Get to the root of your problems

A rancher left 17 horses as a bequest for his three children. 
When the rancher passed away, his children opened his will.
The will stated that the eldest child should get half of his 17 horses.
The middle child should get one-third of the 17 horses.
The youngest child should be given one-ninth of the 17 horses.

Because it is not possible to divide 17 into halves or thirds or ninths, the heirs started to fight among themselves as to the distribution.  So they agreed to consult a wise old neighbor.

The wise neighbor listened patiently to the will.  After giving the instructions much thought, the wise man brought one of his own horses and added it to the 17, bringing the total count to 18.

Then he started reading the will again. Half of 18 is 9, so he gave the eldest child 9 horses.  One third of 18 is 6, so he gave the middle child 6 horses.  One ninth of 18 is 2, so he gave the youngest child 2 horses.

He had distributed 9 + 6 + 2 horses, which came to 17.  Then he took his own horse back.

Problem solved.

But first, the wise neighbor had to acknowledge that there was a problem.  In this case, he had to start by finding the “18th horse” – the common ground.  In order to reach a solution, you must believe that there is a solution.  Once the parties find the common ground, a solution may well follow.

In my opinion, this lesson should be taught not only in every problem-solving workshop but also in every team-building exercise.

Too often, we make problems larger than they are by rushing to solutions.  Methodical thinking, breaking down the problem into manageable parts, and considering unorthodox approaches are necessary skills that feed into practical outcomes.


Following a few simple steps will lead to more successful problem-solving.

  • Identify the problem.  Believe it or not, this step is often overlooked.  You know something is wrong, but you haven’t identified it.  Example:  Sales are down.  Reason:  Inferior product?  Ineffective sales force?  Competition?  Pricing strategy?  Get to the root of the problem, or you will not be able to address it.
  • Come up with a list of solutions.  Let your brain roam freely.  Even bad ideas can lead to good ideas.  Stay open-minded and be willing to listen.  Consider a variety of ideas, and assess the merits and pitfalls of each.
  • Trim the list to one or two solutions.  Think about how those actions would best solve the problem at hand.  Do you have the resources or personnel to put those solutions into action?  Will committing more money help, or hurt elsewhere and create a new set of problems?
  • Take action.   Decide what your ideal outcome will be.  What help will you need?  What is your strategy when you encounter an obstacle?  Do you have the flexibility to alter your plans if the problem persists?
  • Finally, evaluate.   If you have achieved a satisfactory result, can you sustain your progress?  What changes would you make to improve the outcome?  Can you use your plan to address other issues?

It’s helpful to have a strategy prepared for when problems arise, because problems are a fact of life.  Despite your best efforts, problems may arise.  Accept that, but you don’t have to surrender to them.  Read on for a very creative solution.

A woman tells a psychiatrist, “Doctor, I have a problem and I really need help.  Every night I have his terrible feeling that something or someone is under the bed, just waiting to get me.”

“That sounds very serious,” the doctor replied, “but I think I can help you.  It will require many hours of treatment and could take several months.  And it could get expensive.”

“How expensive?” the patient asked.

“Each session will cost $150,” the doctor replied.

“Let me think about it, and get back to you,” she said.

A week later the woman called the doctor and told him she would not require his services.

“Are you still planning on having therapy for your problem?” he asked.

“No, when I told my husband how much it would cost, he said he could cure me, and he has,” she said.

“Really?” the incredulous doctor asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “He cut the legs off the bed.”

Mackay’s Moral:  You can’t solve a problem until you first admit you have one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *