This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

Stuck with a thorny problem? The way out might surprise you

A recent tip about the power of mindsets, along with recent discussions in a workshop I was leading about how we sometimes get stuck with thorny problems because we’re stuck in how we’re thinking about those problems, reminded me of a favorite story in The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

The story is Jane Malin’s, formerly a consultant with what was then known as SRA International. In short, it’s about Jane discovering a blind spot—a need to control team members she perceived as unruly. She made a simple adjustment that led to quick and extraordinary outcomes.

I’ll let Jane tell it from here.

“I was working on a project for a challenging customer. The team that I was supervising included some very strong personalities, including four formerly high-ranking military officers. There was tension on the project. On one hand, these four team members were go-getters who wanted to seize initiative and make things happen, without interference from me or anyone else. On the other hand, the client sponsor needed time to process information and to work his own internal chain of command.

“While the foursome had good intentions, they caused some difficulties as a result of the tactics they used without my approval—sharing information and sending communications over the client’s head up the chain of command with the hopes that this would facilitate action. I spent as much time solving problems of their making as I did working the real issues of the project. I worried, and witnessed, that all of this churn within our own team would cause problems with the sponsor and weaken his trust in us (SRA). They simply didn’t think through the impact of their actions.

“I vividly remember the day I took a hard look at my own description of the problem: It was all about ‘I don’t know how to get these guys under control; they aren’t doing what I need them to do.’ I am a control freak; I know I am. It’s what I do for a living—I’m an engineer by training, and I was the project manager on this assignment.

“And then it hit me: what if it wasn’t about my finding ways to control them? What if I looked at the situation through their eyes? What if I cared about their challenges? What if I appreciated—and found a way to leverage—their best traits, rather than keeping them in a box? That was the key that unlocked the lock for me.

“I remember being conscious about changing my approach at the next team meeting—my tone, my words, my questions, my requests. In a short period of time, the foursome that had gone rogue got collaborative. They started asking me for my opinion: ‘How do you think we should do this, Jane?’ I went from being a thorn in their side to someone they wanted to involve. And suddenly there was no more damage to control. They also came to realize that I had their best interests, and the project’s best interests, at heart. They slowly relied on me to help coordinate and orchestrate activities.

“Reframing the problem made all the difference. It made me more patient and more interested in what was going on with my team members. We became a real team, pulling together in the same direction. I trusted them more and, as a result, they became more trustworthy.”

Sometimes all it takes is a willingness to see the problem a little differently, and to locate ourselves in it. Therein lies the greatest power, since the only control any of us actually has is over ourselves.

Make It Real

This week, take a different approach to a thorny problem. Start by articulating the problem statement as authentically as you can (“The problem is …”). Then look closely at how you might actually be part of the problem.

Learn More


Read the original article that became the inspiration for The Fieldbook chapter on what to do if your client is a jerk, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or get step-by-step instructions for how to reframe your own problem statement in Chapter 24 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.


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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).