Cut Big Problems Into Solvable Pieces and Get Moving

    If a tree falls in the driveway and no one is awake to hear it, does it make a sound?

    The answer is a definitive yes. A very loud, cracking noise to be precise.

    Not only does a large tree do a very good job of blocking a driveway, it isn’t exactly the best thing for the car that happened to be in that driveway.

    April Fool’s Day in Boston started out like a typical Boston spring day: temperatures plunged overnight and we had an ice storm. As the old saying goes, there’s nothing like a spring day, and the morning of April 1st was nothing like a spring day.

    Walking out of the house, I was confronted with a very large, very heavy tree lying across the driveway and my car. Needless to say, moving that tree was not going to happen. Because the storm had brought down a good many trees, it was going to be quite some time before I could get anyone in to deal with the tree for me.

    In an odd, but perhaps not surprising, way, I found myself thinking about some of the problems I frequently help businesses deal with. Like the tree, the problem looks huge, immovable, overwhelming. Depending on how you look at it, that may even be true. By the same token, when I was asked recently to help a company with a particularly large, vexing problem, my first observation was what they really had were two small problems. Interrelated, yes, but each one could be attacked separately and far more easily than trying to brute force through the apparent larger problem. A large tree, or a large problem, is immovable; individual branches and pieces, on the other hand, are another story.

    Thanks to the power of social media and email, it wasn’t long before a friend showed up to drop off a chainsaw. Now, I’ve never used a chainsaw in my life, but I figured that as long as I was careful and avoided contact with any body parts that I particularly wanted to keep, it couldn’t be all that difficult. So, while my wife was looking up instructions on how to use a chainsaw, I went to work.

    Fifteen minutes later, I successfully had the chainsaw firmly wedged in a large branch.

    “Why didn’t you cut notches?” asked my wife.


    While I spent the next two hours with a handsaw working to free the chainsaw, she patiently explained what she’d just read about cutting notches in a large branch to keep the chainsaw from binding.

    It is not unusual to jump into solving a problem and then run into an unexpected obstacle. Sometimes the original solution doesn’t work. Often, the basic idea is correct, but the implementation is flawed or incomplete. Recognizing the difference is critical to effective problem solving. When you get stuck, it’s necessary to slow down and understand what isn’t working and why. Brute force only compounds the problem: Had I tried to wrench the chainsaw out of the branch, it would have broken and I would have been back to being stuck behind a large tree, unable to get out of the driveway. Similarly, reflexively throwing more people and more money at a business problem just wastes resources: Figuring out, or finding someone who can figure out, the right solution may seem like a waste of time in the short-term, much like reading the instructions on how to cut with a chainsaw, but saves a tremendous amount of time and effort in the long-run. Making mistakes along the way, while sometimes leading to sore muscles, are inevitable parts of the process and provide opportunities for learning and expanding our skills.

    Clearing away the individual branches was a necessary first step, but the trunk of the tree still remained. One end was still slightly attached at the point where the trunk broke, about 15 feet off the ground, the other end lying across my car. Cutting through a tree that’s over your head is not the best move unless you have a particularly thick skull. Although I’ve certainly been accused of having just that, putting it to the test seemed a tad unwise. Nonetheless, we still had to get rid of the tree.

    We set up two aluminum stepladders widely spaced below the trunk, and then I cut through the tree as near as I could get to my car. This time, I remembered the notches. As the one end of the tree slid forward and settled on the ground, the rest settled on the ladders. We could safely drop that to the ground and cut it up. I was then able to finish cutting up the piece on the car and get that out of the way.

    Now, the fact is, when you see a tree lying on your car, the natural response is to be just a little concerned. After all, cars are not built to handle trees falling on them. Indeed, one might be forgiven for believing that the car is pretty much wrecked.

    Similarly, many times a business problem appears equally overwhelming. It’s big, it’s seems immovable, and even after a plan is developed, it may be difficult to assess just how serious it really is. All too often, our brains provide us with all sorts of worst-case scenarios that, unfortunately, seem all too reasonable and logical-¦ and which cause us to not handle the problem as well as we could. It isn’t until you figure out an effective means of attacking the problem and dive in that you can take control of the situation and reasonably assess the damage.

    It turns out that Subarus are very tough cars. No glass was broken, the doors and hatchback all worked fine, and the car ran smoothly. There’s a lot of damage, but it’s all covered by insurance. With the driveway cleared, I had no trouble driving the car to the body shop. In the end, by breaking down the problem and being willing to learn from the inevitable mistakes along the way, what appeared to be a major disaster turned out to be little more than a minor inconvenience.

    What are you doing about the obstacles that are keeping you from moving forward?

    Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Contact Steve at [email protected].