Solving Unsolvable Problems

Sam Rainer

December 12, 2010

Some problems have staying power. And good leaders admit it when a solution to a problem will not come to fruition. Allow me to offer you two perspectives—one from the solution side and the other from the problem side. First, leaders can select the right problem to solve but craft a poor solution. Or they can attempt to solve the wrong problem.

Poor solution. Don’t be guilty of wanting to hang on to your ideals—the best solutions—that you know are right, because sometimes the right solution becomes the wrong answer for a problem. Perhaps the solution was poorly communicated. Perhaps the solution was before its time. Perhaps the leader just didn’t do a good job of selling it to the people. For whatever reason, the people being led just didn’t accept it.

Wrong problem. Don’t be guilty of trying to solve the wrong problems. You may be right. Those needing to change may be wrong. But sometimes leaders just pick the wrong battle. Don’t be wrong for being right about the wrong problem.

As a pastor, I have been guilty of both—poor solutions to the right problems and good solutions to the wrong problems. I have fought needless battles. I have nitpicked problems. Clearly, sin problems in the church do not go unaddressed, and the Bible gives plain instructions on how to deal with sin. But some problems are not due to sin. They can be caused by poor planning, bad technology, odd traditions, and outside influences, among many others.

So what’s a leader to do in these cases of unsolvable problems? What if you cannot ignore the issue? What if you must address the problem? These cases are not easy for leaders. Below are a few guidelines to consider.

Concede. Have self-awareness that your solution is not working. Acknowledge that you need a new plan. You “best” solution may never work (and it may really be the best solution). Sometimes leaders have to concede and settle for plan B. Sometimes followers will never grasp the best solution. Remember, leaders serve the people, not their own ideals.

Consensus. Most think of consensus positively—the majority opinion wins out. But the majority does not always have the right solution, nor do they always pick the right problems to solve. When consensus gets ugly, no one gets what they want but most can live with the outcome. Consensus can turn solutions sour and cause problems to perpetuate.

Leaders can use consensus, however, by building it. Don’t start with a large bundle of ideas and allow the people to whittle down the options. Start with one or two new solutions and let the people build them up by making them their own.

Conversations. I’ve discovered something about leading the church—rumors work better if you start them. If you’re shifting plans and proposing a new approach to an old problem, get feedback from the people through the rumor mill. Have low key conversations with key people and assume they will “talk.” Then listen. Track the pulse of the body. Check the excitement (or dissatisfaction) level and continue crafting your solution.

Creativity. Conceding your ideal solution is not the same as admitting defeat. But it does require more creativity in building another solution. If the problem is unsolvable, then extra creativity is needed to find resolution. The problem may always be there. For instance, a landlocked, growing church in a downtown may not have the luxury of buying more land or building taller. Be creative in addressing the problem. If the problem is obvious, leaders can earn much respect by figuring out the next best solution.

What are some ways you approach unsolvable problems? Do you have any success stories?

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