Problems Can Be Our Friends!

By Wes Friesen, President
Solomon Training and Development

Do you like problems? I don’t and likely you don’t either. But experts say — and I am still learning! — that problems can be our friends. If we address problems wisely, they can help us and our teams learn, grow, and improve.

Bottom line: problems provide an opportunity to make things better! To illustrate this point, look at the things that surround us and that we use every day. They were developed in response to a problem. For example, the problem of not being able to listen to a lot of music without carrying around a suitcase of CDs is reason why we can listen to three thousand songs on a one inch square object clipped to our shirts.

Problems are why we have phones that fit in the palm of our hands, back up cameras on our cars, indoor toilets … the examples are endless. So, the first key to have problems be our friends is to change our mindsets and view problems positively as opportunities to make things better for us and the people we effect.

The next key to have problems truly be our friends is to have an effective and thoughtful problem solving process that we carefully follow and execute. Following is an “IDEAL” problem solving process that can help us achieve the desired outcomes and benefits we desire.

IDEAL Problem Solving Strategy

The IDEAL problem solving approach was introduced by Bransford and Stein back in 1984. Following is my modified version and explanation of this model:

I – Identify the problem

D – Define the cause(s)

E – Explore possible solutions

A – Act

L – Look and learn

Lets dig deeper into the five components.

First is identifying the problem. It is essential to be clear what the problem really is. Steve Jobs explained, “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” Charles Kettering adds, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” It is helpful to ask questions of affected parties, and avoid the blame game. I agree with Henry Ford’s advice, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy”. Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” I think Einstein was purposefully exaggerating but the point is clear — we need to make sure we really understand the problem before moving on.

Second is defining the cause. A huge part of solving a problem is finding the root cause(s). Why did this problem happen? One helpful technique is to consider if one or more of these key areas are causes: People (was there human error caused by inadequate training, carelessness, etc.?), Process (is there a deficiency in our processes?), or Technology (is there a problem with our technology?).

Let me illustrate from a problem that happened over 15 years ago with my Print and Mail Team. One day we mistakenly mailed out 2,000 customer bills where the back of the bill had information from a different customer than the front of the bill. Oops! Fortunately the consequences were minimal but could have been significant. We analyzed the root causes and found we had a People problem (a printer operator had carelessly not followed a standard procedure); a Process deficiency (in hindsight, could have had an additional quality check) and Technology weakness (our two printers had a switch to ensure that the second printer was printing the right customer data on the back of the bill; this switch has to be manually turned on by the operator instead of being a default that was always on).

Third is exploring possible solutions. Now that we know the problem and the root causes, we can turn our attention to possible solutions. Travis Kalanick said and I tend to agree, “Every problem has a solution. You just have to be creative enough to find it.” It helps to encourage brainstorming and solicit creative ideas from people close to the situation such as team members and relevant support staff. Also, identify key stakeholders and look for “win-win” solutions from their perspective. One caution – be careful to avoid “unintended consequences”.

Unintended consequences can occur when we are too hasty in making decisions, and have not thought through effects on other people and/or long-term consequences. In the above bill problem example, we landed on multiple solutions including: coaching the operator who made the mistake, and re-training all operators on standard procedures; adding another quality check — have a periodic visual check as bills are being printed; and setting the printer switch to always be on so it’s verifying the front and back of bill information are in synch.

Fourth step is to act. Now is the time to choose the best solution(s) and fix the problem. Ensure that all relevant team members and other support staff are being effectively used so the implementation of our selected solutions work. Make sure we have an appropriate implementation plan, set expectations, and err on side of over communicating versus under communicating. In the bill problem example, we implemented the proposed solutions identified above.

Last step is to look and learn. The Look part of this last step is to monitor results and make sure that our solutions work as intended. In the bill problem example above, since the described solutions were adopted, the team has produced over 160 million bills. Guess how many of these bills had the wrong page problem! Zero! Yeah! However, in the real world sometimes solutions don’t always work as planned, so we need to carefully monitor and avoid premature celebrations. If solutions are working, we need to make sure they are documented and people trained and supported.

What about the Learn part of this step? Perhaps the best learning experiences we have is when we make mistakes, then resolve and reflect on what we can do differently in the future. There is an old saying that “Experience is the best teacher”. I think a better saying is, “Reflected experience is the best teacher”. Respected leadership expert and acclaimed professor Warren Bennis had the opportunity to have extended interviews with some of the most successful leaders in various fields across our country. One of the key take-aways from his study is that all of these great leaders acknowledged making mistakes, but by reflecting and learning from mistakes that became better people and leaders. This concept is supported by Michael Alter, President of SurePay, when he said, “Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success”.

In closing, I like the sentiment that Tony Robbins expressed when he said, “Every problem is a gift. Without them we wouldn’t grow.” And Alfred A. Montapert encourages us to, “Expect problems and eat them for breakfast.” On that note, let’s go and make problems into our friends!

Wes Friesen (MBA, EMCM, CMDSM, MCOM, MDC, OSPC, CCE, CBF, CBA ICP, CMA, CFM, CM, APP, PHR, CTP) is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams and has extensive experience in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. He is also an award winning University Instructor and Speaker and is the President of Solomon Training and Development – which provides leadership, management and team building training.

His book, Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you—and your team—soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from or (under Book) or an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Wes can be contacted at or at 971-806-0812.