Take Your Biggest Problem…and Skip It

By Daniel Burrus

Every business has problems that can halt progress and cause the company to stagnate: slow cash flow, out-of-date technology, long sales cycles, etc. Often when trying to “fix” the problem, the company gets even more mired in the challenge and can’t seem to get past the roadblock. Often they focus on the problem, shift into crisis management and let it dictate their every move.

A better solution to solving those tough problems is to just skip it. That’s right, skip the problem completely. How can this help? When you confront your roadblock by leaping over it rather than having it stop you from reaching your goals, you see new solutions that you never realized existed. Realize that this strategy is very different than procrastination or avoidance, because it is based on recognizing the real, underlying problem and making a conscious decision to find a way to move forward instead of being blocked by it.

If you think this solution sounds fanciful and idealistic, think again. It’s actually a great way to free your mind and see the problem in a new light. Consider the following real-life examples of how this solution helps companies overcome challenges and make smarter decisions.

  • A small manufacturing business started getting many requests for additional products, but in order to meet the increased demand, the company would have to borrow the capital necessary for a major expansion. The business was relatively new and without a track record, and the bank rejected their loan request. The company skipped the problem by pre-selling the products, and with advanced orders in-hand, they were able to secure the loan.

  • Instead of purchasing expensive software and servers and then having to upgrade a few years later, many companies are skipping the problem by using application service providers (ASP) who provide the software and related hardware via the Internet and charge a flat fee per-user.

  • Several years ago, a pharmaceutical company decided that in order to solve molecular problems faster and accelerate new product development, it would need to triple the number of R&D employees. The problem was that employee costs would also triple, and the company couldn’t afford that. The company was able to skip the problem of hiring expensive employees by creating an online scientific forum, wherein the company posts difficult chemical and molecular problems and offers cash to anyone who can solve the problem. By making the site open to any scientist with an Internet connection and posting the problems in over a dozen languages, the company created a global, virtual R&D talent pool that has found solutions to problems that have literally stumped its own researchers. One of the great beauties of this strategy is that the company pays for the virtual researchers’ time and effort only if they come up with a feasible working solution. The amount of money the company pays for a solution depends on the difficulty of the problem. Some of the awards have been as high as $100,000, although most are in the $2,000 to $3,000 bracket. To date, engineers and scientists from Beijing to Moscow have worked at solving the companies’ molecular problems without being an employee.

Don’t Get Stuck; Move Forward: A difficult problem can easily become a roadblock so large that it seems impossible to get around it. The result is often procrastination. The longer the problem is in place, the more you become convinced there are no solutions. Here are a few simple steps you can use to skip your problem.

1) Your problem isn’t the real problem. Often, you can’t see the real problem because you’re blinded by what you perceive is the problem. By skipping what you perceive as the problem, you are free to discover the real problem. For example, the pharmaceutical company previously mentioned thought their problem was not having the budget to hire a large number of scientific and technical researchers. But when they skipped that problem they saw that their real problem was being able to find molecular solutions. Therefore, forget about what you think is the problem. If that problem simply didn’t exist, what would be the real problem? Often the real problem (and solutions) will surface once you eliminate the perceived problem.

2) Think in terms of opposites. Often, the opposite of what you perceive is the problem is really your solution. For example, if your problem is “saving money,” what’s the opposite of that? Spending money. So instead of focusing on how you can save money, try focusing on your company’s spending. When you focus on the spending and alter your company’s spending habits, the “saving money” solution becomes evident.

3) Look at technology for help. Today’s technology offers a wealth of options for solving numerous problems. Can’t find a good typist for your company? How about using dictation software? Need a way to get more ideas for products or services? Use the Internet to connect to customers via online surveys. Look at what you need done and find a technology solution to automate it for you.

4) Peel the onion. Think of your problem as the top layer of an onion. To find the problem, you need to peel it back by listing the components of the problem to see if you are working on the correct issue. Often you’ll find that the core issue you’re focusing on isn’t the one that’s causing the most pain, but that a sub-issue is truly at the heart of your problem.

5) Focus on one issue at a time. Sometimes a problem is complex and has many components working against you all at once. In fact, many problems are made up of multiple problems. You’ll be better able to see the real problem (the one you should focus on) when you separate the other problems.

Skip to the Finish: Every problem has a solution—some better than others. The key to breaking through your problem roadblocks is to realize that there are many paths to a destination, and some don’t have roadblocks. By asking yourself if you can skip the problem completely, you free your mind to look beyond the roadblock. That is usually where the best solution lies.

Read other articles and learn more about Daniel Burrus.

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