How to Solve Problems Effectively and Ethically

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Article by Jim Marggraff

Conflict with your kids is inevitable and necessary. No matter how harmonious a home environment you work to create, your kids will challenge you as you help them grow. You’ll butt heads, often over the things you’d least expect. In my case, I found myself challenged by my daughter over a seemingly innocuous treat: Girl Scout Cookies.

Like many young girls, my daughter Annie was an avid scout. When it came time to sell the traditional baked goods, Annie approached the task with gusto. She wanted to excel, both for the good of the organization and for the prize that came with high sales.

Annie enlisted me to help her sell cookies at LeapFrog, where I had recently invented the LeapPad and where many young cookie lovers would be delighted to help a sweet Girl Scout. Annie frequently visited the office as a voice talent for the LeapPad, and she knew many people. I looked forward to watching her introduce herself in her Girl Scout uniform. This was a unique bonding opportunity for us and a proud moment for me as a dad.

Unfortunately, there was a problem. My wife and I had learned, well ahead of the general public, of the severe negative health consequences of partially hydrogenated oils, now more commonly known as “trans fats.” We had eliminated foods containing trans fats from our family’s diet. When I looked at the ingredient list for the Girl Scout Cookies, I was astounded to see trans fats as a key ingredient. (Trans fats have since been largely removed from the cookies, thankfully.)

I pointed this out to Annie, and we were instantly in conflict.

“Do you want me to sell my friends cookies that we wouldn’t eat ourselves? That we know are poisonous?” I asked, admittedly ramping up the drama.

“But Dad, they’re Girl Scout Cookies!” Annie said. My campaign against trans fats paled in importance when Girl Scout Cookies were on the line.

“All right, let me think about it,” I said.

Annie sighed, knowing I wouldn’t come back to her with a simple “yes” or “no.” I’d want to talk about the “problem to solve,” or “PTS,” something my career had shown me was a foundational part of success.

Solving Problems Effectively and Ethically

Annie just wanted to sell the cookies, but I knew those cookies were seriously unhealthy for people. More importantly, I knew letting Annie compromise our values for the sake of a prize would set a bad example and was not good parenting. So what could we do?

Most ongoing conflicts stem from one critical mistake: People do not clearly define and agree on the problem to solve. Worse, they often solve the wrong problem. People typically skip problem definition and focus on treating symptoms. Annie and I needed to identify the core issue, carefully craft the right problem statement, and then agree to solve it.

I really wanted to help my daughter, but not at the cost of our family’s integrity or my colleagues’ health. After a patient exchange of questions and answers, which was frustrating though informative for Annie, we realized the problem was less about selling boxed cookies and more about helping her raise money. We struck on the idea of baking our own healthy cookies for Annie to sell, assuming we could get the Scout leader’s approval, which provided another opportunity for Annie to learn about making proposals to her supervisors on a project. She obtained this approval, and Annie and I spent a magical weekend baking together. She sold every last cookie to my LeapFrog colleagues and won the prize she had sought.

Why the PTS Matters

The Girl Scout Cookie story is Marggraff family lore now that Annie is an adult, and I look back on it as a defining moment in her journey toward becoming a founder in her own right. Finding the PTS through forensic question-and-answer changed her attitude toward
“unsolvable” problems, which Annie came to see as fun experiences instead of sources of frustration.

The desire and ability to pursue and clearly identify the right PTS is absolutely crucial to a founder’s mindset — that is, a way of approaching your work with the productive and insightful perspective of a problem solver. By encouraging Annie to really think about the problem we needed to solve, I helped her think critically about addressing tough scenarios. People often run in circles trying to solve problems because they’re chasing a problem’s symptoms, not its cause. Once you properly articulate the core problem, the solution often presents itself.

Learning to identify the correct PTS is a skill. Like any skill, it takes time to cultivate. Here are three steps that are helpful in shaping this critical ability:

1. Begin With Your Values in Mind

When you have clearly defined values, problem-solving becomes much easier. Right away, you have a framework for approaching an issue because you’re guided by your ethics as valuable constraints in defining your PTS. In the story I shared about Annie, I was committed to solving the problem. I knew that some solutions — such as selling the original Girl Scout Cookies — didn’t align with our family and societal health values. Once she and I understood and agreed to this, we were able, with some coaching, to think creatively to identify the real problem.

2. Identify Your Problem Calmly and One Step at a Time

Our instinct when conflict arises is to react immediately. When someone feels slighted at the office, we often say whatever comes to mind to assuage their feelings. When an investor criticizes a product, we often become defensive and try to rationalize our solution or solve the same problem a different way. However, this initial instinct does not focus on finding the true PTS.

With slighted colleagues, go ahead and apologize if you feel you created undue offense — but also think about why the situation occurred in the first place. Maybe you’re frustrated with performance, or perhaps your communication has been lacking. Addressing those issues will lead to a better working relationship.

In business, if you find yourself on the receiving end of investor criticism, embrace the comments without ego and don’t jump to an immediate solution. Forensically and respectfully question the provocateur and listen to their answers carefully. Review your core business needs and any changes that may have occurred in the market, and then decide whether you’re solving the correct problem. Identifying the right PTS demands deep, comprehensive, critical thinking rather than a rush to action at the first sign of trouble.

3. Ask ‘Why?’

When you think you’ve defined the problem statement, stop and ask “why?” Answer this, then ask “why?” again. Keep asking until you get to the real PTS.

The first time I asked Annie why she wanted to sell Girl Scout Cookies, she said, “Because I have to.” After my second ask, she said, “Because I was told to.” By my fourth “why,” she was frustrated. By my seventh, she had become engaged and began to think critically. (I was patient and persistent, which is important in these situations.) It was then that we realized it was about fundraising, not boxes of Girl Scout Cookies.

In the years since the great Girl Scout Cookie baking adventure, Annie has blossomed into a successful founder. She is now nationally scaling her nonprofit, Step Ahead, and she is doing so full of motivation and clarity of mind. She didn’t develop those skills overnight, but through persistent practice in many situations, the cookie bakeoff being just one of them.

Every time you apply yourself to find the right problem to solve, you’ll strengthen the founder’s mindset within yourself and those around you. You will do more than just resolve issues effectively — you will all become leaders and critical thinkers as well.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Jim Marggraff is a serial entrepreneur dedicated to developing innovative technologies. Jim’s latest company, Eyefluence, was recently acquired by Google. He also invented the LeapPad learning system and the Livescribe smartpen. Jim is not only an entrepreneur himself, but a parent of entrepreneurs. Jim’s book, How to Raise a Founder With Heart, is available now.

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