Woody Allen once said that "If it weren't for problems, the work day would be over by 10 A.M." Being Woody, he thought that having a day full of exciting (and sometimes frightening) problems was a bad thing. But I think it's a sign of great management and a growing business. Woody's ideal world of slow, steady, and predictable everything--with Tuesday nights forever spent playing the clarinet at Bemelmans Bar--is dying a little more every day. Nostalgia is not an engine of growth: it's a nasty nightmare composed of equal parts apathy and avoidance. (Maybe this is why Woody’s movies continue to be set further and further in the past, which he clearly pines for.)

While it's true that the view in the rearview mirror is always clearer and less buggy than what's coming at you, businesses that spend their time looking fondly backwards and celebrating their prior glories are sure to run off the road, or into a wall. Clinging to the past is a problem; embracing messy, but inevitable, change is the only way forward.

Our world today isn't neat and tidy or even well-organized any more: it's a big, complicated, uncertain, and confusing place--just like a startup. Encountering, analyzing, and solving new problems every day is crucial to the ongoing development of your business. This is an iterative process that, ideally, never ends, because, in building a great business, there's never a finish line.

Of course, nothing is certain in a brand-new business. A company that's expanding and bursting at the seams will never perform exactly as expected (or as written in some "ancient" business plan from, say, 90 days ago). Even the best businesses will have bumps and slides, rough edges and difficult patches, pleasant and other surprises, and a whole bunch of unexpected and unintended consequences. You can call these things "problems"; I'd call them opportunities in the making.

The trick (there's always a trick) is to create a business that offers you a steady stream of the right kinds of problems. A strong leader treats problems as normal, not special or unique. Good problems energize us while bad problems drain us dry. Good problems are about too much or too many; bad problems are usually about too few or too little. Too many orders, too much demand, and too many new opportunities--we should all have these difficulties, because growth solves a lot of problems. But no one wants to hear about too many defects and returns, too little production capacity, too many overdue receivables, etc. Ultimately, good problems are almost always about the future, while bad problems are generally about making up for (or cleaning up after) the past.

As a bonus, having a boatload of big, brain-busting, bewildering bogies that your teams are constantly chasing has another important benefit: It's the surest way to attract the best, brightest, and most talented people around. Because, in today's hyper-competitive recruiting world, it's no longer about snacks, scooters, or snap-chatting. The game-changing people, the ones who will matter most to your company's future, want to work at the companies doing important, challenging, and meaningful work. They want to be at companies that are solving major problems and addressing serious cross-industry issues.

So, although it may take some time, get used to the idea that your business isn't unique; just like every other company, you'll always have a set of pending problems. Don't let it get you down, and don't take it personally. Instead, get busy identifying the problems, categorizing them, and knocking them off as quickly and smoothly as you can. As you do, bear in mind that good problem-solvers:

Don't settle for a partial solution

I always believed that, if I worked just a little harder, a little longer, and a little more creatively, I would eventually figure out a solution, and when that magic moment arrived, everything would be perfect. What I discovered over time is that, while there's always an apparent solution that is neat and simple and even inexpensive, it's almost always wrong. The trick is to avoid settling for a makeshift or partial solution that only hides or defers the real problem and to keep looking for a better answer. You never want to try to do something cheaply or quickly that you shouldn't do at all.

Don't mistake a fact of life for a solvable problem

Some very difficult problems never get solved, they just get older. In many cases this is because they aren't problems, they're facts of business (or life) that you have to learn to live with. In these cases, don't waste your time and energy. Understand that your best course of action isn't going to be to fix the problem, but to determine how to cope with it, and that the problem may not be going anywhere anytime soon.

Don't forget to listen first

We live in such a hurry-up world that I often see teams of intensely eager and energetic engineers swarm a problem and come up with solutions, but in a vacuum. Trying to find an answer without spending the time and effort needed to carefully listen to the problem is just like working in the dark. As often as not, this approach generates solutions in search of problems, not real results.

Don't expect problems to disappear just because you ignore them

If you refuse to face the facts honestly and openly, they won't evaporate, they'll accumulate. If you leave a small problem alone long enough, it becomes a big problem; one that is much more difficult to solve. Remember that any "problem" you can solve by writing a check isn't a problem, it's just an expense. You don’t have the time or the bandwidth to be penny-wise and pound foolish, so pay the man the money and move on.

Don't forget: There's a pony in almost every pile

Your company's success at problem solving ultimately depends on your attitude and how you approach each new issue or concern. Problems can be looked at as constant burdens or as potential bonanzas, and all the members of your team will take their lead from your behavior. Great companies have interesting and exciting problems that are likely to blossom into new and expansive opportunities. Great leaders can make even ordinary problems into people magnets that attract the most talented employees and engage them in the challenges surrounding the solutions. It's all in how you define and articulate things.

At the end of the day, this problem business is pretty simple. You're not alone--everyone has them. You can't ignore them. You can't solve them all. You can't solve them by yourself. And most of all, you can't let your business be pushed by your problems: you want it to be driven by your dreams.


Published on: Sep 23, 2014