Don’t stop ’til you get enough

A company was struggling with high operating costs. A quick review revealed that payroll costs were a key factor. Further review showed that the company was experiencing consistently high overtime.

The company’s leadership asked a team of managers to come up with some possible solutions to the cost problem. Here is what they came up with:

·     Reduce payroll costs

·     Institute 3 month “no overtime” policy

·     Reduce overtime expense

·     Increasing staffing levels during normal business hours

·     Determine the cause of the overtime problem

·     Reduce overtime

This list is pretty typical of the variety of “solutions” that I see leaders generate to solve a problem.

The problem is that only two of the items on the list are actually solutions. The rest are outcomes and ideas.

Outcomes and ideas aren’t bad. In fact, they are a critical part of defining solutions. But, outcomes and ideas are not solutions. They can’t be implemented. Therefore, they won’t actually make the problem go away.

The problem with outcomes and ideas is that they create a false sense of progress. 

It is easy to build consensus around them. In fact, they are often much easier (and faster) to agree to than actual solutions. 

So, groups quickly come to agreement. Then the meeting ends and everyone goes their own way. 

A few weeks later, the group returns and no progress has been made. That’s because, while there was 100% agreement on WHAT needed to be done, there was no agreement (or even discussion) on HOW it was going to be done. That’s where the solutions come in.

In order to drive results, it’s important to drive to actual solutions. That way, when everyone walks out of the room, there is clear direction and expectations.

Take a look back through the list. Do you recognize which are the solutions? Can you spot the outcomes and ideas?

Here’s a hint:

Outcome: The positive BUSINESS RESULT you are trying to achieve

Idea: The high-level approach you will take to solving a problem

Solution: A specific action. Think of solutions as projects or initiatives related to your people, processes, tools, or technology.

Here’s how I’d sort the original list:


·     Reduce payroll costs

·     Reduce overtime expense


·     Reduce overtime


·     Institute 3 month “no overtime” policy

·     Increasing staffing levels during normal business hours

The other item, “Determine the cause of the overtime problem” is actually a common cop out. The solution to a problem can’t be to figure out the cause of the problem! If you don’t know the cause already, you shouldn’t be talking about solutions! You’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Here is simple trick for differentiating ideas and solutions. Imagine sending five people off with your statement (e.g., “Reduce overtime”) as their direction. What is the likelihood that they’d all do the same thing? If it’s less than 100%, you’ve probably given them an idea, not a solution.

Pulling it all together

Suppose that I find out that I have a business meeting in Korea in three weeks. The problem is that I don’t know Korean. I’m concerned that I might not be able to easily get around, interact with people, etc. What can I do?

Outcome: Communicate in Korean.

Idea 1: Learn to speak Korean

           Solution 1a: Take a crash course on-line

           Solution 1b: Take a course at the local community college

           Solution 1c: Have my Korean friend teach me

Idea 2: Get a translator

           Solution 2a: Hire a Korean translator for the trip

           Solution 2b: Buy a Korean/English dictionary

           Solution 2c: Use Google Translate

Getting the outcome right

Knowing the correct outcome was critical to laying out possible solutions.

I could have defined the outcome as being able to speak Korean. However, that would have unnecessarily limited my options. In this case none of the options under the second idea (which turn out to be the better set of choices given my circumstances) would have even been considered. 

My success is dependent on my ability to communicate not whether I can actually speak the language.

Generating multiple ideas is also key. 

Too often, we take the first reasonable idea and start drilling down. That can lead to tunnel vision and confirmation bias. Challenge yourself to think of multiple approaches for solving the problem. Shoot for five rejected ideas for every one idea that you keep.

By thinking of just two possible approaches (learning versus translating), I was able to quickly generate six possible solutions to the problem. That gives me a lot more possibilities and opportunities. It also increase my chances on coming up with something more innovative.

Think broadly

Finally, for each idea, also try to generate multiple actions that could work. Don’t stop at the first one. As with ideas, try to throw away five for every one that you keep. In the case of learning, I thought of three totally different vehicles for learning (on-line, course, tutor).

Once you’ve got your outcome, ideas, and solutions identified, you can then make a decision about which best fits your current situation and constraints. In this case, Google translate seems like the fastest, cheapest, and most effective solution.

Don’t stop short of finding solutions. It’s tempting to stop after agreeing upon the outcome or idea. But, in the end, until everyone agrees on an actual solution, no progress will be made.


Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Brad can be reached at

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