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The Lever #045 - Problem Solving (pt. 3/3)

All of your time, no matter what activity you are doing, is spent doing one of three things.

1. Planning

2. Performing

3. Problem Solving

To be effective you should work to master each of these skills.

You plan the thing, are present when doing the thing, and have to problem solve on the fly when the thing goes wrong.

It all starts with planning. Then you perform the task.

But problem solving is where you really earn your keep.


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Problem Solving

There you are just minding your own business when somebody sideswipes your car in the parking lot.

You did your planning (wrote a grocery list), were performing the task (shopping inside), but then this idiot smashes into your car. Now you've got to deal with insurance and repairs, not to mention all the time wasted working on this.

You've got a problem.

Despite your best efforts the hard truth is that shit happens. You will have to deal with many, many problems over the course of your business and life. Its part of the natural cycle.

Knowing that then doesn't it make sense to get really, really good at solving them?

The faster and more fully you solve a problem the quicker you get back on track. You'll do better at work and at home.

You could even turn this skill into a career.

What Is A Problem?

Problems are simply a deviation from the expectation.

That expectation could be your plan, the social contract, or the usual pattern of the natural order.

Problems exist on two continuums, and where they land helps dictate your response:

Severity and Time

Your problem starts on a scale that runs from Minor Inconvenience through Major all the way to Mortal. Literal life and death.

The time over which a problem develops will be either fast, slow, or somewhere in between.

Where those two lines meet should help you understand the severity of the problem and guide your potential reaction.

Fast Vs Slow

Being onboard a sinking ship is a problem.

When a ship sinks it happens in one of two ways - fast or slow.

If you watched Titanic you'll remember that the ship went down slowly as the water progressively flooded each compartment. The passengers and crew had over three hours to react; a lifetime during an emergency. (That the reaction was so poor was due to a lack of planning and preparation, but that's another story…)

Contrast that with the HMS Hood. A British battlecruiser, she was known as one of the largest battleships in the world.

In 1941, during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the HMS Hood engaged the German battleship Bismarck. A shell from the Bismarck struck the Hood and caused a massive explosion, which tore the ship apart. The Hood sank in just three minutes. Of her crew of 1,418, only three survived.

Three minutes wasn't enough time.

What Is Problem Solving?

If a problem is simply a deviation from the expectation, then solving that problem requires you to close that gap.

Some problems will never be solved in a way that gets you back on the exact same track. In these cases the best result you can expect is to minimize the consequences of the problem.

Other problems are so minor that the best action you can take is to simply let it go. Barista got your order wrong? You could let it go, or you could get into a shouting match that goes viral online.

How you solve problems dictates whether the original problem gets solved or if your efforts create a new, larger problem.

Effective problem solving helps you get the situation back on track (or as close as possible) as quickly as possible, without creating an unintended consequence.

Move Towards Better

A building on fire is a problem.

But when the firefighters show up on the scene do they just let it burn? Or do they try to minimize any damage to the surrounding homes, and save any people that may still be inside?

Even in the worst of tragedies, a single additional person saved is a better result than a total loss. Mitigating the consequences of the problem is just as important and valuable as solving the problem entirely.

How To Solve Problems

The nice thing about problems is that solving them is a skill. That means you can get better at it.

And because 95% of our problems are low consequence, and these come up daily, you have lots and lots of opportunity to practice that skill in a low stakes environment.

How you solve the small things is how you will solve the big things.

Follow these steps when problems arise to build the skill of successful problem solving.

Step 1 - Breathe

When a problem jumps up you are going to have a physical reaction. Your mouth goes dry, adrenaline spikes, heart rate goes up.

Except for the mortal problems, where you are going to need every ounce of strength in you body and every beat in your heart to overcome, this isn't really helpful. It can cause your anxiety levels to rise right to the point of panic. Your breathe shortens and you put yourself into a reactionary state.

In the extreme this can lead to a form of shell shock that totally prevents you from taking any action at all, which could be deadly.

So breathe.

Lengthen your breathe, get the oxygen you need, and take control back. If it’s a big problem but doesn't need action right away, consider going for a walk or a workout. Regain control of your body so you can better use your mind.

The calmer you can approach the situation the more effective you will be. Think about the sinking ship scenario. Would you rather the Captain be calm, and issuing clear orders? Or that he be running all over the place shouting and flapping his arms?

"Amidst the storm, the calmest soul will navigate the clearest path."
— Unknown.

Step 2 - Rapid Acceptance

Problems have an event horizon. Once it happens there is no turning back. The bell can't be un-rung.

The faster you accept the new reality of your situation, the faster you will be able to take appropriate action.

In her 1969 book "On Death and Dying", Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the world to the seven stages of grief. While this was originally designed to understand patients with terminal illnesses (mortal problems), it has since been shown to be valuable in understanding human reactions to any type of loss (regular problems).

Those stages are:

  1. Shock and Denial

  2. Pain and Guilt

  3. Anger and Bargaining

  4. Depression, Reflection, Loneliness

  5. The Upward Turn

  6. Reconstruction and Working Through

  7. Acceptance and Hope

When a problem occurs over a long time you have the luxury of passing through each of those stages. But when it happens in an instant you need to quickly jump straight to the end. Fortunately (huh?) problems pop up every day so you have unlimited opportunities to practice this skill.

Because how you solve the small problems is how you will solve the big ones.

Step 3 - Make Your Decision

90% of the time you already know what to do. You just need to get through the mental roadblocks, the denial, the future-pacing of consequences, and do it. But there is a trick here.

Don't make a big decision. Make a small one.

Decide to take the next step, whatever that is. If the solution is clear right through to the end then you will solve it by working through the steps one at a time. And if unclear you still need to decide to do something. Once you do the next step will often become clear.

Your decision will be based on your understanding of the situation, your past experience, and any training or ideas you have about what is happening. It doesn't need to be perfect but it does need to be decisive. And the reason you keep it small is so that you can get feedback quickly on its effectiveness and alter course a little if needed.

Step 4 - Take Massive Action

With the decision made its time to take massive action.

Even a small decision can lead to a big action. But even if the next action is a small one its important to take it with a Massive Action Mindset.

Inertia is a hell of a thing. The longer you sit around waiting for something to happen, the longer you will sit.

But take one step and it quickly leads to the next. You've got to get moving.

“A Good Plan, Violently Executed Now, Is Better Than a Perfect Plan Next Week.” -- Gen. George Patton

If you have trouble getting moving, a helpful tool is the 3-Second rule. Make your decision, then count 3-2-1-GO. Practice this ahead of time on low-consequence actions to build the habit.

What NOT to Do

You'll notice that "make a plan" or "figure out what went wrong" were not steps in the problem solving process. That's because you already had a plan. If everything was going to plan you wouldn't have a problem. But because something is not right you already intuitively know what IS right. Getting back to THAT is the plan.

Figuring out WHY the problem occurred doesn't help you solve the problem in the moment. If it is warranted this is a step you can take after things have stabilized. But zeroing in on the problem rather than the solution means you haven't passed through step 2 - rapid acceptance. This means you won't make the decision you need to make or the action you need to take.



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