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Problems vs. Obstacles

Ryan Frederick | November 11th, 2020

One key trait of a professional leader is the ability to help your team solve problems and remove obstacles. There are major differences between problems and obstacles, but more often than not, company leaders aren’t distinguishing between the two.

Problems are challenges that require strategic problem solving, and if ignored, result in long-term consequences. Problems will fester and get worse over time, so they warrant immediate attention and focus. Every great leader is a Chief Problem Solver. Running a company is an unending series of problems and company leaders have to be willing and capable of dealing with problems head-on.

This not to say that leaders should solve every problem for their team, but leaders cannot ignore problems hoping they will go away. Leaders should see a big part of their role as helping the team to solve problems. This is where problems and obstacles start separating from one another.

Whereas problems can have deep, long-lasting impact, obstacles are temporary hurdles. Sometimes obstacles might seem like hurdles we must navigate over or around to keep progressing, but most of the time, obstacles present as distractions that don’t need to be dealt with at all. Problems require attention, focus and decision making where obstacles should be acknowledged and then moved past.

I like using the analogy of a tree down on a street. If the tree is only blocking a portion of the street you acknowledge the tree is there and you move around it continuing down the street. The tree is an obstacle in this case. If a tree is blocking the entire street and there is no way to get around it, then the tree is a problem because you can no longer progress. This tree in the street analogy also shows how close a problem and an obstacle can be. In some cases, what a separates a problem and an obstacle is so small that on the surface they can seem the same.

As people, we not only see problems and obstacles as the same even when there are clear differences, but we turn obstacles into problems. Company leaders have to ensure they aren’t turning obstacles into problems while also coaching their team not to. Obstacles being turned into problems will become a cultural norm for a company if leaders and the team consistently do it. By the same token, problem solving and dealing with problems and obstacles appropriately can become a strong fabric of a company’s culture.

Companies that become efficient at identifying and ignoring obstacles and solving problems will develop a focus and resiliency that is incredibly powerful. A company that can solve problems effectively and efficiently develop a kind of superpower around it. The company, its leaders, and the team, develop a higher level of confidence and performance when they know they are great at confronting and handling problems. Leaders who develop their problem-solving skills and coach their team on how to solve problems are well respected and moved up in role and responsibility quickly. In many cases, you can look at the leaders of the world’s largest companies and it’s clear that they got to be in their positions because they were the best at prioritizing which problems demanded the most attention and focus. Being a great problem solver is, by definition, being a great strategist because you have to think through all aspects of the problem, including tangential and future ramifications that might not seem initially obvious.

One of the things I believe strongly in, to help leaders proactively identify and plan for likely problems, is a company roadmap. A company roadmap is a kind of business plan of sorts, but it is more actionable and flexible. A company roadmap is a series of if>then scenarios and outcomes. If a company is dependent on a new product succeeding for the company to succeed, then what are the critical things that need to happen and what if they don’t happen? What happens of the product isn’t as well excepted by distribution partners as anticipated? What are alternative distribution partners or models? Company roadmaps help a company predict and prepare for likely problems and decision points given the company’s plans and objectives.

Leaders need to be great problem solvers and to empower their teams to become great problem solvers, while minimizing the time spent on obstacles that are ultimately distractions and inconsequential. Problems have to get solved and as quickly as possible. Obstacles need to be acknowledged and moved past otherwise they become distractions and maybe even evolve into a problem that never needed to be one.

Original post can be found on the Columbus Business First Leadership Trust page.