It was a sticky, hot Saturday morning. The back tire of my bicycle had sprung a leak, so I stood sweating outside the local bike repair, an admirably scruffy shop wedged between a bakery and a tattoo parlor. “Can you fix it?”
I stared into the green eyes of a long-ish haired bike repairman, hopeful. His movements were easy, his arms tattooed. He pushed his bangs from his forehead with an inked wrist and edged my bike over the curb, into the shop.
“Yeah, no problem! Come back in a few hours and it’ll be good to go. We can definitely fix it.”
Two hours later and we’re on the phone, me sanguine about the prospect of getting my tire fixed today, him a little less sprightly.
“We definitely can’t fix it.”
The bike is an eight-year-old Specialized, which in the bike world is apparently a pretty solid brand. I know nothing about quality bikes, except this one was purchased while I was still living in Chicago, a splurge after I received the yes on a new job at a real estate magazine. It was my first real writing job and my first real bike.
After a ten-minute conversation with a persuasive salesman, I handed over most of my weekly paycheck from the magazine to buy the thing, a black-and-pink matte number I pedaled along Lake Michigan from August until October when glacial Chicago winds had me opting for the heated bus.
Come spring I migrated west to Southern California. My bike was sealed in bubble wrap, put on a moving truck and here we are.
The technician sighs into the phone, explaining the Specialized requires a custom wrench to twist its tires off. He doesn’t have one.
“We can’t fix your tire,” he says again.
“OK then,” I drawl, slowly working out next steps in my mind. “What are my options to get the bike fixed?”
“Well, we need the tool.”
“Sure. So can I pick up the tool? Can you order it?”
“We can pick it up, I’ll just need more time.”
“That’s fine with me. I can wait.”
A plan is devised. He’ll get the $10 tool from the Specialized shop. I’ll pay whatever extra he wants to charge for buying it and my bike will be ready on Sunday.
Riding back from the shop Sunday afternoon, I thought about my conversation. When I was delivered an “I can’t,” what was it that compelled me to push forward, to find a solution and ultimately, cruise home the next day on a fully functioning bike?
As an entrepreneur, I find myself frequently performing these mental check-ins, not only selfishly because I want to identify the thought patterns and mindset that will lead to greater success for little word studio but also altruistically; I believe all leaders have a responsibility, especially in the midst of the complex business environment 2020 hurtled our way, to share proven strategies. If someone wins, it’s good. If someone wins and shows others how to win, it’s even better.
What made me figure this one out?
Like a marshmallow melted in the summer heat then spooned into a glass container and put on a refrigerator shelf to re-coagulate, the amorphous thought formed: My business. Almost every day, I’m confronted with unexpected client challenges that require a new idea or a fresh approach to solve. When the proverbial bike can’t be fixed, I simply find another way to make it happen. I have to. When your team is relatively small but nimble, lack of resources and a hearty sense of ingenuity become the lifeline for sustainable progress.
Let me break down my bike story into a simple process for problem-solving through unanticipated difficulties:
Step 1: Acknowledge the problem and move on.
Problems aren’t fun. If they were, they’d be called “funlems” and eventually get re-branded as a kind of lemon-flavored potato chip. When a problem occurs, the first step toward getting through it is to acknowledge there is one. Say it out loud. Slack it to your entire team so everyone becomes acutely aware of the issue. Then, after you have a clear understanding of what you’re working to solve, move on. Let that stress go. Repeating an unsolved problem over and over again will only create added tension that is fundamentally incompatible with a workable resolution.
My bike problem was easy: The technician couldn’t fix my tire because he didn’t have the proper tool. Next …
Step 2: Brainstorm potential solutions.
Problem-solving involves thoughtful contemplation and careful elimination. Start by listing every possible solution to the problem. Once you have this list typed in one place or, if you’re more traditional, written on a page of your notebook, you can analyze the ramifications of each option and eliminate until you’ve discovered the superior solution. I imagine this step like a human drone surveying the problematic scene; climb higher and your options become smaller, less about the minute details and more about their strategic placement in the land of possibilities.
For my bike dilemma, I could pick up the tool. The technician could pick up the tool. He could order the tool or I could order the tool. The solutions weren’t endless but there was more than one way to crank off this tire.
Step 3: Identify the financial, reputational and mental cost of each solution.
I have no idea what a good solution looks like to you. For your particular goals, a solution that simply isn’t feasible for me may be the foremost way you could solve this problem. Determining The One, the pre-eminent solution simply requires a system for weighing the worthiness of each choice. This could mean examining the financial constraints involved, the reputational aspect of the solution – could it erode hard-earned trust? – and even the mental cost on your team members or clients.
Think about the mental anguish I would’ve had to endure if the shop owner requested I go to the Specialized store, ask for a tool I had no knowledge about then deliver it to the bike shop so they could fix my bike. Now, if I was a Specialized bike enthusiast, this option might be the very best one because it’s likely I’d enjoy the experience of visiting a Specialized store. I happen not to be a Specialized bike enthusiast, and the astute technician understood the inconvenience of me picking up the tool. The best solution to maintain the reputation of the repair shop while balancing financial costs, was to have a member of the repair team retrieve the tool and charge me a set fee for the purchase.
Step 4: Assign responsibilities and create a timeline for action.
This next step gets into the planning and execution involved in any well-devised problem-solving strategy. Explicitly define who will do what and by when. Setting project deadlines is often seen as a negative, inhibiting exercise but it builds structure around which a team can assess its gains, and the psychological effects of this measured advancement will motivate team members to continue moving forward until the problem is fully solved. Before I started my business, I mistakenly thought a rigid timeline would be antithetical and stifling to creativity but I have since learned just the opposite is true; when you define your chronological boundaries, you begin the creative process of taking the countless choices that exist in the world and from this limitless potential, make something wholly and singularly your own.
Back to the bike … the technician would retrieve the tool, fix the bike and have it ready for me to pick up on Sunday. See? Roles, responsibilities and a pre-determined timeline. (A note here: Timelines, while productive, can also lend themselves to iteration. It’s likely in a real-life business scenario that a new problem gets layered onto the existing one, which necessitates a shifting of roles and a re-examination of the timeline. And that’s OK. It’s part of the problem-solving process that propels your team ever closer to an end goal.)
Step 5: Determine future use cases for this solution.
A solution can be a standalone victory or it can be a predictive mechanism for addressing prospective problems. It’s likely there are other situations where this same idea might be propitiously applied.
In the case of the bike, the repair shop now has the proper tool to mend other flat tires on Specialized bicycles.
Remember: The five steps outlined above are just a template I’ve found that works for me. You can follow it, you can change it, you can even ignore it if you have a better way to fix what’s broken. Any problem that arises will no longer be a problem but an opportunity once you decide to keep the wheels moving forward until it’s solved.