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Before seeking solutions, find problems

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Most leaders of any stripe won’t admit they don’t understand something. That may be our default position, the way we’re made. Or it may come from the expectations placed on us.

When a problem is forcefully brought to our attention, we gather everybody together and start brainstorming solutions.
That’s what we’ve learned to do.

It’s wrong, says retired Gen. Tony Zinni. “Everybody’s throwing out ideas and solutions," he says. "But nobody truly understands the problem. We just see symptoms and shoot from the hip. Before we go any further, we’ve got to define the problem.”

Here’s how he says to pull it apart and figure out what’s going on:

  • Separate symptoms from core causes. Divide them into two categories and write them down.
  • You may find the problem is not as bad as you thought, or worse.
  • The root problem may turn out to be different from what you thought.
  • You might discover that it has component parts that have to be taken apart and sorted into various solution sets before you can fix the problem.

At an early stage, ask the right questions. By focusing on questions instead of answers, you’re more likely to pinpoint the trouble.

Zinni offers the example of a car breakdown. You pull over and ask yourself what you’re going to do: Call a mechanic, AAA or a tow. “Do this,” he says. “Do that.”

Then Zinni catches himself: “Wait a minute. Let me look at exactly what’s going on with my car. Let me lift the hood and take a look.” See if it’s something you can fix.

Bottom line: Before you act on a problem, define the problem.

—Adapted from Leading the Charge, Gen. Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz, Palgrave Macmillan.

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