The Problems with Problem Solving

By Ron Price

One of the primary jobs of a leader is solving problems. We often joke that if all the problems went away, we would be unemployed. Some problems are quick and easy to solve. Scheduling conflicts, customer complaints, and equipment failures are examples of problems we can often fix quickly and move on. However, there are also many problems that are much more complex and tedious to solve. It is these tougher problems that test and demonstrate our skills as problem-solving leaders.

In The Complete Leader, Randy Lisk and I wrote about two basic kinds of problems that leaders encounter on a regular basis. The first are linear problems. These are problems that have a clear root cause. By applying a scientific approach, whether asking “why” over and over again until you uncover the original cause, or by completing a more complex root cause analysis such as the fishbone model of identifying several potential contributors, one or more causes can be identified and solved. This is often the work of process engineers and is most effectively applied with problems are primarily connected with tangible parts, processes and results.

A much more complex set of problems we often encounter is the non-linear, often referred to as wicked or hot messes because of their multi-faceted causes. These problems often come as a result of living in a VUCA work (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). These non-linear problems have several factors to be understood and tackled with a focus on incremental improvement over time. I often think of these similar to untying tangles or knots. An aggressive and decisive approach makes the problems worse. Sometimes, the greater act of leadership is recognizing that these problems are unsolvable in the short term and minimizing their impact is more appropriate that pushing for a final resolution. I have concluded that almost all “people problems” are non-linear and complex.

As we help leaders improve their problem-solving skills, we encourage them to consider the following questions:

  1. Is this a linear problem or a non-linear problem?
  2. Who is the right person (or persons) to work on this problem?
  3. What is the right time frame for solving this problem?
  4. What will be the impact or benefit be of solving this problem?
  5. Is this the right problem for us to be working on?
  6. What will solving this problem cost and is it a good investement of time and resources.
  7. Who else could learn by being part of solving this problem?

Problems are wonderful opportunities for leadership growth. Rather than bemoaning problems, great leaders study them with the intention of turning them into opportunities for learning, the creation of new value, and individual or organizational success. What problems are you working on right now? How can you grow your influence and reputation by applying fresh insights into the problems of problem solving?

For more information about how we help leaders become great problem solvers, write to us at