Tag Archive: problem solving

Good and Bad Reasons Not to Tackle Problems

If you’re a leader, you see problems. Many times you’ll see them before others do. But what if as you see these problems, and you choose not to engage them?

When a leader chooses not to engage a problem in their area of influence, I can think of at least two reasons for making that decision – one is good, healthy, and exemplifies excellent leadership – the other is bad, unhealthy, and indicates you may be done with leadership.

The healthy reason:

Solving the problem in question won’t help your church or organization get further down the road. It’s a problem, but it’s not the problem. You know that with or without your input, the problem won’t last or be prohibitive to fulfilling your mission.

You’re conserving energy, by choosing the important over the urgent

You’re staying in the lane only you can run in. You know there are better-equipped people to solve that particular problem.

When you’re evaluating problems this way, you’re exemplifying excellent leadership.

When I’m tempted to engage problems that aren’t mission-critical, it’s usually for a couple reasons:

I want a win. When I can successfully solve small problems, it feels like “winning.” It makes me feel better, and in control. It also makes me feel useful to others, and my worth is validated. Yet, we know this isn’t good leadership.

I don’t bill my hours like an attorney – nor do I deserve that kind of money. But one thing I’ve done, is I’ve figured out my hourly rate. Now that I know it, I use it this way—

When there’s a problem to be solved or a question to be researched and answered, I run it through this filter: Is this the kind of issue the church had in mind for me solving when it selected my hourly wage?

After I’ve done this, out of pure stewardship of the church’s money, I back away and disengage from many problem-solving activities. For example, last week, I was asked to approve a paint color variance in our office color scheme. It won’t impact my personal office space, and I’m not an interior designer. I began to consider the question and was tempted to ask a lot of questions and give my decision. But when I placed that filter on the decision, I realized it wasn’t my problem to solve and it wasn’t good stewardship of the church’s money for me to pursue it further. Instead, I said, “Whatever you all decide is fine.”

I think disengaging from these kinds of problems is healthy. But there’s also an unhealthy reason for disengaging from problems.

The unhealthy reason:

You see a problem, but have no desire or energy to engage it.

When you see problems hurting your mission yet can’t muster up the energy to begin solving it, it could be a sign of something unhealthy, and needs to be addressed – not only for your sake, but also for the sake of those you serve and lead. A filter for discerning the ambivalence factor: If one 1, 3, or 5 years ago you saw the same problem, would you’ve jumped in without hesitation?

If so, your lack of energy and willingness to engage could be a sign of unhealthiness (but not always). In April’s monthly podcast with Andy Stanley, this idea was unpacked and attributed to the former Home Depot CEO, Frank Blake. In Blake’s case, he was seeing things that needed his attention at Home Depot, and yet, he didn’t want to wade into them. He found himself not engaging things needing his attention, and that reluctance caused him to ask questions about whether he needed to remain in his CEO position (he later chose to transition out of that role).

The people around you will catch on that you’re problem-avoiding. It’ll be like Maverick in the movie Top Gun when he wouldn’t re-engage in the dog fight (I always look for opportunities to point people to Top Gun) and people around him are screaming, “Engage, Maverick!” But even before others notice, it should begin with you noticing it with self-awareness and then self-governance. As a leader, you need to be aware if you’re mentally backing away from the work you’re supposed to be doing. If you’ve become ambivalent and lack energy for the work and the vision, you’re not necessarily wrong for feeling that way, but you’ll be wrong to not make changes.

Maybe a shift in the responsibilities will be enough, or you just need a two week vacation. Possibly, it could indicate the need for a more permanent change. What problems are you currently avoiding? What’s left unchecked on your task list or unread in your email? Is your avoidance intentional because those particular problems are a distraction from your most important work (healthy leadership)?

Or is it because you no longer have the moxie to wade into the hard issues and lead out of them?

If you’re avoiding problems, use these filters, and then make the courageous leadership decision.

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If It Stinks, Investigate (the task a leader can't ignore)

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You’re approving odd expense reports. You keep seeing someone in a place they shouldn’t be. One department seems to always have the latest technology. An employee quickly minimizes their screen when you enter their office.

These scenarios stink.

In my home I change some diapers, but my wife wins the “most diapers changed” award. My primary responsibility is diaper disposal. Disposal involves picking up the dirty diaper, placing it in a bag, and taking it to the outside trash (where squirrels, cats, and our neighbors can enjoy the smell).

Sometimes before I’m asked to dispose of a diaper, I smell something that stinks (a diaper left on the changing table, bed, or moved by some other child to unforeseen areas, like under a couch). I smell it, but I don’t want to investigate. If I investigate, I’m agreeing to the disposal chore – which clashes with my preferred option: to move farther away from the smell.

Many leaders take the same approach to issues that stink at work.

Investigation of difficult and stinky situations can’t be ignored. Investigation is the incumbent responsibility of the leader, and it shouldn’t be abdicated.

To your boss, board, congregation, denomination or judge, these words won’t cut it: “I thought something was off (smelled bad), but I didn’t really check into it.”

Your lack of investigation makes you culpable. Whether accountable to God’s standards, a judge’s, (or in my case, my wife’s) we must provide an answer for what we did or didn’t do.

What stinks in your work-place today?

What situation have you been unwilling to engage, because it might be trouble? Waiting only increases the trouble. The smell worsens.

Don’t wait for someone else to find out what smells. Don’t wait for the annual audit. Don’t wait until the stink has impacted your organization beyond repair. Don’t allow a dirty diaper to create a spiritual problem in your church.

Good leaders investigate, engage, and deal with whatever they find.

And sometimes after investigation, it turns out to be just a wet diaper, and it hardly stinks at all.

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Thinking Gray

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The times when I implement “thinking gray,” I have most often saved myself from making a poor decision and usually save myself time. Steven Sample, in his book The Contrarians Guide to Leadership, unpacks the idea of “thinking gray.”

The major takeaway is this: when an important decision isn’t mandated to be made at the moment it’s asked for, pause and think gray. Thinking gray means this:

  • Back away;
  • Don’t pull the trigger when more time could help bring clarity;
  • And set the decision point just prior to the deadline for the decision.

It may seem as if you’re dragging things out and procrastinating. But the created mean-time can provide your answer. What transpires before the decision deadline can be magical.

The people asking for your decision often find other ways to go about getting what they need. The decision-seekers think creatively and often think of a work-around to get a solution. And oftentimes, some external factor occurs and renders your pending decision null.

Thinking gray also gives you time to think clearly and do a virtual SWOT in your head. Many times you’ll come back to your initial thought (gut reaction) on making the decision. But many times, things change, and you have no decision to make.

When you can save your decision-making for the highest leadership questions—the decisions no else can make—the better off you and your organization will be. You only have so much personal power, and saving that power for critical decisions has pay-offs.

A simple way to begin the process of “thinking gray” is to ask these questions when a decision has been requested:

  • What options and solutions have you (the asker) considered?
  • Who else is involved in making the decision?
  • What’s the deadline for a decision being reached?

By nature, I tend to be black and white. I like quick results. But paradoxically, thinking gray has served me well and might do the same for you.


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