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Barriers to Problem Solving

We have a tendency to get in our own way when solving problems, which is why effective strategy requires a formalized approach. As part of our problem solving series, I’ll first walk through the barriers we have to solving problems and start to touch on how you can create a problem solving strategy to overcome them.

There are plenty of reasons why stakeholders act hastily and handle problems ineffectively. The stakeholder might evaluate before investigating, failing to inquire and fully understand the situation. They might struggle with comparing new and old experiences, searching for the familiar rather than the unique in a new problem. They might also confuse symptoms and problems, overlook unsolvable problems and concentrate on simple concerns, respond automatically, or refuse to explore deeply before acting (Elbing,1978).

These reasons make it difficult to eliminate waste in designing solutions that drive business results or demonstrate outcomes that impact the business. We also know that there are attitudinal and cognitive reasons. I have outlined a few reasons below that explain the barriers we commonly face without even realizing it.


Your Early Warning System

Do you ever wonder why we are attracted to the negative or gravitate towards problems, issues and challenges? The news, Twitter, Facebook, reality shows, and other data channels bombard us with negative stories that put us on high alert. The reason for that is the part of the brain called the amygdala. This is the almond shaped mass of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobe of the brain. It is a limbic system structure that is involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival.

This early warning system is used as a danger detector in a crisis situation, wartime skirmishes or when escaping a charging T-Rex. In business we don’t have to use the same survival skills, but the brain still responds in an instinctive way to negativity and puts us on high alert. This alertness and our response to negativity creates a hyperactive response to protect, explain, and rationalize incredibly complicated situations. We avoid pain and gravitate to pleasure.


Your Biases

There is another phenomenon that we consider when thinking through business and learning challenges, our biases. These biases occur naturally as a part of working as leaders, sales managers, training managers, and other individuals who are actively identifying issues or challenges in organizations. The two that most resonate with us are confirmation bias and negativity bias. In confirmation bias we focus on information that affirms our beliefs and ideas. In our world, this leads to unveiling problems or challenges that aren’t actually defined well, inaccurate, built on faulty assumptions, or information based on individual or group biases instead of based on real fact. The second and more likely bias is negativity bias. As I noted above, our brain becomes ultra focused on negativity and it ultimately impacts our judgment and how we perceive the world. This type of bias can alter how we think through a situation and how we draw conclusions based on the data we have extracted or analyzed.


These days we are under so much pressure to perform and do it quickly. Often times, problem solving techniques aren’t even used as managers (and others) have a propensity to act in haste to correct situations rather than taking the time to think through them (Mintzberg, 1973).

This provides context for what we face as a performance partner when we begin to carefully unpack different challenges and opportunities our clients are experiencing. With these challenges in mind, we examine each situation through a lens of many factors, knowing that we are looking for simplicity on the other side of complexity. The problem solving methodology we use is a combination of logic, sequencing, and imagination that ultimately creates a systematic thinking process to overcome these human characteristics.

These are the types of considerations that go into analyzing client needs. We explore their needs with a mind for both the positive and the negative problems. Being careful, not to focus simply on those findings that scratch the surface of a situation, but exploring them with a mind for discovery, exploration, and accuracy through the root of the problem(s).

There are a number of other ways we offset the ill effects of biases and our focus on negativity. We begin each discovery with a working session and stakeholder interviews. These sessions allow us to raise awareness of these biases, explore in collaboration sessions that reveal them, and allow us to discuss in more detail through objective probing and exploration. Lastly we also conduct “magic wand exercises” to generate options and explore alternatives.

With these two major factors tied to problem solving in our rear view mirror, I want to explore the way we begin the process - evaluate situations and related problems before considering solution design. We will outline those steps in more detail tied to our process in subsequent posts. Next, we’ll examine the first step: working session discovery.


1. Elbing, A. (1978), Behavioral Decisions in Organizations by Alvar Elbing.

2. Mintzberg, H. (1973), The Nature of Managerial Work, New York: Harper & Row.

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