How Leaders Solve the Biggest Problem-Solving Problem

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Problem-solving is in the “DNA” of effective leadership. 

So how come sometimes it just doesn’t work? Why is it that some attempts at problem-solving feel like you’re just butting your head into a brick wall? Why do some of the best-intentioned problem-solving initiatives just fall flat?

Sometimes it’s because, right out of the gate, you haven’t properly sized up the problem you’re about to tackle. The most effective leaders I know have a much higher problem-solving batting average because they start by processing the problem through these 3 clarifying questions:

1. Is this a problem to be solved, or a tension to be managed?

Before you decide to tackle whatever crisis has landed on your desk, first discern if indeed you really can solve it. It could be a tension that must be managed.

At the 2010 Global Leadership Summit, Andy Stanley unpacked this vital distinction. As Stanley pointed out, not every difficult situation that lands on your desk is a problem you will ever be able to solve. Some of these situations are tensions you must learn to manage.

2. Is this my problem?

Once you’ve determined that the latest crisis really is a problem, and not a tension to be managed, next figure out if it really is your problem.

At the 2004 Global Leadership Summit, Bill Hybels interviewed USC president Steven Sample, and asked him how he responds when a problem is presented to him.

“The first thing I do,” Sample answered, “is to figure out if this is really my problem!”

You might be tackling a problem that really doesn’t belong to you.

3. Just how big is this problem?

As I outlined in an earlier post, one of the first jobs of leadership is to determine the appropriate scale of the problem that has just landed. “Is this a big deal? A little deal? Somewhere in between?”

Always figure out just what the scale and scope of this problem really is. And put the appropriate energy and resources towards it.

Here’s the point. Today, and every day, problems will land on your plate. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming.

But if you’ll apply this three-question clarifying process, you’ll be amazed just how much more effective your problem solving efforts really can be.

the author

Scott Cochrane

Lifelong learner, practitioner and coach of leadership, across more than 50 countries. Follower of Jesus, husband of Nora, grateful parent and grandparent.


  1. Scott – excellent tips. So often as leaders we think that we have to solve everything from infighting on the team to world hunger – and in reality, if everyone would take a step back and ask them those 3 questions, a lot more would get accomplished smoothly. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. This is indeed how we’ve all been taught to deal with “problems.” Many motivational speakers tell us that to get rich we simply have to “find a problem and solve it.” Here’s the brutal reality…if you solve every problem facing your organization all you are is caught up. Give it a minute and you’ll have another problem to solve. Some people do that until the day ‘they’ become the problem to solve. There’s another way.

    “Problems” always require us to look back. “Possibilities” always require us to look ahead. Leaders get to chose which direction they want to look – but if you look back you’re no longer a leader. I’ve learned that true leaders need to ask only ONE question: “What is possible?”

    Since the beginning of time certain ones have seen possibilities most others couldn’t see – from da Vinci to Elon Musk. They were not divinely selected while the rest of us were not. EVERYONE has been blessed with this capability, it’s just that some accept and act on it while most don’t. Christ is recorded as telling us that we will do greater miracles than he ever did…but 99.99 percent of Christians think he was only kidding.

    Everything that will ever be possible is already possible. What we have trouble doing is seeing those possibilities. The organization that learns to see its highest possibilities and then aligns all its energy toward making those possibilities real, makes itself unassailable. The only role of a leader is to help the people in the organization do exactly that.

  3. Great read. One of the questions I always ask “Is this a problem with process or is this an anomaly?” That question is a little different form of the question of “Can this be solved or does it need to be managed?” If it is a problem with process, that the process needs to be changed/fixed. Anomalies need to be acknowledged that they will occur but can’t be solved or anticipated when they will occur.

  4. Katherine, you’ve stated it well; “As leaders we think that we have to solve everything from infighting on the team to world hunger.” Bingo. One of the keys to effective leaders is to focus our problem-solving energies.

  5. Ian; “Possibilities” instead of “Problems”. Love it! You’ve given me, and all of us, a refreshing new perspective.

  6. David, the “anomaly” question is crucial. In fact, if I ever re-post this article I will include this (and quote you as the source). In order to find the right perspective on any problem a leader has to know if this is a “one-off”, or is this part of a pattern.

  7. Great article . I would also like to add to the discussion the ad hock problem solving is very disruptive to the organization’ s work flow, resource coordination and strategic plan execution. In my work I often encounter organizations that drop everything to react to this weeks new challenge at the cost of sabotaging operation efficiency and alignment.. While some problems require immediate attention many don’t.

  8. Thanks for weighing in Stephen. Another way to look at it is that the very workflow you refer to is itself solving a problem of some sort. Do we need to grow? That’s a problem to be solved. Do we need to hire new staff? That’s a problem to be solved. That said, I agree with your central point; some organizations never get into a productive rhythm because there is no rhyme nor reason to how they tackle problems; everything can seem ad hock, as you say. The result can be demoralizing.

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