Command Post: Going for the Gold: Effective Problem Solving

I am firmly convinced that one skill is critical for all of us to possess. It is the ability to solve problems.

Before going any further, it is important to define what problems are. Here are a few definitions of “problem” for you to consider:

• A matter proposed for solution

• A perplexing or difficult matter

• A difficult person

• Something about which you want to learn more

• A roadblock to your success

• Something you have to handle

• A decision you must make

• Something you would love to avoid, but cannot


How much can you do?

As you review the list, reflect on the degree to which you can influence the outcomes of any of these. Do not waste time and effort on things that are beyond your control. Instead, focus on what you can influence.

Good leaders are always sensitive to their environment. They keep an eye on things and look out for storm clouds on the horizon. I say this because some really small things can suddenly grow out of control if you do not pay attention to the world around you. You will then be required to act to solve the problems as they occur. It is also important to remember that problems do not go away just because you ignore them. In fact, they tend to get worse.

What are the parts of a problem? There are the symptoms of the problem and then there are the actual causal factors. In many cases, these could also be called the hints and the clues that something is amiss.

Let me give an example of a symptom: Your fire department conducts drills twice a month. Over the past couple of years, you have seen a decrease in the level of participation by your department members. During your early years in the department people, looked forward to these drills and they served as a central focus in your organization. This is no longer the case. What is wrong?

There are those who would say that the attendance drop is the problem. I say it is a symptom of something else, something deeper. Has the emphasis on the importance of the drills been changed? Do the current officers seem like they are just going through the motions of conducting the drills? Has the content of the drills changed? Are the drills boring and redundant?

Do you see where I am headed here? When the emphasis on the drills comes from the top and the support is strong and positive from the top, attendance will be much better.

I have been a training officer and I know the need to make drills both educational and interesting. Years ago, one of my mentors told me that he and I were in the business of training people who had grown up as part of the “television generation.” We decided that we had to spice up our standard, ongoing training curriculum with a bit of humor here, a laugh there and some “war stories” to share what we had learned about the actual world of firefighting. I think that we headed off a lot of problems by taking a proactive approach to making our training courses interesting.


How do you face problems?

Back to the world of problems. What are some of the ways we react problems? Here are some reactions I have seen on different occasions:

• We deny that a problem exists

• We ignore the problem, hoping that it will go away

• We seek to put the blame on someone else

• We blame ourselves (mea culpa)

None of these works. They merely postpone the actual handling of the problem.

The first step in solving a problem is to actually admit that a problem exists. You stare the problem in the eye and decide that something must be done. You must be honest with yourself and own up to the matter at hand. Done not hide from the problem and do not go into denial.

Once you have owned up to the fact that there is a problem, you must then confirm that it really exists. Part of this is to define the problem in written form. You must then identify and define the actual causal factors at the heart of the problem. It is important for you to remember:

• Do not get hung up on the individual symptoms

• Use the symptoms as guideposts

• Work your way back to the real problem

It is important that you target the actual problem that must be addressed. Once you have done this, you can develop alternative solutions to what you have identified. Be careful not to jump at the first conclusion that comes to mind. You must work to get the whole story. Gather the facts as you find them and do not embark on a witch hunt.

It is also important to review your department’s records and find out what rules and customs apply. There may be policies, procedures and operational guidelines that can help you. It is important to speak with the people involved and gather their opinions, facts and feelings.

Once you have identified all of the possible information on causes and symptoms, you decide the way in which to attack the problem and who will be responsible. The choices are:

• Solve it yourself

• Call a conference

• Delegate to another person

• Form a committee

• Use an outside consultant

Regardless of the choice from the list above, there are a number of tasks that must be undertaken. Fit the facts together, then consider their interaction and review department policies and regulations to see if solutions exist within the framework of your existing policies. As you work to develop your alternative solutions, consider the potential impacts on your people as well as your organization. You do not want to make things worse.


Hunt for alternatives

Now you are ready to begin the hunt for alternatives that might serve as solutions for the problem you have identified. It is critical to bring people together to assist you in your hunt for a solution. Brainstorming among the people you have assembled is an excellent way to proceed.

One critical question must be answered in the affirmative: Are the alternatives realistic? Building a solution that does not bear on the problem is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Once you have made the choice of an appropriate alternative, do it. Do not study it to death. Do not bury it in the midst of endless discussions. Just do it and then see what happens.

Here is how you ensure that you are properly evaluating the manner in which your alternative is working (or not):

• How soon should you follow up?

• How often should you check?

• Watch for changes in output, attitudes and relationships

It is critical to monitor the way in which your alternative is being implemented. Once the feedback is in, you can then answer the critical question of whether your alternative is working. If it is, then graciously accept a round of congratulations on a job well done. If not, then go to one of the other alternatives you developed. If none of these works, begin at step one and ensure that you are really looking at the right things. Then go through the whole process again.



Many people avoid making decisions because it is hard work. But it is also rewarding work. Let me assure you that you avoid decision-making at your own peril. It is a critical organizational process from which no one can hide. As a chief, there is no way to hide. Take care, stay safe and begin to engage in effective problem solving.


Dr. Carter shares his perspectives in his “The View From my Front Porch” blog at: