Leadership: Naming Problems

leadershipJohn Dewey said that “a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” My correlate to that is "a problem mis-named is a problem stuck!"

I often see Clients and Vistage members wrestling with an issue at great length with no visible progress. In fact, it often gets worse. They've named the issue, involved others in its resolution, and worked diligently without success.

A recent example is a firm that constantly struggles with cash and has pretty much used up their first round funding. The CEO has been talking about, and meeting with, his team to discuss their "financial crisis." He has declared they must raise a new round of equity immediately and wants all of the team focused on cutting costs everywhere. One of the sharper executives, who has tired of the continued drama, shared the following view with me, "I'm deeply troubled about going to our investors for more money when, if nothing changes, we will burn through that cash as well!"

The real issue is that the company has a "sales crisis." They have not clearly defined their distinct competitive advantage or core competence. They have not built reliable channels of distribution and their sales team is very ineffective. Unfortunately, by calling their problem a "financial crisis" and focusing everyone on raising money and dramatically cutting costs, the CEO is accelerating the very issue he has named.

I once heard wise advice that says "when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!" Translating that back to our definitions, when your perspective on a problem is not leading to breakthrough results, rename the issue. If this CEO called everyone together and declared a sales crisis, everyone could then bring their creative problem solving to each of the areas related to sales and determine what’s missing or not working. By developing a well-stated problem and supportable action plans for change that everyone can get behind, he could most likely get sales moving rather quickly. Additionally, his ability to raise added funds would be greatly enhanced. Potential investors would see that the company is in action on a viable plan and would be encouraged about the company's future.

As you look at your own situation, where are things stuck or moving slowly? What are you complaining about without any changing occurring? How are you and your team talking about the problem? See if you can boil it down to a name or statement that describes your focus.

The antidote to your stuck problem is to dig under the issue with the inquiry "what's underneath that?" Continue with this line of questioning - "OK, now what's underneath that?" Stay with this until a new perspective opens up. You will know it's a very new view because you will immediately start seeing opportunities for action. A whole new strategy may quickly emerge.

I will be so bold as to declare that a problem correctly named will call forth its own solutions!