The Problem Behind the Problem

Problems always come in pairs. There’s the immediate problem that must be fixed. Then there’s the problem behind the problem—the breakdown in the process, the policy, or the people that led to the problem.

A Pumber Fixing a Pipe -Photo courtesy of ©, Image #10979406

Photo courtesy of ©

If you don’t take time to fix both, you’ll end up with the same problem happening again and again.

Some time ago, when I was a publisher at Thomas Nelson, we had a major gaffe with one of our most important authors. In order to protect the guilty, I won’t go into the details. Suffice it to say, we dropped the ball in a major way, and it caused a significant author relations problem. So much so, that it took almost two days of my time to fix the problem. I was embarrassed and frustrated.

Obviously, we had to fix the immediate problem. We created a mess, and we had to clean it up. We all understand the necessity—and urgency—of this part of the equation.

But the bigger issue is the breakdown in the process that led to this problem. If we don’t fix this, then we will experience another breakdown in the future. It’s virtually guaranteed. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Great leaders address both issues. They are quick to right wrongs, fix problems, and clean up messes. But, as soon as they get past the initial crisis, they ask the bigger question, “How did this happen and how can we keep it from happening again?”

If you will take time to debrief on the business problems you encounter, you will find that your organization steadily improves. In this sense, there is no failure, only feedback and the opportunity to improve.

Question: What have you learned from a recent problem? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Jon Stolpe

    Most of our projects come in at or below estimate which is great, but sometimes we get a project that costs us more than we estimated.  Recently, one of my team members dealt with a challenging project which actually cost more to complete than the sell price.  There are several reasons for this slip.  We have a lessons learned meeting scheduled with the team to discuss the ups and downs of this project.  Meetings like this help us to overcome similar problems in the future.

    • Michael Nichols

       The “lessons learned” meeting is a great idea. Thanks for sharing.

      • Michele Cushatt

         I agree. That’s a great idea, whether with a company or a family.

      • LivewithFlair

         I agree!  I like that it doesn’t shame people but gives them the chance to share wisdom gained. 

    • Brian McKenzie

       We used to call that a post-mortem, and I don’t think you can be a good consultant without doing them.

  • Patricia Zell

    The first things that I do when I face a problem is to ask God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom and to ask Him to work everything out for the good of everyone involved in the problem. Then I look for my responsibility in solving the problem and get to work. 

    • Kenneth Acha

       Great strategy Patricia! To be honest, I desire to handle every problem like that. In fact, I even had a reminder set on my cell phone to beep everyday and remind me that it’s important to pray about every situation first before I use any strategy. I’d love to say I don’t pray as early as I ought to even with that reminder! I feel like saying “what a wretched man I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?”
      But “Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord! “

  • Cyberquill

    A gaff is a type of hook or spear.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks. I have added the “e” at the end of the word.

      • Cyberquill

        Thank you for your gaff(e). As a result of my wisenheimery, I shall now remember myself forever which is which.

  • Jeremy Statton

    There is always a reason for something happening. That’s for the reminder to ask “why.”

    • Jim Woods

      So easy and straightforward that we often forget don’t we, Jeremy. 

  • chris vonada

    Good stuff… I think of the root problem as the core issue. Many times, fixing these “problems within the problem” can be significant as the underlying issues can be difficult… hatred, jealousy, discord, anger, arrogance, greed, to name just a few.

    Just depends on how deeply you go searching as to what you’ll find… and, with that said… it also can be a reflection of excellent leadership that continually works to solve our biggest victory… always striving to shine in the love of God… yep, just love…

  • Sia Knight

    I recently judged myself very  harshly for making a mistake. I couldn’t seem to get over it. I came to realize that, if I judged myself that harshly, I probably  judged others with the same level of unforgiveness. I’m working on examining that.

    • Michael Nichols

       I do the same. Good reminder to regularly assess my critical nature.

    • Michele Cushatt

       A great (albeit painful!) insight, Sia. I’ve noticed the same about myself.

    • Kelly Combs

      Me too, but in reverse! I made the comment to a close friend about how I expect people to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and she said, “and I’ll bet the person you say it most to is yourself.” Wow. I never realized how harshly I judged myself before that. Now I am trying to extend grace to others, and myself.

    • Momarian

      Thank insight is so great. I think it will open doors in ways you didn’t expect.

    • TNeal

       It seems like the harsh club has a large membership. I’d like to say I’m a recovering critical person, stopped being a card-caring member of the club, but my wife would say I’ve got more room to grow in that area and the membership card’s just hidden behind my driver’s license.

    • Sia Knight

      Looks like my confession hit a nerve! Let’s make a pact that we will strive to give grace to ourselves as well as others.

    • Time With Tracy

      I will join you all in that pact. The time I spend beating myself up over mistakes could be better spent actually addressing the source of the problem.

    • Nina Nesdoly

      That pact sounds good! I think every trait has a light side; while harsh judgment may not be ideal, if you keep grace in mind it can become a strong ability to analyze situations, and find the core of problems.

  • Dave Anderson

    What I have seen, depending on the personality type of the people involved, is the process reversed.  Some leaders want to spend time figuring out what caused the issue.  In some cases it is to solve the systemic problem.  In other cases it is to fix blame.

    In both situations, the immediate issue still needs resolved.  I am with you on this Michael.  Take care of the immediate need first.  We will have time to analyze the big picture later.  

    Blame often derails the process because no one is willing to step forward to take responsibility. If we have a culture of accountability, blame will not be part of the process.

    • Jeremy Statton

      I agree with you that blame can take on the appearance of fixing the problem when it doesn’t. It creates a culture of “me against you” which doesn’t help anyone.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Building a culture of accountability is key.

    • Michele Cushatt

       Blame is poison. A little can infect the whole bunch.

      • Dave Anderson

        Michele, it is at it’s worst when it is the leader who starts the cycle.

        • Cheri Gregory

          Accountability vs. blame. Hmmm.

          I’ve seen blame in action plenty of times, and the end result is a lot of followers withdrawn into their protective corners, determined not to risk venturing too far out. If they do nothing, they rationalize, they can’t be blamed when something goes wrong.

          I have far less experience with accountability, but I’m guessing accountability encourages healthy risk-taking and voluntary acceptance of responsibility.

  • Chris Patton

    It is crazy to me, but this kind of thinking is not that common.  Sure, in this forum, most of us likely think this way AND see this as normal, even instinctive.

    The problem is that the majority of the population does not default to this mindset.  Instead, they rush to fix the first problem and then move on, relieved to be past it.  They move on, hoping it never happens again!

    But just as you said, if the process is broken, then it WILL happen again.  

    I think the real learning for most of us should be to (1) acknowledge this is uncommon thinking, (2) train those we work with to think this way, and (3) look to hire those that already get this intuitively (or have been trained elsewhere).

    • Michael Hyatt

      I think you are probably right. We need to train our people to think this way. Thanks.

    • Rob Holliday

      Well said, Chris. What I’ve encountered, in addition to the futile hoping that it won’t occur again, is the “we don’t have the time” excuse. Either way, the failure comes up over and over again and rather than a broken process getting reviewed / repaired, the people following it are blamed instead. It brings to mind another memorable quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

  • sherristone

    This is true, but what makes me crazy sometimes are the ‘knee-jerk’ reactions that are more often than not made to CYA than to address the true problem. They often create more problems in the long run. It seems like this happens more in larger companies than in smaller ones, maybe because getting so big makes control more difficult. There is a certain element of fear that drives things – liability. 

    That’s always a legitimate concern, of course, but doing things the right way and addressing the real issues always helps. 

    • Michele Cushatt

      That drives me crazy, too!

  • Rob Sorbo

    Is there always a PBP? It seems like sometimes stuff just happens and you have to dust yourself off and carry on.

    I do agree with the PBP idea, though. I think that fixing PBPs often has a lot to do with knowing how to ask the right questions.

  • Bob Hamp

    Spoken like a good counselor. Don’t just look at the behavior, look at the roots. What are the motives? What are the systems issues? Where does the communication go awry? Where are the boundaries and relationships needing to be clarified or strengthened? Such crucial thinking. There is always more than meets the eye. I love how simple, direct and significant this is.

    • Michele Cushatt

      Discernment would be a tremendous asset in these types of situations. 

  • Thad Puckett

    This is not one of your longer posts, Michael, but I like it as much as any you’ve written about.  It resonates with me and with my experience of leading a team of missionaries (which can, at times, be like herding cats).  Our team wasn’t gaff or problem proof (or prone either), but we “kept short accounts” (meaning we would admit to differences and get them out, discussed, and put away–they didn’t fester and become bigger).  We also debriefed every project, whether with volunteers missionaries from other places, or our own group experiences.  I am amazed at how many companies or non-profits fail to debrief experiences and miss opportunities to learn from what they’ve just heard/experienced.

  • Peter Walters

    Thanks for the post.  I think part of the problem is that people, companies or churches are so busy trying to meet demands they do not take time to review processes until the world falls apart.  

    • Michael Hyatt

      Agreed. It’s kind of the classic problem of people being so busy fighting alligators that they don’t have time to drain the swamp.

      • Sean McCool

        Why bother draining the swamp. Seems to me you shouldn’t be hanging out in the swamp, picking fights with large reptillian creatures in the first place.

  • Jozeca Lathrop

    I have discovered about problems lately that not everything I see as a problem is necessarily a problem.  I appreciate Andy Stanley’s question: Is this a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed? I personally don’t like problems or tensions, but I recognize that sometimes it’s not a “solve it” issue – it’s a “manage it well and it will bring great growth” issue.

    • Cheri Gregory

      Great distinction, Jozeca!

      Years ago, I heard Brian Tracy speak on the difference between a fact and a problem. We accept and work around facts. We aim to solve problems. 

      Trying to “solve” facts wastes valuable time and creative energy. When I sense an issue growing, I try to ask myself, “Is this a fact or a problem?” and respond accordingly.

  • Kenneth Acha

    It’s so easy to be caught up in the emergency room that you forget about the real thing which is preventive medicine. It is really true that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” But I think moments of crisis are just as important as moments of success in crafting, assessing, and supporting a good preventive program at work–I mean preventing errors and shortcomings, avoiding them altogether. Moments of crisis show you the holes you have and moments of success show you how well you’ve patched some important holes in the part of the roof where your success came from, where there was no leak. But of course, that doesn’t mean that a tornado couldn’t come and still put into disarray the part of the roof that you had repaired all the leaks. That’s why good leadership is the one that is flexible, always learning and improving, and never thinking that “I’ve been there and done that…”
    Great post Michael!

  • Chris Jeub

    I’m dealing with this EXACT issue in a volunteer organization I’m working with. There is the fallout that needs to be addressed immediately (we wrapped that up yesterday), but now that that’s behind us we need to roll up our sleeves and fix the bigger problem.

  • dee

    thankyou for this article, 
    I am learning all the time,and i must admit sometimes i see the problem looming but prefer to ignore it leading to further problems later. I am learning to set limits and not let things get out of control. Its like a the old saying a stitch in time saves nine. or eventually a sqeaky wheel gets oiled x x 

  • Sltopham

    How fitting to use a plumbing picture. Our entire apartment building was evacuated two nights ago. The problem? A burst hot water tank that flooded a suite and the one below. It turns out most of us have outdated water tanks that should be replaced, free of charge. I wonder how many people in our building will make the effort to do this and learn from this problem.

  • Daphne Delay

    A problem I see is that too many people have knowledge and little wisdom. Knowledge is input, wisdom is output (or knowledge applied). Just because I’ve become aware of a problem (input) doesn’t solve it. It’s what I do next. “If any man lacks wisdom…”

    Great article. Thank you

    • Kelly Combs

      Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.  I love your application of this in your comment.

      • Michele Cushatt

         LOVE how you describe the difference between the two!

        • Kelly Combs

          Thanks, Michele!

      • Daphne Delay


  • Raj Paulus

    We’ve had this one drawer in our kitchen that always spilled out with containers every time we opened it. We called it the “Enter at your own risk” zone. And sometimes a pot with very little food went into the fridge so we wouldn’t have to face the dreaded cabinet. Finally, one day this past month, my husband took it upon himself to tackle the drawer. He started by removing everything, adding layered shelving, and replacing all the mismatched plastic containers with a few sizes that self-stack. We no longer fear opening the doors! And I can’t help but love hubby all the more for doing battle beyond just shoving the drawer shut in hopes that it won’t explode open with the slightest nudge. He also organized our pantry … if you’re interested on my blog post called “My Sexy Spring Cleaning Spouse” check it out here: Funny how this has been one of my top ten blogs… Thanks and enjoy! :)

    • TNeal

       Raj, you write with wit and humor. I understand the need to clear up messes (although my writing desk would suggest I like the theory more than the practice). I tore through our plastic containers a few months ago but now find the problem has resurfaced. Lesson learned: address the problem behind the problem (the obsession with plastic containers and the resistance to recycle them).

      • Raj Paulus

        Thanks for the shout out of encouragement! And I hope you give in and give up a few of the plastics. Good luck my friend! :)

  • John Richardson

    Insightful post, Michael. I was in a speech contest in our local Toastmasters group a few weeks back. I was up against two of the best speakers in our group. Both of them had been practicing for weeks. I decided to join the contest, the day before the event. My speech, based on one of my blog posts, went well, but I ended up third. While I wasn’t surprised, I learned a lot from the experience.

    All three speeches were video taped so it was easy to go back and do a thorough evaluation.

    The first thing that was apparent was the way we were dressed. The winner had a suit jacket, the second place guy was wearing a vest, and I just had on a dress shirt.  The video screamed out the difference. The winner looked more professional than the other speakers. Lesson learned: First impressions are powerful.

    Listening to the three speeches, it became apparent who had practiced the most. The winner’s speech was smooth and polished. It was based on presentations that he does for his business. The second place speaker, had transposed some facts during his presentation, due to last minute changes. My speech was more off the cuff, so it lacked the polish that it could of had. Lesson learned: A polished presentation wins.

    The main takeaway, was the overall effectiveness of the presentations. The winner used a powerful metaphor to drive his speech. His advantage was the depth of his content. All the pieces flowed well. The second place speaker had made too many last minute changes, and the content didn’t flow smoothly. My content started off strong, but without polish, it lost its effectiveness. Lesson learned: Leave your audience with a powerful call to action.

    Overall: It would be nice if we could review all of our problems through a thorough evaluation. Just like in a football game, when you can roll the tape and view things in slow motion, improvement can happen.

    • Kelly Combs

      I love your humility in your comment John.  You came in third and you justify why it was appropriate. That speaks volumes about your character. Thanks for sharing.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for sharing such a great example, John. Very instructive.

      • John Richardson

        Every spring, Toastmaster’s holds its International Speech competition with tens of thousands of contestants from all over the world competing. They start at the club level and progress through the area, division, district, and all the way to the International Convention.

        What has been really insightful has been being a judge in some of the higher level competitions. It’s usually down to a one point difference across two or three speakers. This can be a matter of one sentence, gaffe, or overall impression. One year I was a vote counter for a high level competition. That really opened my eyes, as you see how different judges see things. In the competition I was in, all four speakers had received at least one first place vote. Talk about close!

        Just like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, subtle little details matter.

    • TNeal

       John, once again you demonstrate the importance of continuing education and involvement. Just reading your comments teaches me to step up to the plate and take a swing (baseball metaphors will abound for the next 2 months since I’m working with the JV baseball team). Very instructive. A home run (yes, couldn’t resist).

    • Jim Martin

      This is such a good comment, John.  I really like the way you break down these three speeches.  Very helpful.

  • Keithbranson

    Yes, feedback is essential to improve. Some of our greatest learning comes in the debrief!

  • deandeguara

    If you have a continuous problem that is reoccurring it is most likely an issue that is ingrained in the culture an it has to be pulled out by it’s roots! Your culture (shared attitudes) can kill problems, create or cultivate ongoing issues.

    • Jim Martin

      You express this very, very well.  Thanks.

  • Scott Wimberly

    There was a time when I saw the same people, dealing with the same issues time and time again. Once we started dealing the problem behind the problem, I didn’t see them much anymore. Either they dealt with the root issue or rather than deal with the root, real issue they just got rid of me so they didn’t have to deal.

  • Eileen

    So true.  You’ve got to fix the root of the problem.  Reminds me of the popular definition of insanity.  “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  The results wont change or get better if the root is unhealthy.  Must address and fix the problems.  

  • Connie Almony

    Oh so true! When I worked with high risk kids in the Baltimore area, one of the things I worked with them on while teaching problem-solving skills was to define the problem. STEP ONE and essential! Otherwise, we end up spending too much time fixing symptoms which keep developing. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of this in today’s environment. Whenever I see someone’s solution to fix an issue, I always ask, “But why are we having this issue?????” 

    • Jim Martin

      Connie, very good question at the end.

  • Alan Kay

    Thanks for this one Michael. Making situational fixes is essential, but we can’t miss the opportunity to resolve larger, sometimes systemic issues. It allows for organizational learning and productivity improvements.

    I suggest that when looking at the larger problem issues we take care to understand and separate the system / process issues and the human issues. If we address the system issues with the problem-resolution approach we can quickly make progress.

    When we address the human elements of the problem we need to move beyond the problem analysis-causality approach. Why? The human aspect of problem focused causality can lead to an endless loop of who’s at fault, etc. Instead, move to solutions as quickly as possible in order to speed up the changes.

  • Scott Reyes

    I agree with this. I am in a servic industry, and there is alwyas a bigger issue behind the service. I watched the movie, “How to Train Your Dragon” and this is what I learned:

    • Kelly Combs

      My kids love that movie.  I will pop over and read your blog post.

  • Adam Rico

    I once made a mistake at work where I dropped the ball on something. My boss and I had to fix the problem, but then I had to come up with a solution that would fix the underlying systemic issue. I was embarrassed and stressed out.

    However, out of the mess came a solution and strategy that my entire department uses to this day. The solution really helped to streamline that particular task that I goofed up on originally. I probably would never had come up with this solution had I not been forced to do so.

    I learned a lot about myself through that process and we now have a helpful resource that did not exist previously. Although sometimes painful, beauty can come out of chaos.

    • Jim Martin

      Adam, this is a great story.  Great to hear the value of addressing a systemic issue.

  • Maryf Allen

    This topic seems to be coming at me from all sides today. Thank you and I receive the message to act on it.

    • Tim Peters

      Glad it was helpful Mary. 

  • Juan

    Right on, when you deal with people, you are dealign with different personalities, points of views, different ways to thinking.

    • Tim Peters

      Oh yeah.  You definitely are facing many different aspects of problem solving with people in mix. 

  • Michele Cushatt

    Fixing the immediate problem without addressing the root or source is like mopping up water on the front porch during the middle of a downpour.  Both need to be addressed, or you’ll still have a mess to clean up. This is as true for corporate processes as it is for character.

    • John Tiller

      Wow, Michele, there’s a lot that comment!  Great analogy!  

      The last sentence was the icing on the cake.  Individual character is easier to clean up than corporate process.  Unfortunately, I’ve observed that character clean-up happens less often.

  • Linda McQuinn Carlblom

    While it’s important to ask how did this happen and how can we keep it from happening again, it’s also important to do so without affixing blame and pointing fingers. Sure, someone specific may be at fault. Chances are, he already knows who he is and is squirming, if not outwardly, then inside. Most people earn respect by speaking in general terms about breakdowns and gaffes. “We had this problem and it’s important we do XYZ in the future to keep it from happening again.” Make expectations and procedural changes clear to your team without demoralizing employees or whoever was at fault.

    • Barry Hill

      I think your right on! I think co-workers/employees learn a lot about an organization by how they handle conflict and gaffes. I think it ultimately helps with keeping great employees! 

  • Thekla Richter

    Great article! I see problems as having three levels at least… the specific breakdown, the process breakdown, and then the priorities/relationship/values breakdown. There are occasions where the process-level breakdown is simply due to human error, but I think usually there’s another layer of awareness possible around WHY a process got set up in such a way in the first place. 

    Project/issue post-mortems are a great way to address the process breakdowns behind a specific issue. I’m not sure what the most effective companies do to address the priorities/relationship/values breakdown. 

    • John Tiller

      Thekla, your three levels are a nice way to re-package how to look at breakdowns.  

      I think one of the best ways to address the “priorities/relationship/values breakdown” may be through vision casting.   

  • Joseph Iliff of SeekOutWisdom

    One of my favorite sayings is that having problems isn’t a problem.  Not having the ability to solve problems is a problem.  I use this to defuse the goal of a “problem-free” life or organization.  There will always be problems.  It is better to set the goal of having a strong problem-solving process or ability.  Then, having problems is not a problem, because they can be addressed.  Instead, they become opportunities for growth.

    • Joe Lalonde

       That is a great way to look at problems Joseph. How have you applied this principle to your life?

      • Joseph Iliff of SeekOutWisdom

        I try to separate problems into two groups, one caused by people choices, and one not.  For problems not caused by people choices, all you can do is be prepared to respond as best you can, giving yourself as many choices and options as possible.  For problems caused by people choices, I try to diagnose why those choices were made, and how better ones might be made in the future.  The goal is to grow to have more and better choices, that produce fewer or more easily solved problems, or both!  This is not a one-time thing though.  It is an ongoing process of growth and development, constantly trying to improve your problem solving or problem avoiding skills, knowing you’ll achieve perfection or a “problem-free” condition.

    • Jim Martin

      Joseph, I like this perspective on problems.  “Not having the ability to solve problems is a problem.”

      • Joseph Iliff of SeekOutWisdom

        Thanks, Jim.  I like to think of this as a statement of empowerment in a difficult condition.  From the right perspective, any problem you can solve now isn’t really a problem.  Any problem you can grow to solve is just an opportunity to grow.  And any problem you can’t ever solve is just a reminder that it’s part of being human not to be able to solve every problem.

    • Barry Hill

      This is great. Timothy Ferris talked about this in the 4 hour Work Week. He gave his customer service people complete authoruty to solve problems as long as the solution cost under $500 (i think that’s the right number) he said that his complaints from both workers and customers were cut drastically.

      • Michael Hyatt

        Not a big deal, but I think the number was $100.00. Still the principle applies.

        • Barry Hill

          Thanks for the correction— don’t know why I remembered it to be so high?

  • Stand Strong

    I always like to follow the trail of blame.  It tells you a lot about the procedures, training and individual integrity of the employees.  The majority of the information is not the person or department being blamed but the person doing the blaming.  Are they not trained correctly for their responsibility or do not understand how and therefore develop a CYA defense by blaming others? Ask each area or person why they are doing what they are doing. Is it because that is how its always been done? Once a person knows why and how their part works in the system they often take ownership. How often has a .50 piece shut down a car? Everyone plays a role. If they do not, why do we employee them? Do they feel they cannot voice opinion for change without repercussions? Is the person one that does not take personal responsibility? A great book to start finding problems and and start taking personal accountability is QBQ or Question behind the Question. 

    • Barry Hill

       I really like the imagery of the $ .50 part having the power to shut down the entire vehicle if installed or manufactured incorrectly!

  • TNeal

    In getting a book published, I learned the importance of communicating with my excellent editor, a.k.a. my wife. I didn’t let Ellen know where we were in the process so she glanced over the manuscript, made some remarks and a few corrections, but didn’t know this would be the final once over before the book went to the galley proof. The difference was $400 worth of corrections afterwards and a delay of a month in the publication date. My fault entirely.

    Lesson learned. If you’re partnering with others, communicate the plan and where you are in the process. Clear communication saves you time, effort, and money.

    • Jason Stambaugh

      You got that right. So many problems arise because of our failure to communicate clearly in the first place. The trouble is, what is the best method to communicate? Do we use tools like basecamp, setup a facebook group, keep a master excel sheet, etc.

      • TNeal

         My wife won’t friend me on Facebook so I have to rely on the old-fashioned communication tool of actually talking to her. :-D

    • Joe Lalonde

      Ouch! That would hurt. 

  • Steve Martin

    Great post.

    Getting to the root of the problem and fixing it without wrecking people, isn’t always easy. But there are better ways to do it than others.



    Side note: Jesus went to the root of the problem.

    This message tells about what he did to help fix the problem on the last day of his life (in this world) :

    Everyone here is welcome to use this message in whatever way they deem appropriate.


  • Francarona

    One thing I learned from a recent problem is that I need to take the time to decide how I really feel and think about an issue and then have the courage to articulate it clearly in the beginning.  One of my partners recently proposed an idea that I vaguely thought was not good for us at this time.  I just went along and it later created a bigger problem that we had to address.  In the future I will have the courage to speak my truth.

    • Joe Lalonde

      Sorry to hear about the problems Francarona. That can be frustrating, especially when you had the gut instinct that it would end poorly.

      Are you preparing and building your courage for the next time a situation like this rears its head?

  • 48DaysDan

    In looking at the problems we have in our business, 99% of the time it comes back to not having clearly agreed upon expectations in advance.  So the primary prevention is just making sure that’s done well.

    • Barry Hill

      What tools/processes have you found that help to clarify outcomes?

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree, Dan. This is SOOOO important.

  • ThatGuyKC

    Haha! The image caught my eye because that was me this weekend cleaning out the drain under the bathroom sink. Nasty job.

  • Brandon Weldy

    I had a professor who liked to say “The only thing anyone learns from history is that nobody learns from history.” It was funny at first but when I got thinking about it, I discovered I was not learning even from my past mistakes.

    Recently I faced a problem with a volunteer. I was able to get it smoothed over but the problem arose because I had failed to take care of some details. I know plan out time to do just that!

    • Tim Peters

      Ha ha … Great quote.  Very true.  

  • Sam Ross

    Really interesting as this is precisely what I do every day when working with challenging teens. You can’t just fix the obvious surface problem, you have to dig deeper and find and address what their real problem or need is. This is one of my biggest messages in my website

    There is so much transferable knowledge from our spheres of work. After all life is all about relationship and getting it right!

    • Joe Lalonde

      I love the name of your website Sam!

    • Tim Peters

      Sam –
      I have a doctor who does not treat symptoms.  He will not do it.  He goes to what is actually causing the symptoms.  

    • Jim Martin

      I appreciate your comment, Sam.  You are right.  So often it is easy to focus totally on  the surface issues and ignore what is most important.

    • Barry Hill

      You are right on. In almost 20 years in Youth Ministry I find that the “presenting issue” cutting, eating disorders, anger, promiscuity, chemicals, and more, usually have a deeper root to them.

  • Joe Lalonde

    We’ve had a ton of issues with our computer systems at our work. Email has been up and down. Workers have been unable to log onto their desktops. Etc… Each issue looked like an individual problem. But it was actually one big problem.

    I’ve learned sometimes what you think the issue is really isn’t the issue.  There can be an underlying issue that shows symptoms of a different issue.

  • Tim Osborn

    We had a project fail for a client doing a very public
    presentation, leading to embarrassment and anger. Though the client made
    several suspect decisions contributing to the failure, in the follow up
    meeting(s) we simply owned our own failures, responding with humility, acknowledging
    the negative impact to him, listing the root causes, and presenting a plan to
    make things right going forward.

    It demonstrated that we cared very much about him, and sometime
    later he remarked that his respect for our firm actually increased by the way
    we handled things.

    I’ve pondered this, and now believe that in the spectrum of
    trust, customers will reach a stage of confidence by your performance consistently
    going right. But to reach a stage of reliance, it often requires customers to experience
    your performance after things go wrong.

    We do frequent retrospectives during the course of our
    projects, and to keep them from being a finger-pointing fest, and instead to
    help find issues that matter, we emphasize The Retrospective Directive:

    “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly
    believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the
    time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at

    • Barry Hill

      I love the retrospective directive!

  • AmericanWriter

    Plan to not just solve the problem, anticipate and calculate for delay, change and learning.  This way if you can cut down the DCL you will have more room to improve the actual deliverable.

  • kimanzi constable

    Awesome post Michael and so true. We tend to focus on what’s right in front of us not realizing that we’re missing the bigger issue.

    • Tim Peters


  • Time With Tracy

    Fixing the immediate problem without addressing the problem behind it is like putting a bandaid on a cut that’s infected. I’ve found this to be true in parenting as well. My young children tend to fight like cats and dogs at around 5 pm every day. I addressed the behavior until I was blue in the face, but it would repeat itself day after day. It only started to improve once I realized the problem behind the problem: hunger. If I feed them dinner at 5:00 instead of 6:00 something magical happens. They play beautifully together for the next hour or so.

    • Jim Martin

      Tracy, good analogy!  Like putting a bandaid on a cut that is infected.  In doing so, we ignore the larger problem.

    • Barry Hill

      Good example—now I’m hungry!

  • George Gregory

    I particularly like the concept of looking at problems as opportunities to take systemic improvements. It avoids blame while taking action to fix things.Sometimes we have to take a deep breath and remember to guard our initial reaction. It’s easy to look for someone to kick instead of a making resolve to improve the system. Take time to process: think first, speak second. Thanks for a great reminder!

    • Jim Martin

      What a good point you make, George.  Looking at problems as opportunities to make systemic improvements avoid blame and focuses on taking the action necessary to fix what is broken.  Thanks.

    • Tim Peters

      George –

      Do you have any tips on guarding initial reactions?  That is difficult. 

  • Raymond

    The overriding issue that I have learned from observing my
    clients work with problems is this…most do not view problems in a positive
    light. They observe problems as abnormal conditions, situations that are best
    handled by working around them or even better, avoid them. Most equate fewer
    problems with a greater likelihood of achieving their company’s goals. Many
    managers worry that others will view them as incompetent for allowing the
    problem to happen, or incapable of resolving the problem on their own.
    Organizations will continue to not capitalize on problems (thus loosing a major competitive advantage)  as long as they
    refuse to give up the assumption that the BEST managers do not share their
    problems with each other and that they solve them neatly and efficiently.  

    • Tim Peters

      Raymond –
      Great thought.  We too teach clients to view problems as growth opportunities.  Great comment. 

  • Ashley Denton

    Great post Michael on one of the most important time-savers in the problem solving process. I’ve been training leaders with a technique for isolating the right problem statements so they can more effectively determine what is stopping them from moving forward. If you’d like to read a blog I posted that explains this process of unearthing the problems beneath the problem, here it is… Ideaphoria | Creative Leadership Ideas for a Myriad of Applications |Visionary Leadership

  • John A

    Correct… issue has a bigger issue behind it. This is often a FUNCTIONALITY issue. People having lots to say in areas that don’t involve them …..they need to look after their area of responsibility…….john A

  • Richard Burkey

    I have learned to ask 1st the Andy Stanley question: “Is this a problem to solve or a tension to manage?” Worship styles is a tension to manage, fixing a leaky roof (and even more the cause of the leak) is a problem to solve. 

    • Barry Hill


      I love that Andy Stanley question! I am guilty of treating both tension and problems with the same methodology in the past.

  • Daniel Decker

     Very powerful and true.

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  • Gail

    Ask the people at the coal face. I’ve often observed that what management THINK is happening is VERY different that what is REALLY happening. But standing with the person with the pick and digging a little coal with them you get a much better understanding of what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it.

    Those at the coal face may not always have the solution but they sure can tell you a lot about the problem!

  • Romy Singh

    Great Post….

    A Problem Is Creator Of Another Problem. 
    If we want to end our first problem then we have to find an effective solution Immediately. If we are unable to find it then our first problem will lead to other hundreds of  problem. So look for a root of problem then end it from there.

  • PepperVA_Grace

    When I encounter issues, I had the tendency to over analyze the problem since my college days. The repercussion of this mistake makes me realize the importance to focus on the main issues and to address this in an S.M.A.R.T. manner as well as to give importance the value of good communication.
    every single day.

  • Baha

    Wise words.  Thanks

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  • lloyd

    I gotta’ say that way too often I see employers and employees way too focused on “Who caused this?” before the mess has been fixed. Let’s fix the mess, then fix what caused it, and worry about the blame placing after that.

  • Davef

    We had a screw-up at my job, and the CEO asked me, the manager, to find out how it happened. “Right,” I said. “We want to find out how it happened so we can prevent it from happening in the future.” The CEO looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, I want to know who is to blame.”  Needless to say, we did not win any awards for “Best company to work for.”

  • Kent Julian

    Well said, Michael. Very well said! 

    You asked about what we’ve learned from mistakes or problems? Here’s a personal mistake I made recently that result in a big learning curve for me:

  • DentalAccountant

    I agree with this that if we have a problem let’s solve this as soon as possible. Because if we will not do this it well become huge and you it is difficult to solve, am I right? 

  • Wayne

    There is almost always a deeper problem that is the root to the surface problem. If you have not read the book, “The Healing Code”, I strongly recommend it. The doctors who wrote it share a very simple method that goes quickly to the root and heals it, resulting in amazing hearings of all kinds, emotional, mental and physical. Which also effects relational and business.

    This book fits in well with your philosophy of life also.

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