Finding a Problem and Fixing a Problem Aren’t the Same Thing

I think we’d all agree that problem solving is an essential skill. Problem solving isn’t as simple as “find a problem; fix a problem”.

problem, problem solving, employee, workplace, manager, skill, practical problem solving

First, we have to make sure that we’re dealing with the “real” problem and not just a symptom. For example, one day you’re walking by an employee’s cubicle and notice the employee is checking Facebook on their phone. Our initial reaction might be to expeditiously draft a memo to staff telling all employees to stop checking their phones during working hours.

Then you say to yourself – problem solved.

The next day, you walk by that particular employee’s desk again and you notice they are reading a magazine. On one hand, you realize it’s not Facebook and it’s not the employee’s phone but that’s just semantics. And you realize you might become a laughing stock if you ban reading at work. You decide to ask the employee why they’re reading a magazine.

And the employee says, “I’m waiting for this report to process on my computer. It takes a long time and the program will crash if I try to use any other programs at the same time.”

So you did find a problem – the employee is faced with downtime and can’t work. But the fix to the problem wasn’t banning Facebook, or employee phone use or reading magazines…it’s talking with IT about ways to speed up report processing. Or possibly coaching the employee on a different time management strategy.

When we see something that doesn’t look right for the business, we need to label it as a problem. But that’s only to get it on our radar. Then we need to ask some questions to make sure we’re looking at a “real” problem and not a symptom. We can start by asking the classic Who? What? Where? And When? We can also make sure we know:

How widespread is the problem?

How does the problem play out over time?

Identifying a true problem will help us to find practical and realistic solutions. That way, whatever we fix really needed fixing in the first place.

Image courtesy of HR Bartender


  1. says

    Great points Sharlyn. People spend so much time in the workplace pointing out problems that they forget it feels much better to actually fix them. I’m a big fan of teaching people some kind of problem solving methodology so they work together to resolve any issue or situation.
    Guy Farmer recently posted..Fighting the Facts

  2. says

    When dealing with Gen-Y a coaching conversation goes such a long way. Prior to joining Kira Talent (an online interview screening solution I ran Deloitte’s onboarding and coaching programs. We had high-octane Gen-Y who had a huge appetite for coaching and a desire to get better. As we invested more time to understand their needs, they became better, strong, more effective advisors.

  3. says

    Found this while cruising on Pinterest — yes, I actually do that from time to time. The content reminds me of a quote from a great book, “North Dallas Forty,” by Dan Jenkins, “Knowing how the game is played is not the same thing as winning the game.” The former takes information and the latter takes directed, committed action.

  4. says

    Thanks for sharing a great quote! I like Pinterest too. It’s very interesting to see the shift to visual communication across all platforms.