The Two M’s of Problem-Solving

If we’re going to build successful businesses and live amazing lives, we’re going to encounter problems along the way. There’s simply no avoiding it, but the issue that I see over and over again with those that I coach is the inability or unwillingness to get to the root of the problem in favor of hacking at the leaves.

During an interview, Tim Ferriss once asked professor and lecturer Brene Brown about her best investments. This was her response:

“Problem identification is always a sound investment of time, money, and energy. Einstein said, ‘If I have an hour to solve a problem, I’ll spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution’. If feels uncomfortable to spend time and resources thinking about the problem, we want to jump to fixing way too fast. Most of us are plagued with action bias and struggle to stay in problem identification. I find that getting clear on what’s wrong and why it’s a problem is the best investment you can make at work or at home.”

Someone who is not achieving the results they want is typically failing in one of two categories, mechanics or mindset.


Mechanics covers knowing what to do and how to do it. This covers the processes and tools necessary to get your work done effectively and in a timely manner. If the processes in place are sound, an issue here is solved simply by more training.


This covers the motivation and mental regimen to do what you know is necessary in a consistent manner.

If you imagine a giant iceberg, you know that only a certain portion of it is visible above the waterline. The greatest portion remains out of sight, but it is that portion that pushes the visible area into view. This invisible portion, below the waterline, is our mindset. Our mindset is created by our thoughts, our beliefs, and our feelings. These elements manifest our actions and results, which make up our mechanics.

Download the visual aid to get a clear understanding of how this all comes together.

Scuba dive, don’t water ski

Keeping with the analogy, most of us tend to water ski when attempting to resolve issues, both personal and professional. Our inclination is to stay above the waterline and attempt to examine and remedy only what is most apparent. This is akin to attempting to cure a patient only by addressing the symptoms while ignoring the causes. It’s purely window-dressing that might solve the immediate problem, but cannot prevent it from cropping up time and time again. About 20% of the time you can get away with addressing the mechanics of a problem, and in those instances, more training will solve the issue. 

But in my experience, about 80% of our problems are below the waterline. We need to scuba dive below the surface to address the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that make up our mindset. If you want to be a great leader, you absolutely have to become efficient at diving deep into the mindset of those around you to discover what really is the issue at hand. Our action bias becomes the greatest hurdle to being truly successful at identifying the heart of problems, especially with those around us or on our payroll. As a leader, you’ll be inclined to latch on to the most obvious and surface-level symptom and treat it as the root cause. If an underperforming employee tells you that time management is causing their issues, or that they are struggling with your CRM, you’ll be tempted to take those claims at face value and focus on further training. But if you aren’t trying to look past the obvious and dive into murky waters, you will most likely be failing to address a mindset problem that will continue to create issues if left unaddressed.

Identify, classify, solve

There are a few simple steps you can take to ensure you’re getting below the surface of your issues and those of the people you lead. First, acknowledge the issue. If you or someone you lead isn’t hitting their goals, it’s important that everyone involved is aware of the problem and is clear about what is or isn’t being done. Second, ask if this Is a mindset or mechanics issue Remember that about 80% of the time the issue will be something beyond an obvious issue.

Often, when addressing issues like these with others they will attempt to suck me into what I call the “how trap”. They will say things like, “if I just knew what to say or what to do I wouldn’t have these issues”. They are looking for a “how” to drop out of the sky without ever bothering to attempt an answer for themselves. To break people out of the state I’ll simply ask them what they would do if I could promise them a million dollars to solve the issue. This changes the problem from a “want” issue to a “need” issue, and suddenly they are thinking about solutions. This is the difference that mindset makes. When you can activate that “by any means necessary” mentality, you aren’t simply mandating a course change that may or may not be effective, you are collaboratively diving under those waters in search of a solution for a lasting improvement.

Another method for drawing out solutions in those you lead when they are simply at a loss for how to address their issues is the “best advice, best life” approach. Simply ask them who in their life is most important to them, and if that person came to them with the exact same issues, what questions would they ask, and what advice would they give to their loved one. Often we fail to apply the same critical perspective and thoughtful care to ourselves that we reserve for those that we care most about. This approach again asks us to address our issues from below the waterline.

Understand that your job as a leader is to solve the real problems. I trust that this was helpful and hope that it helps you to improve not only your life but that of the ones around you.