One day my phone rang and the person on the other end asked for me by my government name, with middle initial and everything. When this happens, it’s likely to get my full attention. After all, who knows why they might be calling or what they might want.

On this occasion, the caller was looking for a consultant for hire who could help them solve a problem they were experiencing on their team. They’d received my name from someone else and were calling based on that referral.

The person proceeded to explain the situation to me, defining the problem and the urgency of resolving it. They then asked me if I could help and they invited me to submit a proposed scope of work with an estimate of the time it would take and the amount it would cost. Most consultants welcome new opportunities, as do I. But in the process, I’ve learned that opportunities like these are also fraught with hazards.

Why? It’s because prospective clients often think they understand the problem and they are so eager to find someone with a fix to that problem they make critical errors. When clients misdiagnose the problem, and request a proposed solution that is based on that misdiagnosis, things typically don’t turn out as planned—for all involved.

Here are some suggestions for anyone who is looking for some outside assistance to a problem they perceive needs immediate attention. Better yet, here’s some advice for anyone who considers their role, or part of their role, to be that of a problem-solver.

The first and most important thing you can do is to at least know how to differentiate between the different kinds of problems that present themselves. When you can do this, you’ll put yourself on the right pathway toward identifying the right potential solution(s).

Where can you turn to learn how to do this? I recommend you consider Jerry L. Talley’s Problem Solving 2.0 website. Talley’s break down and description is one of the best I’ve seen. It is clear and easy to apply across so many different situations.

Talley tells us there are 6 different types of problems.

Let’s start with the first kind of problem: puzzles. According to Talley, puzzles “have objective solutions, and typically have known and reliable methods for resolution.” Puzzles call on expertise and they lend themselves to solutions that may already exist. You might even be able to recycle someone else’s solutions, especially if they had the exact same puzzle. Properly handling food in a restaurant, for example, is a puzzle. Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back TV Series is built on solving puzzles related to food service.

Rich problems, on the other hand, are described as “almost the exact opposite from puzzles.” Unlike puzzles, the solutions to rich problems are not objective. There are multiple choices, some of which may be controversial. As Talley writes, “rather than expertise, the most pressing need is for judgment, intuition, innovation, even courage.” In the United States, those involved in our legal system encounter rich problems every day. When the law gives room for discretion, whether it’s at the time of arrest, prosecution, or sentencing, there may be multiple solutions available to a host of decision makers. That’s why the solutions to rich problems often do not enjoy full consensus, particularly when there is a single decision maker at the helm.

The third type of problems you’ll encounter “are dominated by the unknown or unknowable variation in key variables.” Talley refers to these kinds of problems as uncertainties. The keys to solving an uncertainty often lie in the future. The best solution depends on how the situation unfolds, and that can’t be fully known until the future reveals itself. As the situation changes, your solution may need to change. Uncertainties require you to remain observant, flexible, and responsive. Leadership transitions—the time between the departure of one and the arrival of another—for example, bring all kinds of potential problems that can be described as uncertainties. You won’t truly know what you’re facing until the new leader arrives. Leadership transitions, living with uncertainties, are commonplace to anyone who has been in the military or worked in government.  

A fourth type of problem is one that I’ve seen a lot in my work: dilemmas. Talley puts its succinctly when he writes that “dilemmas come from our simultaneous commitment to incompatible goals. Our efforts to maximize one undermines our success at the other.” Dilemmas often polarize people, pushing two opposing viewpoints into competitive postures. Talley warns that “dilemmas are never really resolved, only managed more or less well.” Solving a dilemma requires as much of an emphasis on the people as it does on their goals or agendas. For example, pursuing quality and quantity, simultaneously, often creates a dilemma. Ask most health care professionals about this and they’ll express their discomfort with being held accountable for metrics that seem, at times, incompatible.  Do you see more patients on a daily basis or do you spend more time with each patient? How the health care system defines and assesses “care” affects all of us.

When dilemmas are left to fester, they can quickly become disputes—the fifth type of problem. A dispute is a conflict between parties who are pursuing divergent interests and agendas. Often, a solution that is acceptable to one is not acceptable to another. Solutions require a refashioning of the interests and agendas of the various individuals and groups involved. According to Talley, “while cooperation may be difficult it is also essential, since no one can proceed without the tacit permission of the others (although that power is usually expressed through a veto rather than positive support).” Solving disputes require moving people closer toward each other—easier said than done. There are many policy problems in the United States, like gun control, that are simply just perceived as disputes between warring ideologies.

The sixth type of problem is my favorite and the kind that I enjoy tackling most often. They are called complex problems or complexities. A complex problem is one that emerges, usually in a system, when the parts of that system interact with each other. Think of the weather. Hurricanes and tornadoes are complex problems. It is hard to predict when they will emerge and when they do emerge, how intense they will be. Complex problems are often unpredictable and the solution depends on how the various parts interact. Since you often can’t see those interactions unfolding, solving complex problems is extremely challenging. Collective action initiatives, such as social movements, usually possess colorful and complex problems. The mass migration of people, like the world has seen in recent years, bring problems that can be characterized as complexities. These kinds of problems emerge only through the interaction between multiple parts of a rapidly changing system.

Talley’s system for categorizing problems is something I teach in my leadership classes and use in my consulting engagements. It’s come in handy many times and it has allowed me to use a framework that fosters a more open and transparent relationship with my clients.

Keep this in mind. Problems don’t only present themselves in business or inside of organizations. There are problems in our communities, our families, and buried deep inside ourselves. Problems, especially those that persist, can be perplexing, frustrating and eventually discouraging. However, before you start problem solving, make sure you know what kind of problem you are actually solving.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

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