Why You’re Bad at Solving Problems

I’m sure that if I asked you to make a list of all the problems you’re facing as a real estate assistant, you could list at least 10 and maybe even as many as 50.

But, the problem isn’t the real problem. The real problem is how you’re going about solving the problem.

Huh? Yeah. Let me explain.

Depending on who you ask, there can be 4, 5, 6, or even 8 steps in the problem solving process.

Too many times, I see assistants make this simple mistake. Something negative happens, and they or their leader says, “This is a problem. Let’s do this thing to solve it.” And they immediately jump to “the answer” to the problem.

That works just fine when there’s a paper jam in the copier and the display tells you exactly which drawers, flaps, and knobs to adjust to eliminate the jam.

Paper jams are not problems. They are inconveniences. Understand here the difference between an inconvenience and a real problem.

A real problem has negative consequences that affect the future. A real problem needs careful consideration to solve and that’s what I’m talking about here.

You see, we humans don’t like problems because of the negative feelings we think they are causing us. I say “think” because in reality problems don’t have the ability to make us feel anything. They are neutral. They are facts. It’s only a fact that half our postcards got returned to us because all those people moved and we don’t have their new address. How we feel about that fact is only generated by our thoughts: “This is a problem. This is terrible! How did this happen? Why did they move and not use us to sell their home?”

It may be true that half our postcards didn’t get delivered, but because we don’t like the negative feeling, we immediately want to feel better. We think solving the problem right now will give us a solution that will make us feel better. On the spot, we devise a solution to have our agents call all the people whose postcards got returned to us to find out their new address.

So what’s wrong with that? A couple things.

First, you haven’t identified the root cause of the problem. Why did all those people move and we didn’t know? How do we prevent that from happening in the future? Is this even a priority to solve this problem given all our other responsibilities?

Second, we haven’t explored all the possible solutions. We need some distance between ourselves and the problem before we can arrive at the best solution given our budget, time constraints, and capacity.

This is the point I want to drive home. Making an on-the-spot decision about any true problem has the potential to cause even bigger problems in the future. If you don’t take the time to find the root cause and explore all the possibilities you haven’t really solved the problem and you may be creating bigger problems in the future.

So don’t skimp on spending time thinking about the problem and creating the longest list of possible ways to solve it. The greatest lessons about thinking time are taught by Keith Cunningham in The Road Less Stupid. It is full of valuable nuggets you can implement immediately to make yourself a better problem solver.

Today, take just one problem you’re trying to solve and really put some thought into why it’s a problem, what effect it’s having and what the possible solutions could be. You may even have a few conversations with people who have no connection whatsoever to the problem. It could be that you’re too close to the problem to solve it effectively and an outside perspective can help you think of even better solutions. (Coaching is good for that by the way!)

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