I’ve Got 99 Problems and I Can’t Solve One

Originally published on October 31, 2018 by the Montrose Daily Press.

Good decision making doesn’t come easy. When faced with a complex problem, solutions are never easily available or packaged nicely. More common there are usually two, three, four, five or more major problems at the same time. And if you’re trying to mix a “solution cocktail” for each of them all at the same time, how do you keep them from seeping into one another?

If a bartender received four different drink orders, he would mix each one in separate containers. He must compartmentalize the drinks so their makeup remains unique and so the outcome matches his patrons’ desires. If he instead takes the four different drinks and mixes them all up in one shaker, he’ll have a mess on his hands.

So far we have a bunch of solution-less problems and some mixed drinks; historically speaking, never a good combination. So how do we apply this to leadership and application in the workplace? Let’s think about the problems you are trying to solve right now. How is that working out? Are all your drinks getting mixed together? Is the outcome a strong and nasty tasting cocktail that will put (gray) hair on your chest?

Let’s break it down; time to compartmentalize.

Step one: Identify the main problem(s) you’re facing in your organization (also applicable in personal life). Writing down 10 or 12 problems may be tempting, but let’s focus on the large overarching issues and see if working on those alleviates some of the smaller ones.

Step two: Visualize. Literally get yourself a big sheet of paper or white board and put these problems in their own compartments. Draw boxes on your paper and put one problem in the middle of each box. Now they are visually separate from one another.

Step three: Brainstorm solutions. Do not cross-pollinate here. One problem at a time; no cheating. Draw lines off each box and write a potential solution or action item at the end of each line. Try applying constraints to the problem, and also remove all constraints to help you brainstorm creative solutions.

For example: Let’s say you currently manage all of your inventory through a manual system of Excel spreadsheets and human tracking. The owner of the company has given you three months and $1,000 to get the inventory managed through an electronic system that leaves little room for human error.

You’re having a hard time solving the problem given the constraints. As an exercise, what would happen if the owner came back and said, “This project now needs to be done in one week and you have zero budget”? How would that change your approach? What resources might be available that you didn’t previously explore? What about the opposite? What if time and money are no constraint, and you have endless resources? How will you solve it then?

This exercise is a really good one for forcing our brain through the vortex of solution tunnel vision.

Step four: Repeat for each problem.

Step five: Look for similarities in the solutions across all problems. This is like the bartender realizing three of the four drinks calls for lime juice. And instead of getting the limes out, squeezing the juice for one, putting the lime juice away and then repeating for each drink, the bartender will squeeze enough juice for three drinks and add it to each drink at the same time.

Step six: Get yourself a win. If the exercise gives you a clear solution to even one of the problems, implement it immediately. Use the momentum of that solution to fuel the others that might be a little more complex.

Step seven: Recheck the compartments. When you go back to real life after nicely boxing up the problems, they will inevitably break free and get all over one another. It’s life. Re-isolate those little buggers and pick them off one at a time.

When things get overwhelming, I would imagine I’m not the only one who catches myself daydreaming of a carefree job slinging margaritas on a beach somewhere. Of course, as we’ve already established, even bartenders have complex problems to mix. Best keep the limes we have and make our own margaritas.

Chelsea Rosty is the director of business innovation for the City of Montrose. She can be reached at crosty@ci.montrose.co.us.