Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part VIII

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach


Assuming the prospect has not already arrived at the solution you have crafted, and having delayed proposing it for as long as possible, it is now time to do so. If possible, rather than coming out with “Here’s what you must do…” I suggest describing a third party in your experience who had nearly the same problem and then solved it (preferrably with the kind of help you intend to offer). Don’t describe the solution—only the problem and the fact that the third party solved it. This reinforces to the prospect that you understand the problem.

Now, if it turns out that you don’t understand the problem, then at least you can discuss the gaps in your understanding. But ideally, the prospect will say something like, “Yes, exactly, so how did the third party solve the problem?” At this point, you can say, “I helped this person by executing the following plan…Would you like me to do that for you?” with a good chance of the prospect saying, “Yes.”

It is quite likely that the prospect will focus on the differences between their problem and the third party’s, thereby suggesting that the third party’s solution is irrelevant to their problem. At this point, there are a couple of problem-solving techniques which may be helpful:

  • Work with the prospect to think of another third party who solved a similar problem with a relevant solution.
  • Assuming that no one you can think of has ever had a remotely similar problem, break the problem down into parts, and seek precedent solutions to the parts. The exploration of plans and risks that you have already conducted with the prospect will be valuable information for this.

It is important to remove your ego from this process. If there is any doubt whatsoever that you are the best person to execute any part of the plan, then you are better off proposing some one else. At the same time, express willingness to step up and contribute until such a time as the better person is contributing productively.


It goes without saying that execution of plans is critical to helping your prospect. Furthermore, superior execution includes connecting with the prospect periodically to provide status reports, project risks, and potential risks.


Previously, we discussed that you might want to invest in a solution as a matter of solidarity with the prospect, even if you believe it is going to fail. If you can spend the time and energy up until the failure, then you have empowered the prospect, built up goodwill, and caught them at an opportune moment to influence their next course of action.

Now, this does require that both of you agree that the course of action has failed. I recently met a couple of prospects who utilized the time and energy I enthusiastically offered and then declared success. Yet, I considered the efforts, at worst, a failure and, at best, a poor use of my time. To guard against such outcomes, it is best to agree on standards of success in advance. I don’t know how else to help a prospect whose persistent modus operandi is to delude himself and others by declaring success of actual failures. These may be the people who must hit rock bottom before they will open their minds to wholesale change. It may be better to part ways rather than letting them drag you down.

In the same way that people can redefine the outcome as a success, it may seem tempting for you to define the outcome as a failure, to motivate the change. However, having tried this approach, I find the approach doomed to failure. A person who lacks the objectivity to recognize a failure will not take kindly to a party-pooper raining on his parade (and mixing metaphors, too!).

Follow Up

When the problem has been solved successfully, and the shared vision has been achieved, it is very important to remind the prospect of the help you provided. Celebrate your joint accomplishment. Ask for a reference letter from the prospect. Add a detailed history of the solution to your personal portfolio. You will be able to draw on it when you propose solutions to other prospects.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Created at: 11 December 2006 12:12 AM