Solve a Problem Forever

In my many roles I have the fortune to interact with multiple school administrators. During my time with these great leaders, I strive to make connections and to find meaning for my own study of leadership. Recently, a theme has emerged that has wormed its way into the reoccurring conversations that I have with myself. The principle that I am calling “Solving a Problem Forever” (SPF) is one that I believe helps to set the very best leaders apart from the rest.

Have you ever said something like one of the following statements to yourself or to someone else?
“I can’t believe this is happening again.”
“This problem keeps coming up.”
“I am tired of always hearing this complaint.”

One simple example of when I experienced the need to SPF was when I was a building principal and I constantly received complaints about the drop off zone at our school. For some reason, more and more parents chose to drop their students off instead of having them ride the bus to school and this created some issues for those 300+ cars each morning. While few students were late to school, the amount of complaints I received made this a significant issue for me. It would have been easy to ignore this problem because it didn’t affect the school day much, but it did create nagging heartburn for my parents who wanted to get their children to school on time. And…I hate repeated complaints. To me, it became a cultural issue and one that I knew I needed to tackle.

So, to solve this problem, I first began by designing a set of protocols and listed them on one side of a page with the opposite side being a satellite view of our school with arrows and specific zones marked off. Knowing that developing these “rules” would not solve the problem forever, I knew that I needed to engage my teaching abilities. I made TV announcements talking to the students, sent home messages to parents, collaborated with our maintenance director to secure signage and curb paint AND I started the second semester greeting each car that entered our drop off zone with the new safety and procedural protocols. All of this solved the problem…but not forever. Knowing that the few people who think of themselves before others had the power to mess everything up, I began policing the drop off zone and assigned an additional staff person to do this on a regular basis. When a rare parent would choose to not support these new protocols, I approached their car and talked with them.

While the system wasn’t perfect, it did improve drop-off considerably. Cars no longer backed up onto the road and parents stopped complaining. I even received comments about how much they appreciated the new procedures and a few who noticed me addressing those who tried to skirt the system praised me and our school.

Leaders know that to solve a problem forever usually takes time…sometimes a lot of time. While it is impossible to solve every problem you have at a “forever” level, it is important that you work to SPF every chance that you get. Because there are so many issues that need to be managed, it can be easy to allow problems to continue because you don’t have the time to solve them; but don’t let that be an excuse. Many times the large investment up front provides more time over the course of the year as the multitude of having to “deal with something” diminishes.

Additionally, not only does SPF usually require significant time, it usually also requires dealing with issues at a fundamental level. Having difficult conversations, following up with those you are serving, and developing shared expectations that are best for students, will always pay into your time bank. When you are able to have conversations at a fundamental and foundational level, you build trust and confidence…or rather, leadership capital. When you solve a problem forever, you affect your culture and that influences other areas of your leadership.

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