. I squee’d like a little girl when I found it via PhotoPin (which is an AWESOME resource for bloggers, by the way).

And – excuse me – EIGHT? I need one of those. I’ll give it a good home, I promise.

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SandyMc September 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm

I hooted when I read the dive into the research pool, because at first I thought that was a great problem solving method until I read on! Clearly it is the thing I do instantly a problem arises without thinking of it a productivity delaying tactic. Your language is awesome Annie, I always read your posts with a smile on my face! Your problem solving method is great too and like everyone the head/heart/soul/wallet check list against pain and pleasure is a fabulous measure.

Perhaps what we are learning through this series and in particular with your reference to productivity, is just how much time we lose when we don’t grasp the nettle and deal with it. Once can be paralysed with despair/anger/injustice/fear/misery for so long, that it actually drags the thing out way past the point when it could have been resolved and you could get on with your life. Thanks for putting a hook in my head re the research pool. I’ll know what I’m doing next time!
SandyMc recently posted..Solving small business problems. Art with a capital A.

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Annie October 1, 2012 at 11:24 am

Yeah, I agree Sandy – the whole research-as-delaying-tactic thing is a tricky one to navigate. Sometimes you DO need more information. I’m prone to staying too long in that area, myself, so I’ve tried to make a new habit of a periodic “check-in” — simply asking myself “Do I really need to know this, or am I just delaying the inevitable here?” It’s not a perfect solution but it does help.

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Nick Armstrong November 5, 2012 at 2:00 am

You know, I constantly get caught up in “if I only had this new tool, I could solve this problem a lot better”.

This is what Ze Frank calls “his cheese monster”. Whenever he’s doing something important, he usually gets a craving for cheese. And therefore, gets distracted from doing the really important work of solving a problem, creating something new, etc.

I look for tools to solve problems when I really should be defining the problem a lot better. Thanks Annie! 😀
Nick Armstrong recently posted..You Can’t Automate Friendship

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