Learning How to Eat an Elephant
By Mitzi Perdue
The magic key to solving your big, difficult, looming business problems is to break them down into smaller parts and then deal with these smaller parts. By viewing your issues through this prism you can focus intently on solving a problem through a series of steps instead of preparing to tackle it all at once.
It’s the old, “How do you eat an elephant?”
Answer: “One bite at a time.”
Your Seven Steps for Solving a Problem
1. Describe the Problem: Do this in writing. Often, you’ll find that simply explaining the whole problem to yourself will cause you to see the solution. But not always, so if that doesn’t make the situation clear, go on to #2.
2. Break the Problem into Smaller, More Manageable Parts: Make a list of the parts of the problem, breaking the problem down into manageable parts that don’t seem intimidating. If one item on the list still seems too hard, break it down still further into even smaller parts. Then arrange your list in a logical order according to what to do first, second, third, and so on.
3. Write Down the Obstacles: This step may come as a surprise, but it’s important. Take a clear, hard look at what the obstacles are and then list them. Being optimistic is a good thing, but no matter how positively you think about a problem, you’ll improve your odds of success if you pay attention to and prepare for the likely obstacles.
4. Brainstorm Possible Solutions: Write down as many solutions as you can. Be as creative as you can be. At this point, your goal is quantity not quality. Don’t keep from writing down an idea just because it seems stupid or irrelevant. Often what seems like a bad idea can spark your imagination in ways that lead to good ideas. These new ideas can turn out to be highly creative ones that might never have occurred to you otherwise. You’d be surprised how often this happens.
5. Stretch to Find One More Solution: Ideas that come when you’ve had to stretch for them often turn out to be the most useful of all. There’s a reason: In many cases if the answer were easy or obvious, it would already have been done by now. It’ s when you stretch to get a new idea that you come up with the most creative ideas—the ones that not everyone has already thought of. The most creative, least obvious solutions may have the best chance of solving your problem. Oh, and something to keep in mind at this point: Thomas Edison was right when he said: “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven’t.”
6. Pick the Best Solution: When you’ve gotten as far as you can with the brainstorming aspect of problem-solving, it’s time to put on your realist’s hat. Remember, it’s a different mindset at this point. Your job is to figure out, of all the ideas you’ve come up with, which is the best? What solution or solutions best combines: a) Solving the problem; b) Getting the job done on time; and c) Having the resources available for accomplishing it.
7. Act on it: Surprisingly often, people may come up with a good solution, but they don’t “pull the trigger.” That is, they procrastinate when it comes to implementing the idea. Successful people, in contrast, have a penchant for action. They are not only good at thinking of solutions; they’re very good at plunging in and doing them. They know that the problem isn’t solved until the plan is put into action and completed.
Three quotes that express the importance of action:
“To know and not to act is the same as not to know.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you do.”
“Done is better than perfect.”
Developing skill in problem-solving is an invaluable skill. The best leaders are the best problem solvers. Invest in yourself by learning to be the best problem solver that you can be.
Checklist for Solving Problems
- Have I described my problem in writing?
- Have I broken it into manageable chunks?
- Have I made a clear assessment of the obstacles?
- Have I brainstormed solutions?
- Have I stretched to find one more solution?
- Have I picked the best solution?
- Have I put the solution into action?
Mitzi Perdue is a celebrated speaker, businesswoman, and author of How to Make Your Family Business Last. A cum laude graduate from Harvard University and holder of an MPA from George Washington University, Mitzi draws from her direct experiences in two long-lasting family enterprises to assist businesses in preparing for lifelong success. She is a past president of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women, a former syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard, and the founder of CERES Farms. For more information on Mitzi Perdue, please visit www.MitziPerdue.com.