5 Enemies of Problem Solving

There is hardly a day that will pass in anyone’s life where he won’t encounter problems.  This is the nature of life.  You wake up and walk into the kitchen expecting a bowl of Cheerios only to discover the milk has gone sour.  On the way to work you get behind a rolling road block being orchestrated by someone who apparently has a car that can’t do more than 32 miles an hour.  Then when you arrive to the office 15 minutes late, you find out that two of the three key people working your most important project have called in sick.  Just as you are about to let your emotions get the better of you, your boss pops in to let you know that your department’s budget is getting cut 25%, but he’ll still need 100% performance.

An extreme example?  Hardly.  There have been days when I wished that I could have such a smooth start to the day.

Due to the staggering number of problems faced by any organization, a premium must be placed on developing problem-solvers.  The people who can dissect a problem, develop a reasonable alternative or new solution, and then present the improved way ahead to your team.

Unfortunately, problem-solvers are not as common as problems.  In fact, most organizations are plagued with enemies of problem solving.  These are people, often well-meaning people, who are not only incapable of solving problems, but actively obstruct problem-solving efforts.  In essence, the enemies of problem-solving become another problem!


During my career I’ve been on multiple teams dedicated to “problem-solving.”  In some instances, I was the most junior member of the team.  In others, I’ve been the commander who was able to direct action.  I’ve observed as teams and organizations have wrestled with difficult problems.  I’ve watched as people huddled around white boards and brain-stormed like champions.  I’ve listened as impassioned advocates of change cited reasons for dramatic initiatives.  I’ve been blessed to be around some great men and women of action, who could actually fix things.

But in those same organizations, I have seen the others: the enemies of problem-solving.  These are the people who take an almost morbid pride in saying how it can’t be done and why it can’t be fixed.  You’ll recognize them by the hats they wear, because the ball caps they wear have an upside down Nike symbol proclaiming:  “Just Don’t Do It”

Avoid these people if you can.  But since you can’t, at least familiarize yourself with the 5 enemies of problem-solving.


1. Problem Complicators:

Problem complicators will spend most of their day debunking solutions to problems.  No matter how straight-forward the solution, the Problem Complicators are willing to dig in and have a weeklong discussion about it.  The Problem Complicator can usually be identified by his liberal use of trite sayings such as “I wish it were that easy” or “There are no simple solutions, guys.”

But there are simple solutions.  If some of your employees are having trouble getting to work because they have to drop their kids off at school – try this:  change their work hours. The Problem Complicators hate such solutions.  They are far too clever for their own good.

A common move by Problem Complicators is proposing an unnecessarily elaborate solution.  For example, if a dead-bolt on a door is broken, the Problem Complicator will suggest a laser-driven security system with a retinal-scan authentication device in order to keep unauthorized people out of the store-room.  Of course, this will require an incredible amount of money, training, legal advice, and an environmental impact study.

Typically the boss says something like “I have a better idea, buy a new dead-bolt lock.”

Then the Problem Complicator sniffs indignantly and talks about how “these Neanderthals never listen!”

2. Problem Identifiers

When I was stationed in Las Vegas, I often told the people who worked for me, “It is really easy to identify problems.”  I would tell my squadron, “I could go down to the University of Las Vegas and grab some freshmen who have never even been on an Air Force Base in their lives and bring them in here to this squadron; I bet that within 5 days they could identify almost all of our problems.”

Identifying problems is very easy to do.  Don’t get me wrong, some problems are more difficult to solve than others, but identifying problems?  It’s easy.

Problem identifiers are a particularly insidious enemy of problem-solving.  Problem Identifiers actually think they are part of the solution because they are identifying.  I’ve even heard people brag about this supposed skill.  They literally spend all their time identifying problems that need to be solved without any intention of actually solving them.  But we know that identifying superficial problems is easy.

For example, let’s say when you get in your car tomorrow morning and you turn the ignition, your car makes an awful knocking noise and won’t start.  When you get out of your car, you see a black pool of oil forming on your driveway.  Then along comes your neighbor, a Problem Identifier named Digger.  And then you have this conversation:

Digger:  You’ve got an oil leak.

You:  Yeah, I wonder what is causing that.

Digger:  You know, you’re not gonna be able to drive it like that.

You:  Yes.  I realize that.  I wonder if I blew the main seal?

Digger:  You’ll need to clean up that oil, ya know.  If that oil gets into the water table – wow!  I’d hate to think what that’ll do to the water table.

You:  Gee, thanks Digger {your anger is building}

Digger:  I think your left rear tire is low on air

And then you kick Digger out of your driveway.  You have learned to hate Digger.

Problem Identifiers can have a very nice career doing what they do.  Many are not as obvious as Digger.  They actually sound helpful when they say “you know the tech team just isn’t producing like it used to.”  Be very wary of Problem Identifiers.  They will not solve problems.  Remember, you can get five freshmen out of UNLV to identify problems; but those same college kids probably can’t fix anything.

3. Problem Diverters

Problem Diverters spend most of their day avoiding the problem.  There are two sub-classes of Problem Diverters – the conscious and the subconscious.

The Conscious Problem Diverter spends an inordinate amount of time intentionally trying to get the boss to focus on anything but the problem at hand.  This is a skill that they learned as children.  When their parents would ask, “Tommy, why didn’t you mow the lawn?”  The young Problem Diverter would say something like this, “But Mom, Joey never does anything!  Besides he’s been sneaking out of his bedroom every night to see that new girl down the street that wears the tight jeans and Metallica t-shirts.”

And it worked too; because Mom would refocus on the “Joey Problem.”

The Subconscious Problem Diverter is a different animal.  He is physically incapable of focusing on the problem.  So when the Boss asks someone why the shipping department is not meeting any of the established timelines, the Subconscious Problem Diverter is interested in talking about getting new office furniture or looking for clarification on the company’s “Vision Statement.”

Both variations of Problem Diverter are dangerous to your organization – but, be particularly wary of the Conscious Problem Diverter, because he actually thinks he is fooling you (and sometimes he is).

4.  Problem Reiterators

Problem Reiterators make their living restating the problem in a variety of ways.  They can be identified rather easily because they use terminology like “At the end of the day…” or “The crux of the matter remains…”

I consider Problem Reiterators to be among the vilest of all enemies of problem solving.  Why?  Because, they use already identified problem as a tool against all proposed solutions.  Let me illustrate:

In the Air Force, officers are highly encouraged to earn “Joint Credit” at some point in their careers.  Simply put, joint credit is given for jobs in which officers work with other branches of the military.  For example, an Air Force officer might get joint credit for working at the Pentagon or might get joint credit for working for a sister service, like the Navy.

A few years ago I had a very talented Captain who worked for me and was deployed to Iraq.  This Captain worked almost exclusively with the Army and actually served in the “J2” job, meaning she was the joint (Air Force and Army) lead for intelligence.  However, she didn’t get “joint credit” on her record for that job.

When we inquired with headquarters as to why she didn’t get “joint credit”, we were told “the policy is you get joint credit for only designated joint jobs.”

Me:  Can we designate the job this Captain did as joint?  I mean, it was inherently joint – she worked exclusively as the J2”

HQ Problem Reiterator:  I don’t set the policy; the policy states which jobs are joint.

Me:  can we change the policy then.  This seems like a no-brainer.

HQ Problem Reiterator:  At the end of the day, your real problem is the policy doesn’t give joint credit for that J2 position…

Problem Reiterators are tough.  You identify the problem as “the company policy or regulations need to be changed.”  Then Problem Reiterators tell you company policy or regulations prevent you from fixing the problem.  You tell them – this policy is stupid and should be changed.  They tell you, you know the real problem is that policy doesn’t allow for that.

Problem Reiterators are quintessential bureaucrats and as such “at the end of the day” they will tell you “there is really nothing I can do.”

5. Problem Accommodators

Problem Accommodators are sometimes difficult to identify because they give the superficial appearance of being actual problem solvers.  Make no mistake, a Problem Accommodator is an enemy of problem solving, but the camouflage used by the accommodator is brilliant in its inefficiency.

Problem Accommodators are most easily identified by their elaborate “work-around schemes.”  I’ve encountered these guys multiple times.

For example, your headquarters comes up with an automated database to track all employee training.  Headquarters believes this database will streamline accounting and reporting of training.  There is just one problem – the database that headquarters came up with doesn’t work.  In fact, it is terrible.

The Problem Accommodator creates his own local tracking system.  He creates a better database and uses that to track training.  Then every month he loads the good information into the bogus headquarters database.  He does this manually because the headquarters product is terrible.  Result:  The Accommodator has never had a late report; no one knows there is a problem and headquarters renews the contract for the Training Database 2.0 that will be even less efficient than the original.

Problem Accommodators have real potential.  You need to find them and help them actually solve problems.  Typically the Problem Accomodator has been emotionally scarred in the past by a Problem Reiterator (boy, I hate those bastards).  The Problem Accommodator tells you how they came up with a great solution to “problem X” 10 years ago, but after fighting with the Problem Reiterators for weeks, he gave up.

You ask, “why did you give up when you were right?”

Then he tells you, “Well, the Problem Reiterators told me that at the end of the day, the policy was complicated…”


Look we are all guilty of this stuff from time to time.

However, there are more than a few enemies of problem solving that are going to get in your way all the time because they live there.  These people need to be identified and rectified.  You simply cannot allow enemies of problem solving to go around souring the milk and setting up road blocks.


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham














My Barber, the Botanist

I suppose when you go to college you can learn a lot of important things. After all, professors are paid pretty nice salaries to stand up in classrooms across the country and blather about the fishing industry in Peru or the marginal propensity to save in Italy. These enlightened educators will wax poetic about mitosis, malaria, Monrovia, mercury, metadata, and militarism; and then remind you that’s alliteration.
When I was in college I suppose I learned a few things from the professors, but I think I learned a lot more from my barber.
In 1989, I found a little barber shop in South Dartmouth Massachusetts, not far from the campus of the University I was attending. It was a little white building with the requisite barber pole in the window. The barber was a man named Frank. He was a nice old gentleman and as he cut my hair he would occasionally hum or sing along with Al Martino or Frank Sinatra playing on his small radio that he kept on the counter in his shop.
Frank had a classic pair of barber chairs, although he only used one of the chairs. I guessed that the second chair was from a partner who had long since left the business. Unlike many barbers today, Frank rarely used the electric clippers. He was a maestro of the scissors and the comb. The scissors hissed in a rhythmic scat – almost a form of jazz, as Frank breathed heavily through his large nose; getting my hair cut “just right.”
Every day, Frank’s wife would sit with him in that barber shop, knitting away. She looked to be in her late 70’s which is what I pegged Frank’s age at as well. It was tough to tell with Frank – because he always was smiling and happy, which hid the years. He probably could have passed for 65, if not for Millie sitting quietly with her needles creating beautiful things from balls of yarn.

Frank and Millie rarely talked to each other when I was in the shop – but they were together every day. It amazed me.
Any guy will tell you that when you first go to a barber – there is a “feeling-out” period. During the first few cuts, the conversation between barber and client will center on weather, sports, and local events; nothing too heavy. After all, no guy wants to make an emotional commitment to a barber until he sees proof that this man can actually cut hair. It would be a disaster to move too fast and really like your barber if he ended up butchering your head. Great conversation will never make up for a Three Stooges haircut.

The rule applied to my relationship with Frank. We kept it light and easy: “Are you a student?” “How about this weather?” “There’s a good new sandwich shop on such and such street.”

It wasn’t long before Frank proved he could really cut hair and cut it well. Then I decided to really talk to him.


One day, as Frank was clipping away at the back of my head I noticed on the wall a black and white photograph of a young Frank standing by a barber chair. There was an older man standing by a second chair.

“Who is that in the picture, Frank? Your Dad?”

“Yes! Yes, that’s my dad. We had a shop in the north part of town before they built the shopping mall on route 6.”

“Cool. Hey Frank – how long have you been cutting hair.”

“Seventy Years.”

I must have heard him wrong. Seventy years? “What? When did you start cutting hair?”

“When I was 14.”

“Wow! So you are 84?”


“I can’t believe it – you look so young. Did you always know you wanted to be a barber?”

Frank stopped cutting and paused for a minute. Then he started the scissors again, “I never wanted to be a barber.”


“My father made me become a barber.”

“What did you want to do?”

Frank stopped cutting again and he gestured with his comb and scissors like a master conductor, “I wanted to be a botanist! I always wanted to study botany and become a botanist!”

I was stumped for a minute. I realized that Frank was the first person I had ever met who ever expressed a burning desire for botany. I knew nothing of botany. I tried to remember – wasn’t there something about xylem in botany?

Then Frank continued talking. “My father came to me when I was 14 years old and said ‘I have to pull you out of school.’ I asked why and he told me he needed the help and the family needed the money. So I quit school to become a barber.”

“Just like that?”

“Oh I tried to argue with him. I said, but dad – I really want to be a botanist! I was good in school too. But, I was the oldest, so I quit school and learned to cut hair.”

“Wow, Frank. And you’ve been cutting hair for 70 years now?”

“Yes, 70 years of cutting hair. My father and I had a shop together and now it’s just me.” He was finishing up the hair around my ears and the back of my neck.

“Frank, did you ever go back to school? Did you ever get a chance to study botany?”

“No. I never went to school; never studied botany. My younger brothers finished school but I never went back.” He said it all without a trace of bitterness. “That’s just how it was. The family needed help and so my father told me I had to help.”

“And you did.”

“And I did.”


I deeply admired Frank. I couldn’t get his story out of my head. Here’s a 14-year old kid with all these dreams of becoming a botanist and he ends up a small town barber; cutting hair for a living in a tiny shop.  Yes, I admired him but I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of sadness about his story.

A few weeks later I returned for my haircut. I walked into Frank’s shop and there was Millie knitting away quietly. Perry Como crooned in the background. Then Frank smiled brightly at me, “Hello! I have something to show you before I cut your hair!”
Frank went over to a table in his shop and grabbed a three-ring binder full of pictures. He beamed and said, “Just look at these for a minute!”

The binder was full of photographs of rose bushes; Beautiful rose bushes.

“What’s all this Frank?”

“My roses!” These are all roses I’ve grown. Some of them I’ve cultivated myself. I’ve created my very own hybrids.”

“Jeez, it looks like a lot of work.”

“It’s not work because I love it. I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

“Frank you know what this means don’t you?”


“You are a botanist!”

He laughed and grabbed me around my shoulders.


It is people like Frank that made America a great place. I learned so many great things from him.

I learned that dreams are wonderful things but family is more important than dreams. I learned that honest work and decency are precious commodities. I learned that there is no higher calling than working to help your family succeed. I learned that if you found the right mate, the right woman; that late in life when your world is slowing down, she will always be at your side, supporting you every day. I learned that if you keep a song in your heart the scissors aren’t heavy and there is a lot of joy in every task.

What college ever taught anyone that?

“I keep trying to plant and grow the perfect rose!”

Thanks Frank. You are the most beautiful botanist that I have ever met.


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham