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How to Handle a Problem You Can’t Solve

Finding a solution is only one way to proactively respond to problems.

Key points

  • The difference between a big problem and a small problem is the amount of risk we’re exposed to.
  • New research has uncovered an often overlooked category of solutions to help solve difficult problems.
  • Sometimes it's more productive to eliminate, shrink, or delegate a problem than it is to solve it.

After returning from a 12-month deployment in Iraq, Patrick Skluzacek began to experience horrible nightmares. Veterans Affairs didn’t have a cure. Afraid to close his eyes, Patrick turned to alcohol to help himself sleep. As his drinking and mental health grew worse, he went on to lose his job, his wife, and even his home.

Patrick’s son Tyler was desperate to help. But he wasn’t a psychologist or a sleep expert. He was just a college student studying mathematics and computer science. So rather than trying to heal his father from the effects of trauma, Tyler decided to look for a way to prevent the nightmares from happening.

Using his programming skills, Tyler developed a smartwatch app that monitored his father’s heart rate and movement during sleep to spot nightmares early. The app then prompted the watch to vibrate gently, coaxing Patrick out of bad dreams without completely waking him.

With the help of his son’s invention, Patrick has once again lived a normal life.

Thankfully, most of us have never had to watch a parent struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, but we’ve all faced problems that felt too big to solve–in our professional lives as well as at home. The experience of the Skluzaceks, both father and son, illustrates some strategies you might employ the next time you’re up against what feels like an impossible dilemma.

1. If you can’t solve a problem, look for ways to eliminate it.

Problems live inside systems, and one way to get rid of a problem is to eliminate the system it belongs to. Tyler never found a cure for his dad’s PTSD. He simply found a way to interrupt his father’s nightmares, preventing them from happening again.

In an organizational context, we can usually wipe out problems that seem unsolvable by replacing troublesome staff, software, or policies. But new research out of the University of Virginia has found that our brains often overlook these “subtractive solutions”— tunneling instead on what might be added to improve a situation.

2. If you can’t eliminate a problem, look for ways to shrink it.

The difference between a big problem and a small problem is the amount of risk we’re exposed to. So if you can’t fix the cause, try to reduce the effects. For example, certain positions in your company might be inherently stressful, posing the threat of high burnout rates. If you can’t find a way to modify the positions to make them less demanding, an alternative might be to offer more vacation days or free massage therapy sessions to the affected individuals. The root problem will still exist, but it will have a smaller negative impact on your organization.

3. See if you can delegate the problem to someone else.

As Tyler’s story illustrates, sometimes we are our own best options. But in many cases, we can turn to others for help. A surprising number of leaders are comfortable delegating tasks but never think to delegate problems. Doing so can free up your time and empower your colleagues to make a bigger impact. Plus, most problems are easier to solve with a fresh perspective, making a handoff even more advantageous.

4. Ask yourself what insight would make the problem easier to solve.

If you can’t solve a problem, it might be indicative of a gap in your expertise. That’s perfectly normal. The key is simply to pinpoint what those gaps are. To do so, try filling in this sentence:

I would be able to solve this problem if only I knew…

Once you’ve identified the gaps in your knowledge, brainstorm ways to find reliable answers, colleagues might be a useful resource, and consulting is often an effective option. If your timeline and budget don’t allow for consulting, on-demand online trainings are another way to expand your understanding, and a surprising number of experts offer these virtual courses.

5. Question whether you actually need to solve the problem right now.

Sometimes, the true cost of a problem is the work it distracts you from. In Tyler’s case, ignoring his father’s nightmares wasn’t an option. But sometimes, procrastinating on one problem allows you to be more productive in other areas. If you’re facing a dilemma that seems unsolvable, try asking yourself if fixing it is really your best opportunity for personal growth or organizational contribution at that moment. Will you incur any high costs by waiting to tackle the issue?

Challenges don’t always have an obvious cure, but you can still respond intentionally and productively. In fact, knowing what to do with tough dilemmas is a skill that sets great leaders apart. After all, difficult decisions are one of the primary responsibilities great leaders get paid to handle.

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