Jan 10 2012

Articulating the Problem is the First Step Toward Solving It

A while back, we were having some specific challenges at Return Path that were *really* hard to diagnose.  It was like peeling the proverbial onion.  Every time we thought we had the answer to what was going on, we realized all we had was another symptom, not a root cause.  We’re a pretty analytical bunch, so we kept looking for more and more data to give us answers.  And we kept coming up with, well, not all that much, besides a lot of hand-wringing.

It wasn’t until I went into a bit of a cave (e.g., took half a day’s quiet time to myself) and started writing things down for myself that I started to get some clarity around the problem and potential solutions.  I literally opened up a blank Word document and started writing, and writing, and writing.  At first, the thoughts were random.  Then they started taking on some organization.  Eventually, I moved from descriptions of the problem to patterns, to reasons, to thoughts about solutions. 

But what really put me on a track to solutions (as opposed to just understanding the problem better) was starting to *talk* through the problems and potential solutions.  It didn’t take more than a couple conversations with trusted colleagues/advisors before I realized how dumb half of my thoughts were, both about the problems and the solutions, which helped narrow down and consolidate my options considerably.

Even better than solving the problems, or at least a driver of being able to solve them, is feeling more in control of a tough situation.  That’s probably the best thing I’ve learned over the years about the value of articulating problems and solutions.  For a leader, there is no worse feeling than being out of control…and no better feeling than the opposite.  Some level of control or confidence is required to get through tough times.

I suppose this post is not all that different from any 12-step program.  First, admit you have a problem.  Then you can go on to solve it.  But the point I am trying to make is more than that – it’s not just admitting you have a problem.  It’s actually diving in deep to the potential causes of the problem, and writing them down and (better) speaking them out loud a few times, that puts you on the road to solving those problems.