Break It Down

To build strength or develop a skill, you must conquer increasingly challenging obstacles ā€” whether you are an athlete or a carpenter or a retail organization. With each challenge, you learn, build endurance and refine skills. But obstacles rarely present themselves one at a time and clearly defined. Usually the challenges are numerous and you don't know where to start. The problems compete with each other and you must determine which are the most pressing, which steps you need to take to solve them, and how to get your staff to support your efforts.

To begin, recognize that problems come in two forms. They can be either a barrier to accomplishing something (as in, "We can't possibly produce 20,000 units per week with our existing equipment") or as an opportunity to do something better ("We need to reduce the cost of processing purchase orders by 20 percent."). All challenges share the common theme of a desire to do something tomorrow that can't be achieved today. The easy part is identifying the challenge. The trickier part is coming up with the detailed solution.

Before you start to work on a solution, you need to make sure everyone is on board with you. Often, your colleagues (especially ones from other departments) disagree on what exactly is and isn't a problem, can't identify the steps to solve the problem, or don't know when the problem will "end." To ensure that the right challenges are tackled and logically solved, follow these tips so you can cross off your problems one by one.

Tip 1: Have a clearly articulated mission statement.

"We need to reduce costs" is not a good mission statement. It is too vague and will be difficult to execute because it is unclear what exactly the cause of the problem is. Even worse, there's no way to tell when the problem is solved. Create a mission statement for each challenge that is clear and realistic. Include what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and what measure will be used to evaluate its success. A good mission statement might look something like this: "We need to reduce the cost of shipping by 50 percent by July 1, while ensuring that orders are delivered promptly 100 percent of the time." This statement encompasses all the necessary elements of a good mission statement and gives your staff a clear goal.

Tip 2: Have a consistent understanding of the problem.

When solving a large problem that involves multiple departments, you often find that each group has its own agenda. They may not even agree that there is a problem. To get everyone's support, have them all involved in developing the mission statement. Don't be surprised if you find "resisters" who don't want to solve the problem because it means a significant change to the status quo. Include everyone who will be involved in the project, even if they initially resist. You can usually get the support of resisters if they contribute their two cents to the mission statement. They will feel included as part of the solution from the beginning.

Tip 3: Make sure this problem is the most pressing one.

Money, time and staff often limit the number of problems you can solve at any given time. How do you decide which problem gets solved first and which gets put on the back burner. Instead of haphazardly picking a challenge, be methodical. Once a year, hold a staff meeting and create a "wish list" spreadsheet of all the problems that exist. For each entry, name the problem, indicate the resources it will require, the expected outcome, and the duration of the project. Then rank your entries by their urgency. Now you can easily determine which ones are realistic to tackle this year.

Remember that priorities change: Projects that were originally put on the back burner can suddenly become fires that need to be extinguished immediately. Review the list at least quarterly to ensure that each problem is still in the right slot on your priority list.

Tip 4: Keep your mission statement prominently displayed.

Why spend the time and energy on a mission statement when you just put it in a drawer to collect dust. Make sure each member of your staff has a copy of the mission statement. Enlarge it and hang it in your office. Each time you hold a meeting about the problem, have your mission statement handy and remind the group of the goal when things start going awry. The mission statement is crucial to achieving your goal, so make sure all involved have the mission statement embedded in their brains.

Tip 5: Don't be afraid to change the mission.

Problems aren't static; they can often change in complexity and importance ā€” they may change from a minor to a major one or vice versa. Components of the problem might change, so might the departments that need to work on it. When the problem changes, change your mission statement accordingly. Just make sure you involve the team in setting the new mission, defining the revised time frame and reallocating resources.


The best way to tackle challenges is head-on. Don't let progress stall because you don't want to admit your business has some problems. Your competition likely has as many as (or more than) you. Take action. Put your challenges in writing. Decide which one needs to be solved first and dedicate the appropriate staff, hours and financial resources to implement the solution. Make sure your staff can rattle off the mission statement and that every activity supports the desired goal. Don't be afraid to change as circumstances require. Focus on the detailed solution, and before you know it, you'll be able to cross the first problem off your list.

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