Solving A Problem? Ask These 5 Questions.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to be effective.  Being effective only happens when you do the right things.  Peter Drucker once said “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”.  Drucker was right, but leaders everywhere face a paradox.   Can you do more by doing less?

The answer is yes and a number of authors emphasize it!  In Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why”, he points out that Apple didn’t succeed by trying to be everything to everyone.  Daniel Goleman in his latest book “Focus”  notes that focus is the hidden driver of excellence, and Drucker wrote about this years ago in his seminal book “The Effective Executive”.

If you want to be effective as a leader you need to do less and doing less starts when you get better at diagnosing problems.  Here are 5 questions you should ask the next time a big problem is presented to you.

1)  What is the real problem?  The presented problem is almost never the real problem.  In order to get to the heart of the matter you should respect the person presenting the problem, but dig deeper.  Problems are often presented in unclear, messy, and disorganized ways.  Problem statements can be filled with distortions and misrepresentations.  If you want to identify the real problem you have to engage in conversation to flush it out.

2)  How do you know this is a problem?  What is the evidence that caused you to describe this as a problem?  Problems have a way of presenting themselves to one person but not others.  This is because we all go through life interpreting and making meaning of what happens around us.  What appears as positive to one person shows up as the end of the world to another.  As a leader it is important that you ask for information and evidence about a problem.  You should also try to understand how the person presenting the problem is making meaning.  Respect the meaning and the presenting problem, but ask for evidence!

3)  Why is it important to solve this problem?  What is motivating you or others to solve a problem?  People are often motivated by a couple of things:  ego, ego, or ego.  That last statement was not meant to be disrespectful of people!  People often come to leaders with problems that are significant and real to them, but as I mentioned above in the previous bullet, they are making meaning and their meaning is attached to their ego.  As a leader, you need to help people take alternative perspectives and quiet their egos.  Ask why this problem is important to solve and dig deeper by using the 5 why technique or other inquiry methods.  You should intend to root out the motivations so that you and others can see how much this really matters.

4)  Can the problem be solved with the time and resources available?  Sure all problems can be solved if we work hard enough and devote endless amounts of time and energy to the problem.  However, this is not realistic.  A lot of problems require more money or effort than you can spend.  Great leaders ask this question and help their teams make decisions based on value and expense.

5) What will happen if we do or do not solve this problem?  Let’s be honest.  Solving problems can create other problems and not all problems need to be solved.  Several years ago a senior executive I worked with made a decision to solve a simple problem and then he aged to regret it - big time.  The executive was a decisive and quick decision maker and had a history of making significant change, but in this case, the decision to solve this particular problem resulted in numerous additional problems.  Upon reflection the executive realized that the original problem didn’t have to be solved in the first place.  Unfortunately he didn't have a time machine.

In order to fully understand the problems you face you must discuss them.  When you ask these five questions you root out assumptions and help others see problems from a clear and objective perspective.  You will bring clarity and focus to the issue and help your team overcome their toughest challenges.

Question:  What other questions do you ask when presented with a problem?