The art of problem-solving in business – Part I

September 13, 2021

Small business owners are problem solvers. The smaller the company the more problems solving the owner does. It is like hand-to-hand combat. It can take all the attention and energy to defend oneself from the perils of the owner’s foe – the problem attacking them in the moment. The challenge is the amount of mental fortitude it takes to slay these dragons completely, and not just injure them to return stronger with more fight in them later on.

The tag line on the banner page of the Optimus One, LLC website is a quote from Charles Kettering. “A problem not fully understood is unsolvable, and a problem that is fully understood is half solved.”

A problem not fully understood is unsolvable

There is cause and there is the effect. Something causes an effect. When we desire the effect we call that success. When we don’t, we call that a problem. Don’t get me going about many pharmaceuticals that cause “side effects.” There is no such thing as a side-effect. There are only effects. Regardless if they are desirable or not. Problem-solving seems pretty straightforward. Look at the effect and trace it back to the cause, modify or eliminate the cause and voila. Problem solved. Some problems are this simple to solve. But for some, are they really solved?

I am sure you heard the joke about the patient and the doctor. The patient tells the doctor, “Hey doc, it hurts when I do this” (as he raises his arm above his head). And the doctor replies, “then don’t do that.” Does it solve the problem? No, it just solves for the symptom. Most problem solving needs to be reclassified as symptom solving. I think this is partially what Kettering is getting at about “a problem not fully understood is unsolvable.” Until a problem is understood, it will persist and remain unsolved. More importantly. A problem that persists over time will evolve, change and grow into a more persistent problem. A persistent problem becomes an albatross around your neck. Harder and harder to escape from.

The first step in problem-solving is problem identification (understanding the problem). This takes patience. It seems counterintuitive to be patient- there is a problem to solve! Get on it, fix it, make it go away! Einstein has something brilliant to say about this. He said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Combining this with Kettering’s wisdom we can discern that the 55 minutes Einstein is spending in understanding the problem is getting halfway to solving it. Is spending 92% of problem-solving time identifying what is actually going on really the right thing to do? Especially since Kettering is telling us that it’s only going to get you halfway there? Shouldn’t 30 minutes of the 60 be spent understanding it fully and the other half spent solving it?

Short answer. No.

To fully understand a problem, it takes time and effort to observe the visible and invisible nuances at play. The easy part is starting with what you see happening. Events take place within or between departments or with one or more people in the same department. Results occur from those events. This is where it starts. For many, this is also where it stops. There is so much more not seen that is influencing the events that are taking place. The Iceberg Model shows the three other hidden structures that have a significant influence on what is happening above the waterline. What can’t be seen are:

  • Patterns of Behavior that take place over time
  • Systems Structure people work within
  • Mental Models that create perception, attitude, and meaning-making – all of which influences what is happening

Source: The Donella Meadows Project, Academy for Systems Change,

Observe Events

What I have learned that helps get closer to Kettering’s solvability is to observe and document the situation. The combination of all that is going on in plain sight. Here is what also needs to be done at this stage.

Nothing else!

Only observe and document. Don’t even think you understand enough from this stage to have a solvable problem. Resist the strong urge in your head telling you, you’ve figured it out. You haven’t. Trust Kettering.

Stakeholder Feedback

Step two is to get feedback and perspective from all of the people that have a hand in the events. The value here is to gather perspectives. We all have partial information since we usually only see things from our point of view. Almost every person you speak to will know they have the answer to the problem They might. But it will only be partial. Be courteous and respectful to them. It is usually not a good idea to inform them you’ve learned they only have partial perspective. May I suggest Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People?

This step is both observations and interviews to get an understanding of what people do, why they do it when they do it, and whom they interact with within the process, as well as where all aspects of the process take place. Here we want to discern what is happening. But also in these conversations, listen carefully for the trends you are learning about. Here is where we begin to notice patterns of behavior, how the system is structured, and what might be influencing the patterns you will eventually begin to see.

Some questions to get you started:

  1. What tools do they use in their process
  2. How reliable are the tools they use
  3. What happens if their tools are not working
  4. What information do they need to use in the process
  5. Where that information comes from and who is responsible for it
  6. When is that information available to them
  7. What happens if the information is wrong, missing, or late in arriving
  8. How would they know if it is wrong, missing, or late
  9. What steps are they responsible for
  10. Who is responsible for the steps they are not responsible for
  11. Why are they doing what is suppose to be done
  12. Why are the steps in the order that they are
  13. When each step occurs
  14. When their work needs to be done by
  15. What happens if they get stuck and are unable to move forward
  16. Who is the next group, person, entity in the process
  17. What is their working relationship with the people, group, or entity before them and after them in the process
  18. How do they feel about what they are doing and what others are doing
  19. What do they think about it

“Wait a minute,” you are probably saying. “Are you kidding me”? All of this irrelevant information that has nothing to do with the problem.”


All of the insights you gather are partially accurate. Perception is a funny thing. This is where the magic happens. Obtaining all the partially accurate perspectives, beliefs, attitudes, and problem cause and effects from each person at this level will give you insight into piecing together:

  1. Patterns of Behavior
  2. System Structure
  3. Mental Models

All of which are elementary in getting to the root of the problem. A problem that involves people needs to capture information down to what is being assumed, who values what, and what the beliefs are from all the players in the “system.”

There is more to cover in order to fully understand a problem in the journey to get to the halfway point in solving it. Stay tuned for Part II.

Christian Grieco


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