The Problem Solver Dilemma™

The Set Up

After attending a personal development seminar, I am a huge believer in continual learning, a realization occurred to me that would have been great to discover when I was managing large teams. So, I thought I would reveal my discovery in the hopes that someone out there will benefit.

The Dilemma

I discovered how much of my sense of “selfworth” was tied up in solving marketing problems in the Medical Device space. I sometimes actually refered to myself as a “marketing engineer” . Solving problems is what has lead to many of my successes, so I don’t discount the value of solving problems. I now realize that defining myself as a problem solver is self- limiting and can cost valuable time solving irrelavant problems.  Knowing how to solve problems is a powerful skill to have. That is why I call it the “Problem Solver Dilemma”. Solving the right problems, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons is a boundless way of receiving contributions to your self-esteem. When you are caught in the “Problem Solver Dilemma” it doesn’t matter if the problem solving is contributing to the business imperative or not. A solved problem reinforces your self-definition whether it is the problem that can make the greatest contribution to the larger mission or not.


The deck chairs probably were a mess and needed re-arranging. But having orderly chairs would not save the ship or the passengers.

Reflecting back on my work history, my significant contributions came from seeing an opportunity to serve the larger mission (business imperative) in a new and creative way.   Creating a vision surrounding that “new way” and effectively communicating the “new way” to others, who could help achieve the “new way” and then executing it regardless of opposition. I call this the “Vision Realization Loop”.

So how did I, or perhaps you get caught up in this “Problem Solver Dilemma”?  We forgot to ask several fundamental questions before we solved the problem.

What to do

Once you have become aware that you, or one of your employees are caught in the “Problem Solver Dilemma” here is what you can do. Problem solvers need to be monitored closely. Why? They won’t ask permission to solve a problem, they will just start solving it. When this happens it doesn’t take long for a series of non-focused solutions to make a key resource in-effective with respect to their contribution to your greater vision or mission. They will experience a series of satisfying experiences that will lead them to believe they are being very valuable when the truth is that they are not contributing to the team effort. A disconnect that if not dealt with, will create a personnel problem in the future.

So how should I avoid the “Problem Solver Dilemma” before it becomes a problem. As this is a discovery that has just entered my conscious thought processes; I don’t have a tested answer for you. But here is what I am going to do differently.

If you sense that you are solving a problem, stop. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. First, does this problem need solving right now?
  2. Does solving this problem serve me or the greater mission that I am trying to support?
  3. Am I solving this problem because I don’t want to solve the real problem that would move us toward accomplishing the greater mission?

I have scheduled weekly meetings with myself (or perhaps with other team members) to monitor the problems that are being solved. I open each meeting by asking, how is the work I or You have worked on over the past week directly supported the goals of the company? What else have you worked on?   If the answers are not aligned with the assigned goals that directly impact the imperatives of the company, department or project then you need to, honor the work, repaint the grand vision , guide them to understand how their effort, though valuable, do not support the goals.

It will be natural for you or them to make an argument that it does. Almost any problem that is solved can be indirectly related to the goals, however you are looking for a direct linkage. Listen carefully, they may be right. Either way the discussion needs to end with a clear commit to re-align their labor to support the bigger goal.

Weekly reflection time (weekly monitoring agenda)

  • Review the “imperatives”
  • Ask for a loose accounting of the preceding weekly effort
  • Ask for a loose accounting of activity
  • Honor the effort
  • Check on alignment
  • Repaint the grand vision (if needed)
  • Let them or your inner self connect the Vision to effort
  • Restate the future alignment

As perfection does not exist this re-aligning process is not a one time thing. That is why a weekly opportunity for reflection is important for everyone.  Apollo 11 was off course 90+% of the time.   Many small corrections allowed it to reach its destination successfully.

The Key Learning

The difference between the Vision Realization Loop and the Problem Solving Dilemma is that you are aligning your work with efforts that are serving the grander mission. If you can convert from just a problem solver to a problem solver who spends their efforts on moving the mission forward you will realize dramatic career growth.

“Experience is what you get, right after you need it most.”

Make it a great day,

Tim Walker

Tim Walker is the Principal consultant for The Experia Group. A small consulting firm that specializes in providing experience and expertise during critical device commercialization phases to increase the probability of success. www.theexperiagroup.com. Contact The Experia Group for a free 30-minute consultation to determine if 30-years of experience can contribute to your success.

© 2016, The Experia Group, LLC

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