July 12, 2017


what lies beneath

‘The damn printer’s not working. Again! It’s just too old. We really need a new one.’

Sound familiar?

This is a ‘problem’ phrased so the reporter’s favoured ‘solution’ is obvious.

The real problem, however, (e.g. that the current printer keeps jamming) isn’t defined.

If it were defined, other, possibly better solutions (e.g. use only manufacturer-recommended paper) may appear.

Identifying a real problem is a skill.

As is detecting presumed ‘solutions’.

These tasks comprise the talent of problem solving – which business leaders need to thrive.


A motorist calls a garage saying his car has broken down and needs a tow.

‘What’s wrong with it? It doesn’t go; that’s what’s wrong with it!’

As useless as this may sound, it’s actually more helpful than many ‘problem’ reports. It at least tells us that the:

  • Car isn’t moving.
  • Person reporting this doesn’t know why.

To solve problems effectively, consultants and managers must seek absence of solution reports (e.g. data that lead to the assessment that the car needs a new battery).


A client once told me his ‘problem’ was that a competitor had opened a new sales office.

His ‘solution’? To open his own new office, without identifying the real problem.

The real problem was falling sales – due to a mature product line, which had attracted many new competitors, saturating the market.

In other words, my client’s competitor had opened a new office for the same ‘problem’: falling sales.

And the real solution?

Seek new products or markets and retire old lines.


Business leaders need to focus on strategies, not tasks.

Opening a new sales office is a task.

Identifying the real problem, then devising an achievable goal and a path to it, is a strategy.

The best strategists also limit their exposure when achieving such a goal (e.g. by testing, trialling, or getting third parties to take on risk for more reward).

So, next time someone rushes in with a ‘problem’, listen carefully.

Are they describing the real problem or spruiking their favoured ‘solution’?

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