How to Avoid Rushing to Solutions When Problem-Solving

Executive Summary

Before you can solve a problem, you need to know what exactly you’re trying to solve. Unfortunately, too many of us want to rush to conclusions before clearly understanding the problem. The author describes a four-step process that helps you define the problem. First, don’t just rely on the data. Take facts, especially observable ones, into account. Second, consider how you’re framing the problem statement. It should present the problem in a way that allows for multiple solutions, and make sure it’s focused on observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations. Third, think backwards from the problem to analyze the potential factors that lead to it. Lastly, ask “why” repeatedly before you settle on a conclusion to make sure you investigate root causes. These four steps don’t guarantee a solution, of course. But they will provide a more clearly defined problem, and while that’s less immediately gratifying, it’s a necessary step to finding something that really works.

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Albert Einstein reportedly said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. But Einstein wasn’t trying to run a company in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are working longer hours and making new decisions each day on issues from childcare to employee safety. Between our cognitive biases and our finite capacity for decision making, when our mental gas tank runs low on fuel, we tend to conserve energy by either avoiding decisions or rushing to solutions before we have a chance to fully understand the problem we’re grappling with.

It’s understandable that we leap to solutions. Crossing items of one’s to-do list and fixing problems provides a dopamine surge that is comforting, especially when the world around us feels more volatile and threatening. Nevertheless, an ineffective Band-Aid solution can make things worse, and can be just as damaging in the long run as the problem it’s trying to solve. In my work as a leadership consultant, I’ve devised a simple, four-step process that can help you get past the urge to rush to solutions.

1. Go and See

It’s easy to jump to lousy solutions when you don’t have a strong grasp of the facts — and you can’t get that if you don’t leave your desk, your office, or your conference room. Gathering facts comes from close observation.

Spreadsheets and reports, which we often rely on are just data, two-dimensional representations of reality. Data tells you how often a machine breaks down on an assembly line. Facts — meaning direct observations — show you that the machine is dirty, covered in oil, and hasn’t been cleaned or maintained in a long time.

Data tells you that workers are not on time for their Zoom meetings. Facts — garnered from interviews with your employees — reveal that 9:00am meetings are tough because parents are getting their kids settled for online school; 12:30pm meetings are challenging because they’re making lunch for their kids; and that the headlong rush to videoconferencing has all but eliminated the necessary downtime between meetings, and people just need some time for rest.

Data without facts gives you a two-dimensional, black-and-white view of the world. Facts without data give you color and texture, but not the detailed insight you’ll need to solve the thorniest problems. Therefore, to arrive at useful conclusions, take both into consideration.

2. Frame Your Problem Properly

Problem statements are deceptively difficult to get right for several reasons. For one, it’s easy to mistake the symptoms for the underlying problem. For example, you might assume that to help a child in Flint, Michigan who has behavioral issues in school and struggle with reading comprehension, you need to focus on those problems. But those are only symptoms. The real problem is lead in the municipal water system.

A well-framed problem statement opens up avenues of discussion and options. A bad problem statement closes down alternatives and quickly sends you into a cul-de-sac of facile thinking.

Consider these two problem statements:

  1. Our hospital needs more ventilators.
  2. Our hospital needs more ventilator availability.

Notice that the first statement isn’t really a problem at all. It’s a solution. The only possible response to needing more ventilators is … to buy more ventilators. What’s the solution to the second problem statement? It’s unclear — which is a good thing, because it pushes us to think more deeply. Avoiding the implicit judgment (we need more machines) raises questions that help us develop better solutions: How many machines are currently being repaired? Are we doing enough preventative maintenance to keep all of them operable? Do we know where all of the ventilators are, or do nurses keep some of them in “hidden stashes” (a real problem at most hospitals). What’s the turnaround time to move a ventilator from one patient to the next? Do other local hospitals have excess capacity, and is it possible to share with them?

If you see that your problem statement has only one solution, rethink it. Begin with observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations.

3. Think Backwards

When facing a problem, instead of leaping forward toward a solution, go backwards to map out how you got here in the first place.

This fishbone diagram, also known as the Ishikawa diagram, provides a model for identifying potential factors causing your problem:



The classic fishbone diagram has six categories of factors, but this isn’t a rule; you might have four categories or seven, and your categories might be different. Think of them as prompts to help you organize your thoughts. A law firm, for example, probably won’t need the equipment category, while a software company might want to include a branch for programming language.



If your firm is struggling with lower morale and employee engagement during the pandemic, you might group contributing factors into the following categories: Work Environment, Technology, Psychology, Communication, and Norms. These prompts will lead you to examine how challenging it is for people to work from home; how well your collaboration software (and people’s computer equipment) supports group work; how effectively the company creates opportunities for people to connect with coworkers; how well leadership’s messages reach employees; and what cultural norms and expectations are applicable to a work from home reality.

4. Ask Why

Asking “why” repeatedly before you settle on an answer is a powerful way to avoid jumping to conclusions or implementing weak solutions. Whether you ask five times, or three, or as many as 11, eventually you’ll get to the root cause, as each question pushes you to a deeper understanding of the real problem. Finding the root cause ensures that you have a durable solution, not a Band-Aid that treats the symptoms. For example, asking, “Why aren’t our employees wearing the mandated PPE all the time?” might reveal that you don’t have enough PPE in stock, because of a holdup in purchasing. The obvious — and ineffective — solution would be to send a stern memo to the purchasing department instructing them to expedite shipments. But a deeper inquiry with further “whys” would reveal that suppliers weren’t delivering on time because the accounting team was stretching out payments in order to conserve cash. . . at the direction of the CEO.

As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” These four steps don’t actually guarantee a solution. But they will provide you with a more clearly defined problem. And although that’s less immediately gratifying, it’s a necessary step to finding something that really works.

Managing Someone Whose Life Has Been Upended

Photo by Cathy Scola/Getty Images

The pandemic marks the first time in a century that the entire planet is going through the same disruption at the same time. For businesses, that means every employee is going through a life transition at the same time. Those transitions range from the loss of a loved one to the loss of income to the loss of child care.

These transitions are so widespread that executives and managers alike have no choice but to step in and try to help. The good news: There is evidence on how to help employees navigate these types of events.

I spent the last five years talking to people about the biggest transitions their lives. What I learned is that the average adult experiences around three dozen disruptors in the course of their lives, that’s one every 12 to 18 months. These disruptors can be involuntary (a downsizing or a cancer diagnosis) or voluntary (starting a new venture, having a child).

We get through most of these disruptors with relative ease. We adjust, draw on our support networks, and move on. But every now and then, one of these disruptors — or more commonly a pileup of two, three or four or them — rises to the level of truly disorienting and destabilizing us. I call these events “lifequakes” because they’re higher on the Richter Scale of consequence and have aftershocks that last for years.

The pandemic represents a massive, collective lifequake. But while this lifequake has been involuntary, the life transition that grows out of it must be voluntary. We must choose to take the steps. A life transition, at its heart, is the period of adjustment, creativity, and rebirth that helps one find meaning after a major life upheaval.

So what role do managers play in this process? A hallmark of the first century of management theory was that “personal issues” like lifequakes should be kept separate from “office issues”; “work” and “family” need not mix. When private matters did arise, the advice was often: Take a leave of absence; use your personal days; let us know when you’re back on the job.

That strict separation of church and state had already been eroding in recent years with the influx of more moms into the workplace, more dads into the parenting space, and 24/7 connective technology into every space. The once-airtight membrane that divided work life from family life had already become more porous.

The pandemic has blown that membrane to smithereens. Working remotely, supervising children doing remote learning, even something as relatively minor as finding a quiet space for an uninterrupted call have all forced changes. Issues that were once the sole domain of family are now the undeniable terrain of business.

The bottom line: At exactly the moment your employees most need you, you need a plan to address entire realms of their lives. Here, based on my research, are four pieces of advice you can give to help your team members manage their life transitions in a way that doesn’t upend their work lives.

Start with transition superpowers.

The most valuable thing a manager can provide someone going through a life transition is calm, empathic perspective: You will get through this. That posture begins with pointing out that transitions have a clear structure that may not always be apparent to someone just entering one.

Transitions involve three phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” in which you mourn the old you; “the messy middle,” in which you shed habits and create new ones; and “the new beginning,” in which you unveil your fresh self. Each person tends to gravitate to the phase they’re best at (their transition superpower) and bog down in the one they’re weakest at (their transition kryptonite). And most important of all, these phases need not happen in order.

The best advice: Start with your superpower. Since managers tend to know the strengths and weaknesses of their employees, helping them determine where to begin would be a simple and helpful step. Those who excel at navigating emotions might start with the long goodbye; those who excel at blocking out noise and plunging into challenging initiatives might begin with the new beginning; those who excel at spreadsheets or complex tasks might begin with the messy middle.

Rob Adams, for example, was a management consultant from Cincinnati who took over the Simon Pearce glassware company 10 days after the Great Recession hit in 2008. While it took him a year to accept defeat in that job, once he did, he quickly pivoted and moved his family to Africa to run a nonprofit. “Saying goodbye was hard for me,” he said. “But once I was done, I relished the messy middle. I’m a consultant; fixing problems is my expertise.”

Use rituals to say goodbye.

The long goodbye has proven to be particularly challenging during the pandemic. Early on, most of us expected we would absorb the impact of the virus, then return to normal. After a while, we realized we weren’t going back. The key to navigating a shift like this is to accept that it’s an emotional experience. I asked hundreds of people the biggest emotion they struggled with in their life transition. Fear was the most popular reaction, followed by sadness and shame. Some people cope with these emotions by writing down their feelings; others plunge into new tasks.

But eight in 10 say they turn to rituals. They held memorial services, got tattoos, visited sweat lodges, purged. Following a brutal year in which she lost her job in Hollywood, had a blowup with her mother, and went on 52 first dates, Lisa Rae Rosenberg jumped out of an airplane. “I had a terrible fear of heights, and I thought, If I can figure this out, I can figure anything out.” A year later she was married with a child.

Managers can play a helpful role in this process by encouraging colleagues to use collective, symbolic gestures or experiences, either with colleagues or not, as a way of making the statement that they’re going a change and are ready for what comes next.

Everyone profits from sharing.

Many of the tools for navigating transitions are connected to one of the three phases. But one tool has no temporal element at all: It floats, it reoccurs; it happens all the time. It’s sharing your story with others, and it’s one part of a life transition where managers can be most impactful, by welcoming, even encouraging, team members to open up about their challenges.

Human beings like to share. Personal revelation releases soothing chemicals in our brains and activates special systems in our bodies that help us relate better to others. When people relate their most traumatic experiences, their blood pressure, heart rate, and other physiological functions rise in the short term, but afterward fall to below where they were before their confessions — and remain there for weeks afterward.

When Dwayne Hayes, who working in publishing in Michigan, returned to work after his wife gave birth to stillborn twins, he hoped to avoid people and bunker down in his cubicle. A colleague whose wife had been pregnant at the same time, approached him in the hallway and offered a hug. “It was exactly what I needed,” he said.

My research shows that people respond to different kinds of advice. Around a third of people, like Dwayne Hayes, prefer what I call comforters (I love you; I trust you; you can do it); a quarter prefer nudgers (I love you, but maybe you should try this); while a sixth prefer slappers (I love you, but get over yourself). While encouraging team members to communicate about their transitions can be valuable, don’t make assumptions about the type of feedback they’d like to hear. Ask before you advise.

Priorities will change.

A life transition is fundamentally a meaning-making exercise. It is an autobiographical occasion, in which we are called on to revise and retell our life stories, adding a new chapter in which we find meaning in our lifequake. The lifequake itself may have been positive or negative, but the story we tell about it has an ending that’s upbeat and forward-looking.

This may be the most important role managers can play. Clearly communicate that everyone is dealing with the same kinds of adjustments; reassure them that minor accommodations in their work schedules are not an existential threat to their jobs; remind them that life is nonlinear and that modest career oscillations, even ones that oblige them to step away for a while, are not permanent and can altered once the pandemic passes.

Above all, stress to them a truth we all need to be reminded of these days: transitions work. Ninety percent of the people I spoke with got through their difficult time. By being an outlet as well as a source of both wisdom and comfort, you’re not just being a good colleague and friend, you’re also being a good leader.

How Fast is 5G? (INFOGRAPHIC)

From new laws to make the 5G network safer, to conspiracy theories suggesting 5G towers spread COVId-19, 5G is no stranger to making the tech headlines. The fifth generation of wireless technology follows previous generations of mobile tech. 3D paved the way for the launch of smartphones, while 4G allowed for faster browsing.

5G is proving faster than ever, but just how much faster? And how will it impact small businesses?

To show exactly how fast the fifth generation of mobile tech is, Reviews.org, providers of brand reviews on products on connected home products and services, compiled an infographic.



How Fast is 5G?

The ‘Exactly How Fast is 5G?’ infographic illustrates the speed differences between 4G and 5G.

Perth to London Flight Duration?

According to the infographic, the speed difference between 4G and 5G isn’t merely a few megabytes. On the contrary, the infographic likens 4G to a 17-hour 20-minute flight from Perth to London and the same flight on 5G being 3-hours 50-minutes.

To compare the flight durations to mobile network speeds, Reviews.org sourced average download speeds from 4G and 5G networks from Opensignal. They then converted the difference in speeds to a non-stop flight from London to Perth.

4.5x Speed Bump

In a blog about the 5G speed infographic, Joe Hanlon, Managing Director of Reviews.org, sums up the difference in speeds:

“We could tell you that you can currently expect a 4.5x speed bump from 4G, and that the difference is up to about 200Mbps on average We could say that this is just the tip of the iceberg (and that my personal best 5G speed is 808Mbps).”

How will it affect Small Businesses?

In a business sense, 5G is good news. Not only will small businesses get faster connections, but latency – the time it takes to upload data – will be faster to. For small businesses, faster connection and latency will make online operations quicker. 5G also makes cloud SaaS services quicker, another major plus point for small businesses.

5G is also described as having the ability to improve security and innovation. As we all know, data hacks and other cybercrime can cripple small businesses. By detecting threats and enhancing cybersecurity, 5G will help protect small businesses. This in turn we mean small businesses can try new things and experiment with greater confidence.

With its power, speed, and different prices options, 5G will provide small businesses with the tools to innovate and disrupt, and even go head to head with the big players.

How Accessible is it in the United States?

5G Ultra Wideband began rolling out in the US in April 2019. Verizon currently offers 5G broadband internet known as 5G Home. 5G Ultra Wideband is currently available in areas of 57 cities across the United States.

Image: Depositphotos.com


Small Businesses Need No-Strings-Attached Access to Funds — Here’s a Smart Option

The pandemic has had a profound effect on small businesses across the country. Seven months after the onset, resilient businesses have slowly begun accepting customers back into their shops, but things are by no means back to normal. Fewer customers and tighter local restrictions means less sales, with three-quarters of small businesses reporting that COVID-19 has caused revenues to dip. The lack of normal sales activity is exacerbating the delicate cash flow balance small businesses must regularly strike — a balance that was already out of sync from regional lockdowns in spring.

Now more than ever, small businesses need easy access to money in a way that doesn’t incur debt. Business debit cards are a great option for small businesses to easily access funds while avoiding borrowing cash.

The Pros of a Business Debit Card

Business debit cards come with a host of advantages, particularly for small business owners who are trying to better manage their finances.

The first benefit business debit cards hold over credit cards is the ease in actually obtaining one. These types of cards are easy to qualify for, and the process for receiving approval is often more expedited than applying for a credit card, given that business debit cards do not require a personal credit history check.

Aside from the convenience factor, business debit cards can be a great tool to help you manage your budget more easily. That’s because, when making a purchase with a business debit card, the money is drawn directly from your account — meaning you can only spend funds that you have available and don’t have to worry about paying off a balance or accruing debt. This also means that you never have to worry about interest accruing on past purchases.

How Square Card Offers Even More Benefits

For businesses that use Square to process payments, Square Card takes the business debit card to the next level and represents a smart option for business owners seeking an easy, straightforward way to manage cash flow.

A business’s Square Card links directly to their Square Balance, where sales they process via Square are stored. This enables instant access to sales funds, rather than waiting a day or more for earnings to transfer to an external business checking account, at no extra cost. This is especially beneficial right now, as 91% of Main Street small businesses are interested in real-time settlement of their merchant funds to combat cash flow shortages brought about by current economic conditions.

Like a regular business debit card, Square Card only allows you to spend money you have. However, unlike typical business accounts, Square Card holders are able to easily and instantly add funds to their Square Balance using an outside debit card, making cash management more efficient while ensuring business owners can cover expenses regardless of their sales that day. For example, if you’re looking to make a bulk order of supplies or products but don’t have enough funds in your balance, simply use a separate debit card to add the difference to your Square Balance immediately. What’s more, Square Card holders can see all of their transactions–including sales, transfers, and business expenses purchased via their card–in one place, giving small business owners an easier, more holistic view of their finances.

Business owners can sign-up easily online for Square Card once they’ve signed up for Square Payments. As soon as a card is ordered,  it can be used digitally right away via Apple Pay or Google Wallet while the card is shipped in the mail. Another added perk: Square Card has no annual fees, minimum balance fees, overdraft fees, or any other recurring fees.

A Smart Choice Moving Forward

A Square Card can help business owners get an immediate grip on their cash flow and provide peace of mind when unexpected expenses arise — relief that many small businesses need right now. It’s also a smart option for the future, providing small businesses with an easy path toward keeping their personal and business finances separate. Ensuring that personal and business finances don’t intermingle will benefit business owners in the long run and make necessary tasks like tax filings and bookkeeping more seamless.

Image: Square


What a Crisis Teaches Us About Innovation

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4. Elsbeth Johnson has termed this the Drama Delusion, and it particularly affects leaders in larger and older companies. See E. Johnson, “The Four Delusions of Leadership,” Dialogue Review, May 15, 2020, https://dialoguereview.com.

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12. Johnson, “Step Up, Step Back.”

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