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How To Go From Putting Out Fires
To Solving Interesting Problems
by Leslie Godwin, MFCC

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.
                                    -- John Foster Dulles

“It’s one thing after another,” says Judy, a freelance graphic designer. I solve one problem and another one is there waiting for me. I feel as if I'll never stop solving problems in my business.”

Most people think that problems in their business are signs that something is awry, and dream, like Judy, that someday they'll wake up and have no more business problems. (This could apply to your career even if you don't have your own business.)

I see it differently. I think that our goal shouldn't be to get rid of our business problems once and for all. Instead, we should resolve BORING problems so we can get to the INTERESTING problems that intrigued us when we started our business or chose our career.

What were some of the interesting problems you hoped to solve with your business? Maybe you thought it would be fun to choose the newest style of clothing to carry in your boutique each season. Or maybe you fantasized about creating delicious menu items for your restaurant. You may have looked forward to adding interesting articles and creating unique features for your website.

Instead, you may be struggling to pay the bills during the “off-peak” season in the retail clothing industry. Or your waiters keep leaving to go back to college so you're bussing tables and taking orders while trying to fill those positions. Or you're spending most of your time calling your ISP about server problems so that your website (with it’s outdated content) can be seen at all.

In other words, instead of solving interesting problems, you’re solving boring problems.

One of my role models, Peter Drucker (who Warren Bennis called “the most important management thinker of our time”) recommends the following to reduce the amount of boring problems we're faced with regularly:
“The first task here is to identify the time-wasters which follow from lack of system or foresight. The symptom to look for is the recurrent “crisis,” the crisis that comes back year after year. A CRISIS THAT RECURS A SECOND TIME IS A CRISIS THAT MUST NOT OCCUR AGAIN.” (My emphasis.) (The Effective Executive, page 41)

Do you scramble every quarter to get your taxes in on time? Do you “forget” about marketing when business is coming in, and then “remember” when you have a slow period? Does the phrase “putting out fires” come up in conversation with colleagues more than once a year? These are crises you could have resolved by creating a routine. Here’s more on routines:

Drucker describes routine as a system “that makes unskilled people without judgement capable of doing what it took near-genius to do before; for a routine puts down in systematic, step-by-step form what a very able man learned in surmounting yesterday's crisis.”

So how can you spend more time on interesting problems:
What are some of the interesting problems you fantasized you'd be working on when you first started your business? List them here:



What else would you like to be doing in your business if you had more time? Write down whatever comes to mind here:

What are some of the boring business problems you are stuck handling either from day-to-day, month-to-month, or annually? You don’t have to come up with solutions to them now, but try to identify where you spend your time that is NOT rewarding or interesting.

List your four top recurring problems:





Plan to take some time each week for the next four or five weeks to figure out how to create a system where before you have had to solve a crisis. I recommend that you do a little each week because it’s unrealistic to tackle all of your crises at once. Schedule the time now – maybe an hour twice a week for four weeks.

Pretty soon you'll be spending your valuable time on what you find interesting and challenging about your business!

Leslie Godwin, MFCC is a Career & Life-Transition Coach, Writer, and Speaker. She publishes a free email newsletter on career and life transition. For information, email and mention that you'd like to be on the email newsletter list.

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