Uh, Houston? We have a problem.

EarthUh, Houston? We have a problem.

Those immortal words have been used as a punch line to many situations, but their original utterance was of the most serious matter.

Made famous by a Hollywood movie, the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 were definitely not laughing when they contacted their support team a trillion miles away. (Okay, actually more like 200,000 miles. But it might as well have been a trillion miles. And since we’re checking for historical accuracy, the original quote was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Okay. I feel better now.) An oxygen tank had exploded, increasing pressure inside the service module and causing a 13-foot panel of aluminum skin to pop off. Actually, the pressure caused the bolts attaching the skin to pop off. (Side thought: Can you imagine how much pressure it would take to pop one bolt – let alone all of them? Wow.) Fortunately, the problem was addressed and everyone got home safely.

What I love about this story is actually the way that they solved the problem. It is a perfect illustration of what we – and our clients – should be going through.

(By the way, I made every step end with “-tion.” You can enjoy that free of charge.)

Step one of problem-solving is actually problem creation. Seriously. If no problem exists, no solution is needed. Go sell some place else, because the opportunity to help is non-existent. But here is the obvious tricky part. Problems don’t just pop up out of thin air. They are created by a combination of factors (pressures, trends, people, etc. – what my colleague Tamara Schenk likes to call “forces”) that produce expectations. Expectations that have to be met. And it becomes a problem when there are limited alternatives to meet those expectations. It becomes a big problem when those unmet expectations are significant, AND there are still very limited alternatives to meeting them. So you HAVE to know the expectations and alternatives involved. Here’s the best part. If you can see how the problem was created, even if the client cannot, you will be given the best chance of helping solve the problem.

This also means that you are going to have to create a habit outMagnifying Glass of generating insight and being curious. You cannot just generate insight when the client asks for it. You must know their business as well as, if not better than, the client. Talk to random people. Mingle with the front lines, the back office, and executive row. Ask questions. LISTEN. Be ready to enter a discussion about problems meaningfully.

Step two of problem-solving is problem identification. By the client. This is critical. If they don’t see the problem (or worse, they don’t care), there is very little you can do from this point onward. You must help the client see the problem. The most common obstacle to this is when the client sees a portion of the problem, but not the bigger problem itself. There they are, picking at the leaves at the end of a branch, while the root system is just growing and growing. Great problem-solvers follow the branch to the trunk, then down into the roots until they see the problem in its entirety. Then they expose the roots to the client so that the problem can be officially identified. When the problem is small, this is relatively easy. But when the problem is complex, it can take much longer than originally planned, involve more people than originally wanted, and require more resources than originally set aside.

And God forbid that your own team doesn’t want to solve the problem. They’ll whine moan provide so-called “feedback” that things are taking too long, involving too many people, and wasting resources. Such people are actually not interested in solving the bigger problem. They’re picking at the leaves of a different branch. To make the owner of that branch happy. While you are trying to work with the owner of the tree. Have fun with that.

Step three of the problem-solving process is solution generation. As my co-author, Brian Lambert, likes to say, “You have to anchor your solution against the problem. Once you have that anchor point, your solutions are legitimate. Without that anchor point, your solutions simply… aren’t.” Using the problem as your anchor point allows you to brainstorm multiple ideas that all help. You may not be able to use all of these solutions. That’s okay. Just keep trying to solve the problem. Ask yourself, “Does this address the branch, the trunk, or the roots? Am I only working at one part of the tree? Do I need to expand my (and my client’s thinking) about how to solve the problem?” DON’T limit your thinking to just what is real. DO expand your thinking to include the possible.

Step four of problem-solving is solution selection. It’s pulling all of the requirements, the risks, the limitations, and resources together to select the solution bundle that solves the problem best. And I used the term bundle on purpose. Because the “solution” is usually as complex as the problem and will involve multiple components. And, perhaps most critically, one of those components is time. Which means that the solution to be selected may be only phase one of other, future phases. Just get that phase started. AND get the client to understand (and agree) that other, future phases will be needed to fully solve the problem.

Step five of problem-solving is solution implementation. If step one is paramount, step five is a photo-finish second place for the overall experience. My belief is that everything looks great on paper until people get involved. (I know. Ponder THAT for a moment.) Here’s where we come in. And where we can provide real value. Getting the execution of a solution to step out of the realm of words and into the realm of reality is massively hard. We can help Future signcommunicate not only the solution that has been selected, but also the problem we are trying to solve. We can help optimize the context that the solution has to live within. By just pausing to look 6 months into the future, we can identify potential obstacles and even potential encouragements that will impact implementation. Getting the people and resources prepared for these factors is not just pro-active, it’s smart. Because you always implement to the future reality, not the past reality.

Step six of problem-solving is solution evaluation. But I am not suggesting simple metrics. Great evaluation requires great insights. You don’t get insights from dashboards. You don’t get insights from answering, “Did the problem go away?” You have to know WHY the problem went away (or didn’t). You have to know WHO made the critical difference in the process (or didn’t). You have to know HOW the solution addressed the problem (or didn’t). Without these kinds of insights (and more), you are going to not only miss the opportunity to get credit for solving the problem, you are going to miss the opportunity to learn from the problem-solving experience, to acquire the ABSOLUTELY MOST IMPORTANT, CRITICAL, VITAL, ESSENTIAL, VALUABLE THING in the world – wisdom. Because wisdom solves problems in a way that skills and talent never can. Wisdom drives great decision-making. And if you are a great decision-maker, Life (not just business) will come to you.

And THAT is a thought we can all ponder for a good, long while.

I mua. Onward and upward.

by Tim Ohai

This entry was posted in Leadership, Problem Solving, Selling and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Uh, Houston? We have a problem.

  1. Great post, Tim. I’ll be doing some writing on this topic in the near future, too. Couple of quick thoughts:

    In general, I love the Mind Tools site, even the free version, and you might enjoy seeing this reminder on problem-solving approaches: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/main/newMN_TMC.htm#approaches

    Factor analysis – hugely beneficial. I’ve always found Force Field Analysis to be an incredible tool, straight from Kurt Lewin. If you want to move from point A to point B, what driving forces are propelling you forward, and what restraining forces are holding you back? Often these competing forces are relatively equal, creating stasis. Think of it as sitting in a car, with one foot pushing on the gas pedal and the other pushing on the brake. If you want to go forward, what will get you the fastest result… more pressure on the gas pedal or removing your foot from the brake? This usually gives us a sense of where to start. See http://www.slideshare.net/MikeKunkle/force-fieldanalysisappliedtoaccountdevelopment for a version of Force Field Analysis applied to Account Development.

    In your step 5, sounds like you may be using FMEA or something like it. I learned failure modes and effects analysis in my six sigma training and have found it to be valuable in many settings. See http://www.isixsigma.com/tools-templates/fmea/quick-guide-failure-mode-and-effects-analysis/

    Whenever I mention this level of addressing problems in sales, I usually encounter tremendous push-back. It’s my opinion that sales professionals (and buyers – in fact, just “business professionals”) should be experts with these tools, and use them to identify root causes and ensure solutions will minimize or eliminate them.

    Given your Apollo theme, Tim, you know I have to say this… “This isn’t exactly rocket science.”

    Keep the good posts coming.

    • timohai says:

      Beautiful inputs, Mike. Thank you for equipping this conversation with real tools.

      And, yes, I am amazed at how much people can push back against the idea that sales people should be problem solvers. Whenever I hear that, I think, “This cat is stuck in the 1900’s. Have fun with that.”

  2. thecoachlee says:

    Good points. One missing step is to identify any presumptions or assumptions if you will. These can have a dramatic and usually negative impact on the overall approach to creating the solution. What happens is those involve may end up on an entirely different path.

    • timohai says:

      I’m glad you joined the conversation, Leanne.

      I actually included presumptions and assumptions, but I didn’t explicitly point them out because I see them as an influence throughout the entire process. They can drive the perception of expectations and even alternatives (step one), the ability to see or not see the problem and possible solutions (steps two and three), the process for selecting a solution (step four), the way that folks support an implementation (step five), and even how the insights at the end are used or not used (step six). Basically, I would say that presumptions and assumptions can pretty much appear at any time, not just as a single step. Or in other words, whenever there is a gap in information (throughout the entire experience), people will create their own.

      How does that work for you? Or did I miss your point entirely?

  3. Pingback: Developing Your Credibility as a Problem-Solver (pt. 1) | Tim Ohai

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