Are You Solving the Right Problem?

solving problems visual topProblems come in many shapes and sizes. Some are small (“I can’t find space for my 2pm meeting”). Others are large (“I can’t get forty coalition members to agree on goals”). All have the capacity to drive you nuts, especially if you’re not solving problems using the right tools.

If You Have a Hammer, Everything is a Nail

Once you find techniques that work, it’s tempting to use them over and over again. Maybe you’ve had great success using Gantt charts. You might like performance charting, root cause analysis, or group dialogue sessions. Perhaps business ecosystem maps rock your world.

There’s nothing wrong with these tools. But, as the saying goes, if you have a hammer, everything is a nail. And if you use your hammer on watermelon, you’re not going to get the results you want (unless your goal is seeds, pulp, and rind on the ceiling).

The Wrong Tool

I’ve seen too many problem solving efforts stall because organizations are using the wrong tool for the job. Just like hitting a watermelon with a hammer will create a mess, calling a large group meeting to achieve consensus on the office wall color will cause a headache. Deciding on paint color is a simple problem. A group consensus meeting is overkill; it’s too much tool for the problem.

On the other hand, just as big a snafu can occur when trying to use a simple tool for a complex problem. Try fitting innovation into a standard operating procedure and watch the sparks fly. Innovation is a complex activity that isn’t well suited to a tool used for simple problems. It’s another case where using the wrong tool does more harm than good.

Assess Your Problem, Find Your Tool

solving problems visual - full topOur new infographic, What’s Your Problem, helps you assess your problem and choose the right tool for the job. Is your challenge simple, complicated, complex, or chaotic? Once you know the type of problem you’re attempting to solve, check out our tips for how to proceed. You’ll learn:

  • Three steps to take when solving problems of each type
  • Questions that can help you get to the bottom of the issue
  • Common pitfalls people experience when working with each type of problem

Not sure which tool to use for your problem? Stay tuned for our next post, which will describe popular tools for each of the four types of problems.


Infographic content adapted from:

  • “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making,” Snowden & Boone, 2007. http://bit.ly/1Fmur7K
  • “Complex Change: An Emerging Field,” Waddell, 2014. http://bit.ly/1S8AEep
  • “Complex Systems, Theory of Constraints, and the Search for Inherent Simplicity,” Holt, 2010. http://bit.ly/1Fp9vKd
  • “Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?,” Glouberman & Zimmerman, 2002. http://bit.ly/1HsLhp3
  • “Complicated or Complex – Knowing the Difference is Important,” Allen, 2013. http://bit.ly/1L7hu30
  • “Exploring the Science of Complexity: Ideas and Implications for Development and Humanitarian Efforts,” Ramalingam & Jones with Reba & Young, 2008. http://bit.ly/1R15T9R
  • “Facilitative Leadership and Creative Problem Solving: Two Tools for High Performance Business Analysis,” Wilkins, 2011. http://bit.ly/1HftkFb
  • Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, Westley, Zimmerman, & Patton, 2006.
  • “Lean Startup in the Enterprise, BigVisible Solutions, 2012. http://bit.ly/1EhS7X6
  • “Reading Situational Responses,” Haskins, 2009. http://bit.ly/1HsKO6z
  • “Three Types of Change for Change Networks,” Waddell, 2010. http://bit.ly/1HsLad7

Thanks to Glenda Eoyang, Stephanie Nestlerode, Jeff Wetherhold, Alfredo Zangara, and others for thoughtful reviews of this work.

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