Still Fighting Fires? 4 Fresh Approaches to Problem Solving

If you’re like most leaders, you pride yourself on your ability to solve problems. You confront challenges head-on and enact swift solutions to keep your company on track and avoid disruption.

It’s what makes you a leader, right?

But what if the problem isn’t really…a problem? Or what if solving the problem only creates new ones? What if the problem at hand isn’t really worth solving, because it’s merely a symptom of a larger issue that needs to be addressed?

Is your swift solution really in order now?

Let’s look at an example. A longtime client — a big one — has suddenly converted to the competition. It’s a big hit for your company, and it’s up to you to solve this problem to protect your bottom line and avoid having to reduce staff.

As a decisive leader, your first impulse may be to shoot from the hip. Rally your sales team and see if you can bring the client back by offering a sweeter deal. Lower your price. Throw in extra goodies or services.

But if you follow this course, you may end up underselling your product and setting your team up for too much pressure to meet future goals. Even if you regain the client and win the battle, you may be setting yourself up to lose the war.

Leaders understand that the best solution is not necessarily the quickest, easiest or more obvious solution. And the problem, for that matter, is not necessarily the one that presents itself. Consider following these steps to refresh your decision-making approach, and possibly open the door to greater success.

1. Reframe the problem as a choice. Rather than viewing the situation through a “problem-solving” lens, refocus and look at it as an opportunity. Don’t spend too much time reviewing what happened; instead, focus on what you want to happen next. Identify several possible courses of action and select the one that will result in the best outcome for your company.

In the case of our hypothetical lost client, ask yourself: what are your choices? Cut your losses and try to make up for the lost revenue by finding new clients or encouraging expanded orders from existing clients? Offer your old client something new and more enticing? Or redeploy the now-underemployed resources within the company to branch out in an entirely new direction?

Once you have laid out your choices, you can assess the pros and cons of each one and select the most favorable.

2. Look for the opportunity. Is there a chance for improvement embedded in this problem? Why did this client jump ship, and how can you become the company that would have held onto this client? What were they looking for that you did not offer?

Pursuing this path will require you to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages openness. The reasons you lost this client are surely known to individuals within your company, but they may be reluctant to speak. You must create a safe space for transparent communication. You’ll need to reach out across vertical lines within the company to make sure the real story isn’t being hidden in a silo somewhere.

On the other hand, the “problem” may have created other opportunities entirely. Your lost account has created some slack within the company: unused employee time and other resources have just been freed up. Forget about the lost client; What is it that you could be doing to deploy those resources in a direction that will make you more competitive in the future? This just may be the golden opportunity you’ve been waiting for to try something new.

3. Step back from the problem. Is it really worth solving? What if the reason you lost that client was that they were not a good fit for your company? Talk to your team and try to learn about your relationship with that client. If you start hearing responses like, “I could never make them happy,” or “I was always bending over backward to provide them with something different from what we’re set up to do,” then perhaps it’s time to take a good look at why you were doing business together in the first place. Is your sales team marketing your product correctly? Are you missing out on potential customers who do not fully understand how you can help them?

Maybe the problem is not the lost client — it’s all the other clients you are losing because your staff is not succeeding at appropriately representing your capabilities to the outside world. Again, it’s not a problem…it’s an opportunity. What do you need to do to better communicate what you offer?

4. Test drive your solution. Once you’ve tentatively selected a course of action, take it for a test drive. Does it align with your existing goals and strategy? If not, what needs adjusting? Run some numbers. Will it resolve the financial problem you set out to address, if not now, then within a reasonable time frame?

Next time you’re presented with a “problem,” take a deep breath and ask yourself: what can I do to make this problem my next great opportunity for success? It might just lead you in unexpected directions.