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What is your approach to problem-solving?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Albert Einstein said.
How often are businesses asking the right questions to solve their problems? Based on my experience of helping companies solve problems, most of the time their focus is on finding the right answer more than asking the right questions in order to explore and exploit all the possibilities. Subconsciously, the word problem says, “There is something wrong here.” It is not uncommon to use the words problems, challenges or issues interchangeably; however we rarely use the word choice. This word encourages us to engage our inner resources and to view a problem as a series of possibilities that will lead to a new opportunity. The approach is best described as follows:

1. Frame the problem as a choice: the first step is to accept that the business has to take a choice which has consequences that will determine different outcomes. Once the choice is made, you can then focus on the full range of possibilities. A possibility, or a ‘what if’ scenario is a positive story that describes how a business might succeed if certain conditions happen to be true. It has to be creative, logical and it doesn’t need to be proved. It is important to consider more than one possibility and include the current situation in your list. The ideal number is 3. The second step is to test the characteristics of each possibility, by conducting analyses of competitors, business models, customers and industry. Based on this analysis phase decide which opportunity to go for.

2. Create a sense of urgency around a single big opportunity: your chosen route will require regular strategic adjustments to ensure a competitive advantage without disrupting daily operations. Success in turning a problem into an opportunity means taking immediate action, and those that lag behind will struggle to survive. The pace of change in the world of commerce today is extraordinary and in my view strict hierarchical organisations (i.e. departments, divisions, and regions) are not fit for purpose any longer – the decline of Dell computers is an example. Successful businesses need to transform themselves into new entities that are agile, flexible and creative in responding to market conditions. An agile organisation provides the foundation blocks to create opportunities, identify creative business transformation initiatives and implement them fast. At one time strategy was seen as a planning activity when companies needed to reconsider their business strategies only once in a while. Today any company will be at risk if it is not constantly adjusting, applying operational changes and strategy should be viewed as a path finder to constantly seek new opportunities.

3. Implement your strategy as a portfolio of opportunities: a flexible strategy allows you to identify and implement new opportunities in an unpredictable environment before someone else does. Companies can drastically change the course of industry development through innovative thinking. Apple has disrupted the music industry with the introduction of ITunes, Facebook overtook myspace by opening its platform to outside developers. The more predictable an industry is, the more difficult it is for a company to change. Two extremes are: the oil industry which is highly predictable and the internet software industry which is much less predictable because of continuous innovation and the constant arrival of new competitors.

In today’s world, global competition, economic uncertainty, technology innovation and social networks have made the business environment unpredictable, and created a situation where you can witness seismic changes in market behaviours over a relatively short time period. Also, constant innovation demands skilful and swift responses and those companies that fail to recognise this can suffer serious consequences – witness Blackberry’s dramatic fall from grace in only a few years, following a series of big mistakes.

The industry landscape you operate in should never be seen as a given but as something that can be moulded to your advantage. When you see everything as an opportunity, instead of a problem your focus begins to shift. Before you know it, you will begin to experience real, lasting changes that will have a powerful effect on your organisation. Use problems to reassess your current way of doing business and opportunities will appear as a result of your projection of them.


To work with me or for more on topics of relevance to strategy, email me at or follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter @thinkethandco

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