Problems, Solutions and Options – A Veritable Tale

A key leadership and management tool I learnt early on was the wisdom of problems…

The first time I became an acting manager, on the very first day I sat down and asked myself: “where do I start?”

It occurred to me quite naturally, perhaps I needed to write a list of everything I was aware of and take it from there.

Now what you need to bear in mind is this was at a time when Windows 95 was just happening and the beginning of what we have now with collaborative tools, apps etc was a long way of. And video conferencing was like being in a scene from NCIS in the MTAC room.

To do lists were not a thing either.

However, I had my list. It was a long list. The list meant I now knew what I was dealing with. Each day I crossed out what I achieved and added new actions to it.

The problems of the list stayed with me for some time. In particular, I hadn’t understood what the list really meant.

It wasn’t until a read an article regarding how a manager’s time is impacted that the penny dropped. In short, the article said something like this:

  • If you are a supervisor, coordinator etc, you will typically have at least 50 issues to deal with at any given time;
  • If you are a manager, you will need to be across at least 100 different issues;
  • If you are a director, it will be 150 issues and so on.

The English Patient

The next time I was in a situation as the acting manager, I counted the items on my list – from memory, it was about 120 or so. I had also recently watched a documentary on the making of the English Patient. It told the story of how the film’s producer Saul Zaentz would review his list of actions at the end of each day so that he was prepared for what was required for tomorrow. It was a very “patient” method of how to stay within budget.

Both of these things got me thinking. As I looked at my list, how many were my direct issues, and how many were somebody else’s problem. It was then that I had an ah-hah moment.


Years later, I read that the human mind is only capable of dealing with 13 issues on any given day. That’s why it’s important to prioritise, delegate and not to sweat the small stuff. Whether you believe this is true or not, it’s more a case of a reminding ourselves how much we can realistically deal with at any given time.


On my list of 120 actions, at least 50 of these belonged to someone else. The majority: my immediate staff. In short, these were problems they believe they couldn’t solve: the issues they referred up the line rather than dealing with the roadblocks themselves.

The issue was not so much I didn’t want to deal with their problems, but how could I, and they, expedite solving their problems and in essence, getting the problems off my list?

It was then I introduced “if you have a problem, I need the solution to it as well.” As it turns out, I am not alone espousing such a mantra. In short, if you have identified a problem, you should provide what you consider the solution as well. Remember, you are better placed than those higher up or even perhaps in your team when a problem occurs (or could occur). You have insights that others are not aware of. You should embrace such insights and put them forward. In fact, you may have already tested a few things out and already have an inkling of what may work.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to provide a solution there and then. So, what do you do? Well, apply your solution with a twist.

The Twist

Some days, playing a game of Twister might be a better outcome!

The twist is this: if you do not have a solution, at least present the problem with options that can be considered. You also need to be brave enough to pick or recommend the option you consider the most viable.

I know we might do the above with a formal proposal where the options are weighted, however, there are many other times when a less weighted approach is valid. This could involve presenting the problem in a shortened format via a memo, an email, during a discussion, or at a team meeting and so on. The key thing in this situation is that the options are presented in terms of their condensed strengths and weaknesses and their opportunities and threats (SWOT). As little as one line of explanation is all that is required for each one.

I realise there are many out there who say SWOT is old hat and that PESTEL (or PEST) is the better method. My view on what method to use is horses for courses – choose the one that has the most relevance to your situation.

In a workshop I conducted on Friday just gone I presented a list of projects for key funding (courtesy of the Australian COVID stimulus initiatives). For each project, I presented a condensed SWOT, similar to the table below:

The actual process involved a much more extensive list of 16 key items. The exciting thing was, we had the matter resolved of selecting eligible projects in under 90 minutes. In short, 11 projects are to proceed immediately that otherwise would have taken a number of years to get off the ground.

The bottom line with any management and leadership solution is this – we need to convince our minds! It’s not others, but ourselves we need to convince. Giving yourself permission to solve a problem is no easy task, but it is the largest part of the solution 😉

7 Comments on “Problems, Solutions and Options – A Veritable Tale”

  1. first I was going to say it looks like a job to stay away from but now.. you’re a rock star.. 90 min. great ideas. I’ve developed a NMP approach with clients and deadlines … Not My Problem … and prioitize. Easy when you’re the owner, not as much so as the manager. 👏👏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I struggle with making decisions or even following a solution that I know is right. It’s probably because growing up I was never taken seriously by family members, and considered to be a weirdo by strangers. You are right in saying that we need to convince ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Shelly. Yes, our family members do have a lot to answer for at times. One of the most thought provoking moments I have had in life is when I entered the upper echelons in the workplace and suddenly found my point of view valued! Decision making, like most things, is a habit, so challenging our mind set is key.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, 120 items on your agenda? 😲 I knew managerial positions meant juggling a lot of issues, but that specific number really puts it in perspective.

    Since I know managers have a lot on their plates, I try to make sure that I work on my problems until I reach a point where I really do need their help. That way, I have a better idea of those solutions you mention and I can be clearer about what I need.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: POTP – yes that’s me | rfljenksy – Practicing Simplicity

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