Leadership hack 008 – there are only ever three business problems

You face a huge variety of problems every day.  Understanding the type of problem you face helps you determine the best way approach and solve it.

Most problems can be distilled down to:

  1. Diagnosis – not knowing what to do
  2. Alignment – not being aligned on what to do
  3. Execution – not being able to do what you agree to do

There is a fourth option – a mix of two or more.  However, trying to solve two problems at the same time is often counterproductive.  If you do face a combination of challenges, you can use this framework as a step-by-step tool to focus your effort.  We can now look at each step in a little more detail.

Not knowing what to do.  This is a common strategy problem.  You or your clients may know that something is wrong, for example declining revenue, but you cannot be sure that you have determined the actual cause of the problem (rather than just a symptom).  Without understanding the cause of the problem, you cannot define a possible solution.  This type of problem is best solved with diagnostic analysis.  Before you get to crunching the data, you must first have an idea of what you are looking for.  Focus on what has changed before and during when the occurred, both internally and externally.  Once you have a few possible solutions with high potential (hypotheses), you can then use data to test these hypotheses.  Once you have determined the primary cause(s) you can then suggest a solution.

Not being aligned.  Once you have an idea of what the problem is, and what you need to do about it, you then need to align key stakeholders so that action can be taken.  Sometimes alignment is not a challenge.  For example, alignment is easier in organisations with good leadership, high levels of trust and where there is a ‘burning platform’ to encourage change.  However, alignment is often tough (see my post on alignment), which is why most change efforts fail at this stage (see BCG On Strategy).  A way to improve your odds is to show very clear evidence, either from data or experiments, that you are addressing the right problem with the correct solution.  Providing concrete actions, appealing to emotions and telling a story are also very powerful (see my post of ‘Made to Stick‘).

Not being able to do what you agreed to do.  Once (if!) key stakeholders are aligned it is now time to execute.  ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ and no strategy survives execution intact.  Not only do you need to be able to keep the pressure on (as change is hard) and adapt where necessary, you also need to ensure that your team has the skill and will to execute (see my post on skill and will for more help on this).

In summary, the diagnostic, alignment, execution framework help you solve problems by establishing a solution to the problem you face, aligning people to take action and then ensuring people have the skill and will to execute.