Monday Mornings with Madison

Look for Problems in 2018 – Pt 2

Word Count:  1,257 

Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

Using Problems to Innovate and Invent

We look up to people who face challenges.  We admire those who go through darkness and still come out smiling.  We respect those who are faced with adversity but are still capable of compassion.  We revere those who rise above their problems and even thrive. Those problems are what made them stronger and wiser.  Problems are not only what inspire us, but also what makes us inspiring.  To identify a problem and tackle it, with a head held high, speaks to grit and growth.  A life without problems is empty.  There would be no growth.

It is normal to wish for a problem-free existence.  No one wants to deal with challenges, especially those that are depleting and destructive at work.  We think life would be better without trials and problems.  But that is just not true.  While it is both easy and natural to hate problems and troubles, such challenges are just misunderstood.  Problems and troubles force us to be creative, determined and courageous.  Problems force us to be strong and influence who we become.  Struggles are stepping stones to innovations and lead to the creation of better things and better people. In fact, that is what life is… a series of trials that must be faced and problems that must be solved.  If we look at problems this way, they cease being burdens that we don’t want to deal with and become exciting opportunities.  By embracing problems as gifts, business becomes a lot less taxing and a lot more exciting.   And we if find the best way to tackle problems, then we become really effective and efficient.  Isn’t that really the ultimate goal for 2018?  Here are the steps to becoming a skilled problem-solver for the year ahead.

The Problem-Solving Process

Problems jump-start creativity and improvements since most inventions or innovations don’t come from a sudden burst of inspiration out of the clear blue sky.  The Wright Brothers didn’t look at each other over breakfast and say “Hey, let’s invent a machine that will allow people to fly through the sky like a bird.”  According to the National Park Service’s Wright Brothers National Memorial,

“In 1878, the Wright brothers’ father, Milton Wright, brought home a rubber band powered toy helicopter. Designed by French aeronautical experimenter Alphonse Pénaud, this toy did not simply fall to the ground as expected. Rather it ‘flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor.’ Though the fragile toy soon broke, Wilbur and Orville never forgot it. They even attempted to build their own toy helicopters. In later years, Orville accredited this childhood toy as being the object that sparked their interest in flight.[1]

Even for the Wright Brothers, the idea for an airplane didn’t just fall out of the sky and into their brains.  Epiphanies and a-ha moments are usually triggered by connecting multiple thoughts or insights or ideas that lead to solving a problem or creating something new.  And there is usually a process that leads to the ultimate solution.  The Wright Brothers were fascinated with flight since childhood but they didn’t actually fly the first airplane – called the Wright Flyer — until 1903, some 25 years later.  Tackling the problem of human flight took a great deal of thought, insights, trial-and-errors (seen by some as failures) and learning that finally resulted in the solution.  And the process is not exactly the same for every person, nor does it take the same amount of time for each problem.  That said, there is a problem-solving approach that has been found to be effective and fact-based.

According to Lininger in “Solving the Problem,” here are the six steps in the problem-solving process:[2]

1. Define the Problem

Identify the problem.  Ensure that you are trying to solve a problem rather than a symptom of the problem.  One technique for defining a problem is “gap analysis”.  This is where the status quo is compared to the ideal in order to identify any spaces in between.  John Dewey once said that “a problem well put is half solved.”

2. Analyze the Problem

Dig to the root causes of the problem.  The goal is to detail the source of the gap between what is and what should be.  A cause-and-effect diagram can be used to define the categories of causes including people, time, and environment. Keep in mind that causes produce an effect, result, or consequence.  Albert Einstein understood that understanding the problem is more important than finding the solution.  He once said ““If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  Even though instinct is to quickly jump to possible solutions, resist the urge.  It is better to deeply and truly understand the problem before continuing.

3. Identify Possible Solutions

Identify as many alternate solutions as possible, without concern for how it might be viewed by others or whether it is practical.  Ask and answer the 5Ws of the causes:  who, what, when, where and why.  Record ideas that occur along the way, no matter how unusual or odd they may seem.

4. Choose a Solution

Consider all the possible solutions available.  Ponder each.  Let imagination and creativity go from one possibility to the next, as an impractical idea may lead to a wonderful and ideal alternative.  Ask:  What makes the most sense?  Will this solve the problem without causing other unanticipated problems? Will this lead to an effective outcome? Will all key stakeholders accept this solution?  Is the time and cost of implementation acceptable?  Select the best solution.

5. Create an Action Plan

Determine what steps are needed for implementation.  Ask:  What tasks, timelines, and costs are involved? Who should execute each task? Prepare an Action Plan for this multi-step process. If solving the problem will necessitate the contributions of others, then involve them in the planning in order to guarantee their buy-in and minimize resistance.  Create a Plan B – as in a Backup Plan — in case the initial plan doesn’t work.

6. Implement the Solution

Solution implementation – the process of trying possible solutions and seeing what works — is an ongoing process.  It includes implementation, testing and monitoring of progress.  There needs to be feedback channels to check results, whether good or bad.  If something in the process breaks down or is deemed ineffective, or the system needs to be updated to respond to future changes, further solutions must be tried to keep the process moving forward.  Atul Gawande wrote in “Better:  A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, that “We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right – one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.”  Accept the problem-solving process and work toward a solution.

The next time there is a problem or challenge at work, celebrate!  It is a golden opportunity to show strength, courage and creativity in the search for a solution.  It may lead to a great discovery or it may only lead to a minor innovation in office processes.  But either way, it will encourage personal development, and that is a gift unto itself.

Quote of the Week

“We are looking for a set of personal characteristics that predict success, the first and foremost of which is perseverance in the face of challenges. We also look for the ability to influence and motivate others who share your values, strong problem-solving ability, and leadership.” Wendy Kopp


[1] National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Wright Brothers National Memorial, “The Road to the First Flight”, Manteo, North Carolina

[2] April 8, 2014, By Nicole Lininger, Solving the Problem:  Problem-Solving Leads to Innovative Invention, Invent Help,


© 2018 – 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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