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The Fierce Urgency of Now

A few weeks ago we paused to remember Martin Luther King Jr. One of the things he said, about half a lifetime ago: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.”

"There is such a thing as being too late."

These quotes about fierce urgency and procrastination should resonate when we all realize how quickly January 2011 has flown by. Now there are only 11 months left to reach your 2011 goals. Q2 is around the corner, and if you’re off track in Q1, the rest of the year may be in jeopardy.

Don’t allow one more year of missed opportunity. In that short amount of time, your company could easily end up “standing bare, naked, and dejected” when the competition cleanly passes you by.

Something needs to change

It’s not as if companies don’t want to meet their goals. They try to meet them. But there’s a hard truth here: if they aren’t meeting goals on a regular basis, something needs to change. Setting goals that are just based on last year (versus honestly considering what can realistically be accomplished) isn’t a solution. Just trying again won’t get the job done. Moreover, we certainly know that simply telling people to do something doesn’t work either.

Last monthwe discussed 1) the need to help employees understand the WHY behind the company goal and 2) how to draw a straight line between employees’ daily actions and how those actions impact the goals. This month, let’s focus on what gets in the way of achieving results: obstacles, aka problems.

Solutions, not excuses

Problem-solving is one of the most overlooked skills in organizations. Problems are inevitable, and yet organizations frequently use them as excuses for not reaching a goal:

  • The sales manager left for another company
  • The economy took a nosedive
  • The new product introduction we expected didn’t pan out
  • Our big client filed Chapter 11

Yes, those are problems, but they shouldn’t be blamed for missed results. Most leaders and managers pride themselves in their ability to solve problems. Why then do so many problems lie just below the surface and then keep tripping us up before we reach the finish line?

Action Plan:  Improving Problem-Solving Skills

Issue: Problems aren’t recognized.

This frequently starts with setting expectations about activities versus results. For instance, a sales trainer’s goal may be to cover all the material in a course as opposed to focusing on whether the course is helping sales reps become more successful. Without focusing on results, the trainer may not realize a problem in the course even exists.

Employees don’t speak up.

If your company doesn’t have a culture that rewards, praises, and expects everyone to speak up when something looks wrong, communication will die at the source. For instance, a warehouse manager may note that there are suddenly an excessive number of returns for a product. Nevertheless, pointing it out may not “be his job” and unhappy customers continue to stack up.

Problems are avoided

Identifying problems can be scary for employees – they may be afraid of

  • Being blamed for the problem
  • Being asked to solve it when they don’t know how
  • Sounding like a whiner
  • Experiencing stress from stepping on toes
  • Bringing it up only to have it be ignored … again …
  • Being labeled for speaking about the proverbial “elephant in the room”

These issues are cultural and affect every aspect of a company’s performance (including revenue generation). Oddly, leaders often put new “fixes” in place (hire a new person, restructure, add a new product) instead of solving the root culture issues that prevent more proactive, problem-solving behaviors.

People are too busy to think about solutions

How many people in your organization would complain about not having enough work? This issue of overworked employees has never been more acute than it is now. Managers, however, must think past the daily urgent and focus on instilling a problem-solving culture that saves time and money in the long run. Employees who are bogged down with daily workload frequently don’t set their own priorities. It’s up to management to look above the tree line and start eliminating the recurring moles permanently.

Employees aren’t empowered to act

Real problems — the kind that can derail company goals – are complex and cross-departmental. Front line employees are in the best position to see the issues and recognize the ramifications. However, they may not be in a position to act. Solving the problem may mean calling on technical resources, or forming a team, or changing company processes. It always means finding the root cause(s).

Managers must create a culture that fosters partnership relationships between employees and managers. That means that employees feel free to talk to managers and together figure out the best course of action. This concept is in direct conflict with the “Command and Control” leadership style that is so prevalent in struggling companies today. “Partnering” means “we’re in this together. Together we will find solutions. Together we will be successful.” If a manager tells an employee what to do versus searching for answers together, companies can continue to expect thoughtless compliance instead of commitment.

Organizations rely on just one person.

When a problem is small enough that it can be fixed by one person, s/he often handles it immediately. But important problems require teams to correctly identify the problem, analyze potential root causes, develop solutions, communicate findings, and implement the required changes.

Interestingly, the obstacle for complex problems is often a competent and intuitive problem-solving manager. Organizations can become dependent on that manager’s problem-solving skills. As a result, those organizations may not encourage problem-solving among wider groups.

Start teaching problem-solving skills at all levels of your organization. For example, if the customer service supervisor knows how to form a team and solve the root cause of a customer complaint early on, the problem may never need to reach the VP of Sales (not to mention leaving an unhappy customer waiting). Don’t just expect all employees to know HOW to solve complex problems or implement change …teach them! Then they’ll be empowered to identify & solve problems faster (and less expensively) than ever before.


Let’s embrace Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now” and become effective and efficient at problem solving. Let’s end the procrastination and make sure you reach – even exceed! — your important goals for 2011.

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