Tricks for Handling Tough Problems

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By David Creelman

Simple problems fly by so quickly we hardly notice them; it’s the tough ones that occupy our days and perhaps our sleepless nights. It’s tempting to think that there is some terribly clever solution for our tough problems, a solution that is buried somewhere just waiting for us to dig it up. Sadly, most tough problems don’t have clever solutions.  However, you can help yourself find acceptable paths forward by following one of these three tricks:

  • Gracefully accept that it’s an issue you’ll just have to live with
    In The CEO and the Monk Kenny Moore tells a story about a manager who was in conflict with one of his peers. Kenny showed the manager a description of his own horoscope sign and that of his peer. The manager looked at how opposite their personalities were (at least according to astrology) then laughed; he realized he and his peer would probably always rub each other the wrong way—and that was okay. The point has nothing to do with horoscopes. It’s about accepting some problems will never go away and hence don’t need to be fixed. Once you accept this, the tough problems are often easier to live with.  Acceptance is the “solution” to many tough problems and often leads to the realization that the issue wasn’t really such a big deal anyway.
  • Step back and seek a much simpler solution
    Sometimes we get caught up seeking more and more complex solutions to a tricky problem. For example, we might be trying to give our staff guidance on how to deal with customer returns. As we think about all the possible scenarios we end up with such a complex list of policies that you’d need a roomful of lawyers to make sense of it.  How do we find our way out of this mess?  We step way back and simply tell our staff “Use your best judgement”—problem solved!  Seeking ‘good enough’ simplicity is often the key to resolving tough problems.
  • Take the hit
    Sometimes a tough problem might be how to save a project that is failing or fix a report that isn’t coming together, or tweak software that doesn’t quite work. These tough problems may have a clever solution, but often the best choice is to shut down the project, throw out the article, or buy new software. All the actions appear costly, but they are cheaper than the alternative of sticking to a lost cause. It’s tough to “take the hit”, to admit failure and start again, but once it’s done then the headache may dissipate delightfully.

What these solutions have in common
Take a moment to reflect on the things these solutions have in common:

  • The solution is not what you hoped for
  • The solution is simple
  • You already knew the best solution yourself

Often the worse thing to do is to hire someone who glibly promises to solve the problem in some incredibly clever way. Chances are that if the clever way existed you’d know about it. You have to trust yourself and face the reality that not all problems have great solutions.

Getting the help you need
I’ve written that you probably already know the answer to the problem, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need help. But the help you need is not the self-proclaimed experts, it’s simply the good listener who will help you talk your way through to your own answer.

Let me conclude with one last illustration of a tough problem. Imagine you are hiking to a friend’s cottage and discover the path has been washed out.  You can climb a hill but that is going to be really hard, or you can go the long way around and you’ll be late, or you can just give up and send your apologies.  You could consult an expert who promises to solve your problem, but the truth is that the choices are pretty clear. It’s true none of the choices is what you really want but the solution is simple and you probably already know the best answer. Maybe you are up to the tough climb, or maybe being late isn’t the end of the world, or maybe giving up and sending apologies is simply the wise thing to do.  And that’s the point about tough problems really. The solution is not in being clever, it’s in being wise. Finding a good listener can bring out that wisdom in you.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He is best known for his insights on people analytics and the “Uber-ization of work”.  You can connect to him on LinkedIn or email him at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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