Are You Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem?

“That’s my shirt, Sophia. Take it off!”

“Daniel! Get off my bed!”

“Isabelle, get out of the bathroom!”

It was 6:45 am and my three kids were already fighting.

My wife Eleanor and I have tried everything. We talked to them about how important it is to have a good relationship with your siblings, made clear what we expected, and developed rules for living together. We trained them in respectful communication and taught them how to breathe and manage their anger. We meditated with them and mediated between them. We rewarded them, punished them, reasoned with them, and begged them.

Still, here they were, fighting again. And now I was about to lose my temper. Which, I know from experience, never helps.

What do you do when you have a sticky problem that you’ve attempted to solve in every way possible and none of your solutions have worked?

In the organizational coaching we do at Bregman Partners, we see situations like these daily because they are precisely the kind of situations people bring to coaches: problems they can’t seem to shake, ones that stall forward momentum.

Maybe you’re trying to change something about yourself — your work habits, your time management, even your health – and you just can’t get motivated. You’ve read books or listened to tapes or gotten advice from consultants, and nothing seems to help.

Or maybe you’re trying to change someone else — perhaps an employee who doesn’t take accountability. You’ve spoken about accountability and maybe you’ve even yelled a few times when the work did not meet your expectations. Still, nothing you do seems to have an impact.

Here’s a strategy that almost never works — come up with yet another solution you haven’t tried.

A strategy that almost always works? Solve a different problem.

I’m not saying you should give up on getting the result you want. What I am saying is that if you’ve tried to solve a problem with every solution you can think of, your challenge isn’t finding a better solution. It’s finding a better problem.

If my kids didn’t have a sibling fighting problem, what else might it be? I thought through a number of different possibilities and landed on what turned out to be a simple problem with a very simple solution.

My kids didn’t have a sibling problem; they had a morning problem. They woke up tired and with low blood sugar.

Which means the solution wasn’t to teach them how to speak nicely to each other. In fact, that just exacerbated the problem because after we lectured them, they felt worse and now they weren’t just mad at each other, they were mad at us.

The real solution? An earlier bed time and a glass of orange juice when they woke up.

Those two interventions decreased the morning fighting by 90%.

The reason a coach — or any outside perspective — is helpful in these sticky problems is not because the coach is smarter or has more creative solutions. It’s because insiders don’t question the problem definition the way an outsider does. Being outside the system helps us see the system in a way that insiders can’t see.

If you are caught in a problem that seems unsolvable, ask this simple question: If the problem you’re trying to solve weren’t the problem, what else might be?

If you’ve tried to motivate yourself in a million different ways but you’re not accomplishing your goals, consider that motivation is not your problem. The simple fact that you’re trying so hard to motivate yourself is evidence that you are motivated. So why aren’t you changing your work habits or getting places on time or eating more healthily?

Your problem may be lack of follow-through, which is the opposite of lack of motivation. A motivation problem is solved by thinking (convincing yourself that something is important). A follow-through problem is solved by not thinking (don’t deliberate, just act).

This new problem, you can solve. If it’s a work habit problem, set an alarm, wake up an hour earlier, and get your most important work done, first thing. Time management issue? Leave 10 minutes earlier for every appointment in your calendar this week. And if you’re not moving forward on your health commitments, simply put your workout in your calendar (which will dramatically increase your likelihood of showing up at the gym).

And for your employee who isn’t taking accountability no matter what you’ve tried? Consider that maybe accountability isn’t his problem. Perhaps it’s capability. Or unclear communication of expectations. Or lack of objective measurement. If any of those are the problems, then a whole new set of solutions will present themselves.

There’s an additional advantage to redefining your problem: it frees you to experiment with “beginner’s mind.” You get to start over, trying different solutions, assessing their effectiveness, learning from failures, and trying again.

To address your employee’s accountability gap, try being crystal clear with expectations. If that doesn’t shift anything, try some training that might increase his capability. Involving your employee in figuring out the problem has the added advantage of deepening engagement, which may affect performance all on its own.

With my kids, I asked them whether they thought they might have a morning problem instead of a sibling one. They agreed to experiment with the orange juice and were delighted when we served it to them in bed.

They still wake up grumpy. But here’s how I know we’re solving the right problem: their moods radically change within minutes of eating or taking a few sips of orange juice.

In other words, I know we’re solving the right problem because the solution works.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. D says:

    Interesting perspective.

  2. Cathy Herndon says:

    Really good perspective. I see a personal situation that I have experienced in your article. Makes perfect sense.

  3. L Lewis says:

    I really like how you consistently think outside of the box. Your strategies for problem solving are inspiring.

  4. John G says:

    Brilliant! I’m giving juice a try with my crabby one in the morning. And I will be identifying a new problem to solve instead of the one I’ve been working on with myself.

  5. Ananth L says:

    Peter, you are absolutely right. lot of times we seem to not get to the right perspective of the problem, and try to solve the symptoms. Only later to realize that the underlying problem remains. you explain it well, how understanding the real problem is the key – otherwise all the time and effort spent on finding solution is time/money down the drain. good article

  6. vikas says:

    Peter, Great Thought Process!
    The best thing i like about your style of writing is the way you keep the reader engaged by putting in your own stories. Also, you use the active voice more often in your writing style!
    Good to learn from you!

    This thought process is a smaller version of the 5 why process.
    One of the answers which would have surfaced from the question : Why are the children grumpy?
    They are low on energy.
    Why are they low on energy?
    Because of Low sugar levels and /or less sleep.

    Just another method of wording your perspective,

  7. Mohsin says:

    Very relevant. Gordian Knot comes to mind.

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