Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part VII

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem solving approach


Let us assume at this point that you and the prospect have agreed on a vision to pursue. Or, you have at least committed yourself to pursuing the prospect’s vision. Now, find out what the prospect has done in the past. Have they tried solving his problem in various ways? What worked, and what didn’t?

You have delayed proposing either a solution or your own participation in a solution. If and when you eventually do, proposing one that has already been tried can easily frustrate a prospect who is genuinely searching for one. (However, when done sparingly, proposing a solution that has been tried can provide validation to some one who is really feeling down. It makes them feel they weren’t completely foolish for thinking of or attempting a solution that failed.) By understanding what has been tried, you avoid this problem. You can also build the prospect’s esteem by focusing on the merits of past attempts.

Occasionally, the prospect will have tried a solution that should be retried at a different time or with slight adjustments. Indeed, it would be nice if your help were the critical difference that makes a solution work this time around.

As a general problem-solving strategy, it is useful to expose expectations that were implicit in solutions that have been tried. If those expectations prove unreasonable and are abandoned, new courses of action become apparent. For example, if a solution failed because of the unexpected behavior of a key stakeholder, then actions to influence the stakeholders behavior or remove their stake may become apparent.


After you have understood historical attempts to achieve a solution, it’s time to start planning. Find out exactly what the prospect is going to do next to solve the problem or achieve the desired end state. Ask about the details, step by step. Are the resources in place? Are the team players sufficiently qualified? Is everything fixed and certain or are some things left unknown, uncertain?

With these details in hand, it becomes possible to craft a solution that accommodates everything the prospect already intends to do. In the absence of such details, any solution you offer is likely to be irrelevant, infeasible, or undesireable for one reason or the other. The prospect is likely to respond with, “Yes, but…” or worse, “Yeah, whatever…”

In the absence of these details, the best you can do is say, “Let me know how I can help.” In my experience, no prospect redeems a general offer like this. The likely reasons are:

  • They don't believe help is required.
  • They can't imagine how you could possibly help.
  • They have enough to do without having to figure out how you could possibly help.
  • Like "Let's do lunch," this is perceived as a statement of goodwill, but not an actual offer to be taken up.

The other benefit of drawing out the details is that it frequently exposes gaps or contradictions in the plan or the absence of a plan, especially if you already have a specific solution in mind. If this happens, it is tempting to fill those gaps or offer up a plan. However, remember that we want to delay offering a specific solution. I have found that if I overcome temptation and hold my tongue, the prospect will fill the gaps on their own, essentially arriving at my solution independently. The solution becomes a cooperative effort to which the prospect has added critical value.

If the prospect seems committed to a specific plan, find out what the risks are. This may be difficult to do without appearing to poke holes in the plan or arguing for a different vision. A good way to do this is to phrase a question in the form of “Have you thought about how to prevent…”. If the answer is “Yes,” then the prospect feels good about having a contingency. If the answer is “No,” then it becomes possible to offer a way to mitigate the risk in support of the prospect’s plan. Or if there is no way to mitigate the risk, then you and the prospect might agree to revise the vision.

Part VIII concludes the essay with a discussion of execution and follow-up.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 10 December 2006 12:12 AM