CEO Coaching: Problem, Decision or Opportunity?

You like potato, I like potahto. Who cares?

You call it a problem; I say it’s a decision. Who cares? You should! They don’t require the same process.

CEOs and other leaders are constantly faced with problems to solve, decisions to make and opportunities to explore. It is critical, however, to know the difference. The mistake I often see (and often made myself when I was an executive) was to call something a problem when it was really a decision. 

Perhaps a visual would help. Problem solving looks like this:



Decision making looks like this:



Opportunities (creation) looks like this:


A problem is a departure from what you expect, and you don’t know why. (If it is not material, it’s not a problem.) It requires detective work to see what changed, when it changed and then developing hypothesis which you investigate. You correct the change that took place (its always a change) and correct it. Viola! You are back to “normal.”

Decision making requires you to explicitly state your desired outcome (both what you must have and what you would like to have), identify alternatives, identity the risks and costs associated with each alternative and then making a decision. The biggest mistake I see is not explicitly stating your desired outcome. If you don’t, you’ll make irrational decisions. Also, you typically have more alternatives than initially come to mind! Don’t rush the process!

Creating opportunities is a different animal. It requires change. Looking at things from a different perspective, challenging assumptions, and experimentation. Sometime the desired state is just “way better” rather than a specific goal.

Management is a lot more about process than it is about innate ability. Internalize these processes, use them when appropriate and you’ll be a better manager.

[i] I originally learned this from Alan Weiss and it has served me well. A great resource on this is “The Rational Manager” by Kepner and Tregoe. Published in 1965 and still spot on!

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