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Problem-Solving Success Tip: Have the Courage to Say "No"
by Jeanne Sawyer

Have the courage to say no. When companies are faced with a major problem, such as something that makes a strategic customer start making angry phone calls, there is a lot of pressure to do something and do it quickly. If you are the designated problem-solver in such a situation, there's a good chance you'll be asked to do the impossible.

If you believe the problem as defined can't be solved in the time-frame allowed or with the resources available, your best option is to say so right away. Accepting an assignment that you truly believe is impossible is setting yourself up for failure.

However, simply refusing such an assignment is likely to be a career-limiting move. A better approach is to say no indirectly by presenting an alternative scenario that can be successful. Of course, you'll need to make a strong case to explain why your alternative is a better approach.

First make sure you've got a good problem definition and measurable success criteria. Then develop a project plan that gets you as close as possible to achieving the success criteria. Maybe the assignment isn't as impossible as you thought. You've only got three variables to work with: what is to be accomplished (the definition of resolution), when it is to be finished, and what resources you have available. To solve the problem successfully, you must get these variables aligned.

For example, say the problem as initially assigned requires an improvement in on-time shipping rate to 99% in one month. When you investigate, you find the current rate is slightly less than 50%. With a gap that big, getting to 99% in one month is probably impossible no matter what resources you have. Perhaps a 10% improvement each month until you reach the 99% level is a more reasonable expectation: it does achieve significant improvement with the one month, and gets to the 99% level in what is still a fairly short period of time. In any case, you must somehow change either the due date or the improvement requirement: there are no other choices.

Copyright 2007. Jeanne Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

Jeanne Sawyer is an author, consultant, trainer and coach who helps her clients solve expensive, chronic problems, such as those that cause operational disruptions and cause customers to take their business elsewhere. These tips are excerpted from her book, When Stuff Happens: A Practical Guide to Solving Problems Permanently. Find out about it, and get more free information on problem solving at her web site:

Jeanne Sawyer may be contacted at or


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