Most of us spend a good deal of our work time trying to find the sources of problems and fixing them. Sometimes problems are pointed out to us; in other situations we have to do some detective work to find out that a problem exists. But no matter how a business problem finds its way to us, once we’re aware of it we often feel compelled to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

Before you rush to find a solution, pause a minute. While some problems are familiar to us and resolving them is a mere matter of doing what worked last time, many of the problems we encounter are complex, and it takes some thought and creative application to reach the solution. Rather than being hasty, then, it is best to stop and ask yourself a few questions to be sure you have identified the real problem you are facing. Here are a few to get you started:

• What does the problem remind you of? Even if you’ve never run across this situation before, is there anything in past learning or experience you could bring to this situation?

• Who brought the problem to you? How did they notice it?

• Look beyond the categories: Is a sales problem a marketing problem in disguise? Does a financing problem mask an inappropriate business or product strategy?

• Is a low-performing employee unmotivated or inadequately trained?

Identifying the real problem may take a little more time, but it’s likely to lead to a solution that works, instead of one that creates a cycle of even more serious problems.

Lisa Gundry, Ph.D. Professor of Management Director, the Center for Creativity & Innovation DePaul University

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