Solve Problems with Skill (Day 26 of 30 Days of Getting Results)



“You don’t overcome challenges by making them smaller but by making yourself bigger.” —John C. Maxwell

Your Outcome:  Solve your problems with skill.  Become a skilled problem solver and learn a systematic way for solving your problems.  Turn even your worst lemons into lemonade.

Welcome to day 26 of 30 Days of Getting Results, based on my book Getting Results the Agile Way.  In day 25, we learned how to fix time, flex scope to get things done on time, slice our work down to size, achieve work-life balance, and flow value along the way versus wait for a big bang.  Today, we learn how to solve our problems with skill and to frame them in a way that inspires action.

Our ability to succeed in life is directly related to our ability to respond to our challenges.

It’s not wishing our problems away that leads to a better life.  It’s finding more effective ways to deal with whatever comes our way.

Why Focus on Solving Problems
We can’t avoid them.  Growing up, I wanted to make all my problems go away.  I thought if I just won the lottery or made it to the top or got the perfect job that all my problems would go away.  I would achieve something and then live happily ever after.  It was a very static view of life.

Eventually I realized, problems are a part of life.  They come with the turf.  Your problems change, but you’ll never be free of problems.  And everybody has problems in some shape or form.  Instead of eradicate problems from my life, I could embrace them – take the bull by the horns.  At that point, I decided the most effective thing I could do is become a skilled problem solver.

By focusing on solving problems, I learned to take on big, hairy challenges, and to shape my life with my skills and abilities.  I also learned how to help others drastically improve their problem solving ability.

5 Steps for Solving Problems
Here are five steps you can use for solving problems in your life:

  1. State your problem as a “how to”.  I’ve found that the most effective way to state a problem is to make it a goal-based problems, such as “how to win friends and influence people” or “how to write faster” or “how to cure problem XYZ” or “how to motivate yourself”, etc.  This makes your problem actionable.  It makes it easier to find existing solutions.  It makes it easier to share your problem with others in a way they can quickly follow, which makes it easier for others to help you.  You put your brain into automatic resourceful mode.  I think it’s also incredibly important to write your problem down as a one-liner statement, using this “how to” phrase.  Writing the problem down forces you to clarify the problem and thinking on paper is an effective way to really see your problem echoed back at you.
  2. Find potential solutions.  This is where the magic happens.  It’s rare that you would be the only person in the world with the problem you have.  Figure out who else shares your same problem or would have had to solve your problem and find three potential solutions.  Looking for three solutions forces you to cast a wider net, it expands your possibilities, and it helps you look at potential solutions from multiple perspectives.   You can look to people you know or people you don’t.  You can consult the wisdom of the ages.  You can look to people who specialize in your problem.  You can find working examples or people with the results you want, and reverse engineer their solutions.  You can always almost always find some working example or actual results to learn and model from, versus start from scratch.
  3. Test your results.    Your problem doesn’t solve itself.  Take action and test your results.  You have to bounce it against reality and see what sticks.  At this point, you are either achieving success, or you are getting feedback.  Worst case, you’re finding a bunch of things that don’t work.  Best case, you’re moving towards your solution.  Here you really need to pay attention to what results you are actually getting.  This will inform you, in a very real way, whether or how you need to change your approach.
  4. Change your approach. If it’s not working, change your approach.   According to Albert Einstein, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If you want different results, then change what you’re doing.  If you don’t know how to change your approach, start asking yourself better questions.  If that’s not working, start asking other people better questions.  You can always find somebody who will offer advice.  If you do get advice, make sure you are asking the right people, and asking the right questions.  Everybody has a super skill, and the world is a network of capabilities.
  5. Refine the problem.    Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep refining your problem, based on taking action and getting real feedback.  You might find that you only had a surface level understanding of the problem, and now you have a much deeper understanding, by actually exploring solutions and testing your results.  How you define and refine the problem will continuously improve your ability to find the answer or at least get closer to the solution.

As simplistic as this process might appear, it scales up and down and you can use it for pretty extreme challenges.

Change Your Approach, Change Your Results
I learned to dramatically solve problems faster while working in Microsoft Developer Support.   I was constantly faced with problems I had never seen before.  My ability to define the problem and test solutions was tested on a daily basis, in extreme scenarios (I was on a small escalation team.)

In my final days of Developer Support, I learned a recipe for solving problems in a better way.  When a customer reported their problem, rather than just solve it however I could, I would first enumerate the patterns of solutions for the given problem (drawing from our internal collection of solutions.)  I would then let the customer know how many times this problem was solved, identify the various success rates for the different paths, and then, with a better sense of expectations, let them choose which path to follow, based on trade-offs.

This approach helped me pair with the customer and co-create the solution, and go down whatever path made sense for them, based on what they were optimizing for.  More importantly, by letting the customer know up front, how many times a problem had been solved, it gave them hope and confidence versus thinking they were out on a limb and the only one in the world with their specific problem.

Basically, I learned how to cast a wide net on the problem, enumerate solutions, evaluate the best path, and make better trade-offs, while increasing my success rate, and reducing time spent on problems.

7 Telltale Signs that You are Getting Better at Solving Problems
Here are some things you’ll notice as you get better at solving problems:

  1. You get better at recognizing and defining the problem in a way that adds clarity and focus on the underlying problem.
  2. You find it easy to reframe problems faster in a way that empowers and inspires you.
  3. You find it easier to explore possible solution paths versus lock into one solution.
  4. You test your solutions sooner versus later.
  5. You figure out ways to get more feedback faster and easier.
  6. You build a network of smart people and capabilities to help you solve problems.
  7. You find it easy to switch your mind into a more objective mode where you can focus on effectiveness instead of stewing on the problem.

7 Reasons Why People Fail at Solving Problems
Here are some common reasons why people fail at solving their problems:

  1. They ask the wrong questions.   If you want to go nowhere fast, then just ask the wrong questions.  If you want to stay stuck in a loop, keep asking “why” questions (“Why does this always me?”, “Why is this happening now?”, “Why did this happen? etc.”).  If you don’t start asking “how” questions, “How to prevent this from happening again?” “How to solve this?”  “How to make the most of this?”, etc., then you’ll be a broken record that even you won’t want to listen to anymore.
  2. They blame other people for their problems.  If you don’t step up to the plate and “own” your problems, then your problems own you.  Once you fall into victim or blamer mode, then it’s game over.  You took away your power to do something about the problem.
  3. They act from their least effective state.  There are many ways to put yourself in an ineffective state.  A common one is to blow the problem out of proportion and make it larger than life.  Another is to ask yourself limiting questions (“why me?”) or to adopt limiting beliefs (“I’ll never solve that”.)  Switching to “how to” questions helps you engage your brain in a more resourceful way.  Simply reframing your “problems” to “challenges” is an effective way to play with your problem in a more inspiring way.
  4. They don’t ask the right people for help.   Don’t ask a bum for money.  It’s OK to get input from a wide variety of sources, but you have to seriously ask yourself whether you’re asking the right people who really have the right perspective on your problem.   A good way to whittle this down is to check how many times this person has actually dealt with this problem successfully, or whether they have the resources or are in a position to actually help you.  Don’t fall into the trap of the blind leading the blind.
  5. They don’t use the right tool for the job.  If you have a surgical problem, get a surgical solution.  One of the worst ways to tackle your problems is with a silver bullet or a one-size fits all solution or a buckshot approach (where you spray a bunch of solutions hoping something hits its target.)  Your ability to solve a problem well is a reflection of your ability to choose the right tool for the job.
  6. All thought, no action.  There are two flavors of this.  One is “analysis paralysis” in which you churn on your own thoughts, but don’t turn your thoughts into action.  The other flavor is to “worry” and put yourself into a worry loop, that simply generates anxiety, but doesn’t generate any results, besides put you into an ineffective state.  Action is your friend and your escape hatch.
  7. All talk, no action.   Action speak louder than words.  Let your actions get in the way of your words, not the other way around.  If you find yourself still talking about the same problems, that’s a good sign you’re falling into the trap.  For better or worse, you get what you focus on.

Some Quotes on Problem Solving to Keep in Mind
Here are some quotes to help you really hone your ability to solve problems:

  1. “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” — John Dewey
  2. “Don’t dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next. Spend your energies on moving forward toward finding the answer.” — Denis Waitley
  3. “Focus 90% of your time on solutions and only 10% of your time on problems.” — Anthony J. D’Angelo
  4. “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.” — Henry Louis Mencken
  5. “Have you got a problem? Do what you can where you are with what you’ve got.” — Theodore Roosevelt
  6. “How you think about a problem is more important than the problem itself – so always think positively.” — Norman Vincent Peale
  7. “In times like these it is good to remember that there have always been times like these.”— Paul Harvey
  8. “It is not stress that kills us. It is effective adaptation to stress that allows us to live.” — George Vaillant
  9. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein
  10. “Laugh at your problems; everybody else does.” – Anonymous
  11. “Leaders are problem solvers by talent and temperament, and by choice.” — Harlan Cleveland
  12. “Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve” — Erich Fromm
  13. “Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” — Henry Ford
  14. “Never try to solve all the problems at once — make them line up for you one-by-one.” — Richard Sloma
  15. “No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.” – Voltaire
  16. “Problems are to the mind what exercise is to the muscles, they toughen and make strong.” — Norman Vincent Peale
  17. “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them.” — Laurence J. Peter
  18. “Stop looking for solutions to problems and start looking for the right path.”— Andy Stanley
  19. “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.” — John Foster Dulles
  20. “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” — Theodore Rubin
  21. “The way we see the problem is the problem.” — Stephen Covey
  22. “Uncertainty can lead to paralysis. And if you become indecisive you’re dead..”— Jim Citrin
  23. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
  24. “When you come to a roadblock, take a detour.” — Mary Kay Ash
  25. “Worry is like a rocking chair – it gives you something to do but won’t get you anywhere.” – Anonymous
  26. “You won’t find a solution by saying there is no problem.” — William Rotsler

Additional Ways to Master the Art of Effective Problem Solving
Here are some additional ways to help make mince-meat out of your problems:

  1. Overwhelm your problems. This could mean throwing more time or more energy at your problem to get over the hump.  As Voltaire teaches us, “”No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.”
  2. Expand your bubble and expand yourself. Imagine that you are in a bubble and you bump up against your glass ceilings or this bubble you’re in, every time you hit a problem.  When you solve a problem, you expand your container, and you expand yourself.  Solving problems is how you grow.
  3. What are you trying to accomplish? Ask yourself, “What are you trying to accomplish?”, not “What are you trying to do?”  It’s a very subtle, but very critical change in how you ask this question.  When you focus on what you are trying to accomplish, you up-level it, and immediately create more flexible solutions to solving your problem.
  4. What are you optimizing? You should be deliberate in whether you are optimizing for “best” or “simplest” or “fastest” or “complete”, etc.  This will dramatically shape the types of solutions you look for, and the types of results you will get.
  5. Reframe from “problem” to “challenge.” It’s a simple step, but make it a habit to treat your problem as a way to test your skills and to grow yourself and expand your abilities.
  6. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. My Mom taught me this, and as they say, “Mom always knows best.”
  7. You’re part of the problem or part of the solution.  Remind yourself that you’re part of the problem or part of the solution.  Choose to be a part of the solution, and stop whining, complaining, or blaming, and start defining, exploring, and solving.
  8. Ask the right person.   It might be tough to ask for help, but if you find people that like solving the problem you have, you can actually make it a win-win scenario.  Let people pit their skills against your problem.
  9. Ask better questions.  If you want better answers, then ask better questions.  If you want to make more effective progress on your problem, then ask more effective questions.  Questions are the keys to unlocking solutions.
  10. Share the problem with skill.   You’ll find it easier to broker in help if you can state your problem clearly.  You know it’s clear when somebody can basically start testing solutions to your problem or they can echo the problem back to you, using their own words.
  11. Team up, pair up, or co-create the solution.  Find people who eat your problem for breakfast.  One person’s problem, is another’s playground.
  12. Satisficing.   Your solution doesn’t have to be “perfect.”  It has to be effective.  “Satisficing” is about finding a solution with a “good enough” match to fit your scenario or context.
  13. Respond to the challenge.  Always drive from the mindset that you are “responding” to the challenge, not “reacting” to the problem.  As Covey says, “success is when the response meets the challenge.”
  14. A resourceful state of mind.    Whether this means asking yourself a better question, or putting on your favorite hat, or playing your favorite song, watching your favorite movie, or saying your favorite quote, get yourself into a mode where your brain is ready, willing, and able to brainstorm solutions in a resourceful state.
  15. Measure against effectiveness.  When you’re testing results, your ultimate measure is simply whether it is effective, against what you want to accomplish, and what you are optimizing for.
  16. Count the actions you’ve taken.   Actually write down, the actions you took … “I did this” or “I did that”, etc.  Worst case, you have a list of what doesn’t work, but even that is progress.  Be honest with yourself and admit whether you actually took an action or simply thought about it.  It’s too easy to think about an action, to the point you feel you took action, but in reality, you didn’t do squat.
  17. Remember the Little Engine that Could.  Even when you think you can’t, remember the Little Engine that thought it could.  Sometimes you just have to say, “I think I can” and then prove yourself right.

Today’s Assignment

  1. Pick one of your problems that you’d like to solve and write it down as “how to …” (such as “how to grow my blog to 10,000 subscribers”)
  2. Find three examples of people or solutions that you can model from.
  3. Pick one solution to test and get feedback as you apply it.  Use this feedback to help you shape your solutions or change your approach.

My Related Posts

Photo by krikit.


  1. Hi JD,
    Really wonderful stuff. So much of how we solve problems begins with the mood of how we approach it. We always have the right to choose our moods. The “how to” questions set up a powerful problem solving mood that has us advancing confidently in the right direction.

  2. Hey JD,

    Great post!

    Many years ago, I used to view “problems” as being negatives. I came to see that they were opportunities for mastery and that changed my perspective. As did the following quote from Shantideva: “If there is a solution to your problem, then why worry. If there is no solution to your problem, why worry.”

    I think many people think inside of the box and they allow their frustration to get in the way. Many also, like you stated, engage in the blame game and don’t take responsibility.

    In my opinion, the best way to handle a so-called problem is to see it from outside the box. There is always a solution…even if the solution is no solution.

    Hope all is well!

  3. “Worst case, you’re finding a bunch of things that don’t work.” I find this line to be very uplifting. In action the downside is small. Every time I visit your blog I get more than I expected. I can’t imagine a more thorough look at problem solving. Well done sir!

  4. State your problems as “How-to” is a-ha moment indeed. I also loved testing solutions early – that’s why I am such a big fan of threat modeling. Not only for security but everything. I like testing and trying to break the system before it exist.

  5. Another great one JD filled with really helpful information. You are so right that we are going to continually experience challenges or issues that we have to work through and we should have a solid approach we can continually rely on. I thought your tips and insights in this post were right on point and very helpful. Thanks for always passing along such great info.

  6. Hi JD .. I love your simplification approach to things .. the ‘how to’ as a problem solver is so wise .. and makes the whole thing not nearly so threatening .. it can be sorted out. & yes .. get down and do it .. so often the answers are there either within us, or from others .. with their guidance. The earlier we get going the better & the problem will go away .. usually .. and if not life changes anyway ..

    Thanks great thoughts too .. Hilary

  7. @ Rob — Thank you. You’re a true maestro with your words and this is a quotable quote — “The ‘how to’ questions set up a powerful problem solving mood”

    @ Nadia — Thank you! That is a perfect quote — I love it. I’ll have to stick it in my quiver and take aim the next time I catch myself worrying about something I can’t control 😉

    I like your outside the box perspective.

    @ Tom — Thank you! You have succintly captured the upside of action, when you say, “In action the downside is small.”

    @ Alik — Framing the problem both as a “challenge” and as a “how to” are the secret sauce. I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it before quite like this, and now I realize just how powerful it is on a daily basis.

    @ Sibyl — Thank you. I can definitely say this approach has served me well, and I hope it can serve others too.

    @ Hilary — Thank you. It’s so true … life does keep changing, so problems rarely stay the same … Something’s gotta give 😉

  8. I love the concept of stating a problem as a “how to”. We are already curious creatures that are looking for solutions. We may as well use this god given talent to help ourselves. It’s also a quick way to create a positive mindset because if the problem is looked at as a “how to” there is a solution it just needs to be discovered.

  9. @ Karl — I like how you connected “how to” with curiosity. If we ask ourselves engaging questions, we can bootstrap our quest to seek effective answers.

  10. I like the idea of turning a problem in a “how-to.” I’m very analytical and love problem solving! “Analysis paralysis” – great term!

  11. Dear J.D.

    Wow, it’s amazing how much good information you placed in this one post!

    Sometimes when I have a “problem” my best solution comes from focusing on something else, something that feels good. The problem often dissolves.

    Naturally, if it’s a recurring “issue”, it needs to be addressed differently.

    In paradoxical therapy a person is told to increase the symptom (or problem) and ironically it lessens the symptom (or problem?).

    Kudos on a great post!


  12. @ Sandra — I used to get paralyzed a lot, so I’ve had to learn the best ways to get out of it. At Microsoft, things happen fast, so it taught me to spend way more time on solving problems, then getting sucked into the black hole. The most important thing I learned is to test potential solutions early to get real feedback.

    @ Lauren — Thank you. Switching focus and fishing in a different stream is definitely another way that can work well. I find this tends to help me with creative problems or where I need to peculate ideas. For example, when I woke up today, I had three immediate answers fall into my lap. It was a great way to start the day.

    I bet paradoxical therapy works for a few key reasons … we’re no longer resisting, we run out of fuel for the fire, and our natural critic suddenly starts attacking the symptom, like reverse psychology.

  13. Your post is filled with substance JD, very thorough and informative. Problem solving is really a skill, and one that takes patience, focus, and persistence. It does begin with assessing the problem, then figuring out what potential solution you want, and later harnessing all the right tools to help in getting to the solution.

    There will always be problems; however, how we deal with them will determine the effect they will have on our health and well-being – be it positive or negative.

    Thanks for sharing!

    “If we all treat each other like we treat ourselves – what a wonderful place earth would be.”

  14. […] Day 26 – Solve Problems with Skill […]

  15. I just did a word count for “problem” on this page: 154, including the one I just typed. Did we create more of it just by thinking of it? If we each manifested it, we got 154 new kinds of it. Mmm!

    My top 3 favorites are:
    1) Count actions you’ve taken: We can find a success pattern
    2) Respond to challenge: Each try is simply more or less effective
    3) Resourceful state of mind: A big requirement, at all time

    I created some tracking sheet to monitor how I am doing with the biggest challenges of the year 2014. With T-25, I lost 3.6% of body fat over last 5 weeks. I didn’t see much change for the first 3 weeks. For physical therapy sessions, my pain scale came down from 95 to 70 (100 is the alarming pain that needs a doctor STAT). It is more enjoyable to make our efforts measurable and visible. I always have two goals: one that I can achieve with a little push in the near future and a long term goal that I would love myself more if I could hit that goal “one day.”

    Here is my quote of the day: “Opposition is a natural part of life. Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.” Stephen R. Covey

    • > It is more enjoyable to make our efforts measurable and visible
      So true. We build amazing momentum when we practice an attitude of gratitude for our efforts.

      Some people don’t get what I mean by that, but all I really mean is that we have to acknowledge and appreciate our efforts. Whether that’s starting a new routine, changing a habit, going up against our own resistance, or getting back up when we fall down.

      Embracing effort and leaning in to our challenges, takes our abilities to new levels.

      We should never throw away our efforts, or dismiss them. Otherwise, it’s a downward spiral.

      It sounds like you are making great progress and enjoying some true private victories. Way to go!

      Covey always had a way with words and a way with wisdom.

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