3 mistakes business owners make when solving problems

What do palaeontologists, archaeologists and economists all have in common? They will all tell you that life moves toward a greater degree of complexity.

But you know this because the same is true in your business. When you started your business the problems that you were asked to solve were relatively simple ones, often technical in nature and mostly related to your area of expertise. As your business grew, complexity increased and the problems you are now expected to solve are dramatically different. They are complex, have many variables, have many dependencies, involve unpredictable elements and rarely have a precedent.

All this is okay if you have unlimited resources (time, money, people and equipment) to throw at finding a solution … but on what planet does that happen? For the vast majority of us solving the complex problems that we face requires some practiced problem solving skills and an ability to recognise and avoid common mistakes business owners and leaders make.

Mistake 1: Looking for solutions

Bizarre as it may sound, the first mistake many business leaders and owners make when they face a problem is to look for a solution!

To illustrate this read the following two scenarios and notice what you are thinking at the end of each of them.

Scenario A:

You are having a busy day at work and one of your team members pops their head into your office and says:

“It’s happened again. We’ve got another customer complaint. Do you know what we need to do? We need to get people from my team to spend time with people from Sophie’s team and we need to get people from Sophie’s team to spend time with people in my team. That would fix this.”

 Just notice what you would be thinking or feeling at this point.

Now compare it to what you might be thinking or feeling at the end of scenario B.

 Scenario B:

You are having a busy day at work and one of your team members pops their head into your office and says:

“I’ve been doing some research and I have found out that 25% of our customer complaints come from issues that happen when my team hands things across to Sophie’s team. Something in that handover is causing our customers lots of pain. If we could look at some options around how to finesse the handover between my team and Sophie’s team I reckon we could eliminate up to 25% of our customer complaints in one swoop. ”

 Just notice what you would be thinking or feeling at this point and compare it to your first response.

The key skill here is to think in terms of outcomes rather than solutions. In Scenario A the team member has come to us with a solution. But because it is the only solution it increases the likelihood that:

  1. We will think the solution simplistic and poorly thought through
  2. We will reject the solution
  3. The team member will walk away deflated.

In Scenario B no solution has been suggested yet but the outcome is clear. We have the opportunity to reduce customer complaints by 25%.

Thinking in solutions limits our options. If we only have one solution it increases the likelihood that we will not succeed and that people will lose motivation to try a second time.

Thinking in terms of the outcomes you wish to create will allow us the opportunity to find many possible things to try. It increases motivation and increases the likelihood that the problem will be solved.

Mistake 2: Not getting educated

Have you ever been in a meeting where you were trying to solve a problem that the business was facing and the following happened?

Barrie starts by saying “What we need to do is …” Half way through Leonie interrupts Barrie with something like “That’s not quite correct Barrie. What you have forgotten is …” And then while Leonie is in full swing Mark starts shaking his head and then says “That’s all very well Leonie but the real problem here is …” Then, because he feels as though his point has been lost in the melee, Barrie pipes up again with his point and we go around in circles.

Sound familiar?

The problem here is, in large part, caused by our need to be seen to behave in a way that is consistent with our verbally stated position. This is a well documented psychological need. (1)  Once we have stated a position in a debate we have a tendency to look for evidence to support our stated position and avoid evidence that undermines it. In meetings asking people for solutions to a problem before they have been properly educated in the issue will lead to death by debate, frustration and a poor decision.

The key is to educate the decision makers in kay aspects of the challenge BEFORE people are asked to take a position.

As a facilitator of countless problem solving groups I would find it hard to overstate the importance of educating people before asking them to make a decision. The quality of the decision increases, the engagement in the implementation of the decision increases and the participants understanding of business and people increases.

Mistake 3: Expecting things to go as planned

Dr William James 1842 – 1910 was an absolute champion! As a medical doctor, philosopher and pioneering psychologist he wrote many highly influential books in his areas of expertise. His brother was Henry James the famous novelist, his sister was Alice James the diarist and his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. No wonder the guy was a smarty pants. He also got to hang around with Helen Keller, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud and Carl Yung. What a life! (2)

James suggested that our self-esteem does not require us to succeed at everything all the time. Our self-esteem will only be damaged by failure if we expect the results we are able to generate to be perfect every time.

For the mathematically minded amongst us: Self-Esteem = Success ÷ Expectations

When our expectations are high (Say 10 out of 10) and our success is low (Say 1 out of 10) then our self-esteem will be (1 ÷ 10 = 0.1) quite low. When our expectations are low (1 out of 10) and our success is high (10 out of 10) then our esteem will be (10 ÷ 1 = 10) quite high.

One of the main mistakes that business leaders and owners make is that they expect solutions to be implemented and to produce the results that they had planned. This rarely happens. More often than not what happens is that the plan moves us in a direction toward the desired outcome and then reveals another challenge along the way.

The discipline of project management gives us a couple of concepts to help us here. One is called Base Line Theory and the other is the concept of Tolerances. Base Line Theory is the idea that if you are to travel from Sydney to Melbourne then there would be a route that you would plan. This route might take in Goulburn, Canberra and Shepparton. So your “Base Line” consists of the shortest drive from Sydney to Goulburn to Canberra to Shepparton and then Melbourne.

Then along the way, stuff happens. You feel hungry and want to eat before you get to Goulburn, the kids need a break before Canberra, you get car sick outside of Shepparton and your partner wants to follow the signs to Kinglake National Park. These things have to be dealt with … within a limit of tolerance. It is unlikely, for example if you are feeling hungry between Sydney and Goulburn that you would turn off the road and drive to Brisbane for a bite to eat. You might, however, consider stopping at a town that is only a couple of kilometres off the freeway.

Good plans include a base line and tolerances.

In summary

As your business grows you will be asked to deal with challenges that you have not dealt with before. A few things will help:

  1. Think in terms of outcomes before looking for solutions
  2. Educate yourself and others on the nature of the challenge and the dynamics involved
  3. Plan like hell and then go with the flow


(1)  “This is a well documented psychological need.” See Cialdini. Robert, B. 1984 “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion” Quill William Morrow, New York.

(2)  For more on William James see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James

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