Feb. 24 2007 08:27 PM

Are you faced with the dilemma of choosing between two undesirable options? Then reject them both and create a third option.


For example, just a few weeks after moving into my new house, I noticed that the light above the kitchen sink was loose. After taking a closer look, I realized that I would have to strengthen the supports for the electrical box and possibly replace the fixture. However, I realized this late Sunday night, and I had an early flight out to a client Monday morning. There would be time to fix the light when I returned.


Tuesday evening, I was halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis when my cell phone rang. It was my wife letting me know that the light above the kitchen sink had dropped from the ceiling and was being held up only by the electrical wires. I guess the light didn't want to wait for my scheduled repair.


I suggested that she could fix the problem with some duct tape the universal solution to most household emergencies. I waited while she grabbed some tape and reattached the light to the ceiling. After a few minutes, she came back on the line and said it looked good. Wait. Nope, the tape won't stick to the ceiling.


My wife was now faced with a dilemma. She could leave the light fixture hanging, or attempt to find a repairman. Having a light above a sink being held in place only by electrical wires is not a good option. Trying to find a repairman at night in a new town would be difficult at best, and expensive as well. Neither option looked promising.


Time for her to create a third option. Several years back, my wife needed crutches while recovering from a sprained ankle. We kept the crutches in case of a future injury. She slipped one of the crutches under the light and fixed the other end to the counter below. The light was now safely held in place until a permanent repair could be made.


How often do you find yourself staring at a light hanging from a ceiling without an immediate solution at hand? Probably not that often. However, you are probably faced with many problems where the "only" solutions are unattractive. That is when you should reject those solutions, and create a new one.


Following my wife's example, you can accomplish this in three easy steps:

1. Identify your immediate needs

2. Look at all your available resources

3. Develop an effective solution


Many people confuse long-term and short-term needs. Obviously, in this case, the long-term need is to have the light securely fixed to the ceiling. However, if my wife solely focused on that, she wouldn't have been able to find a quick and inexpensive solution. Instead, she focused on her immediate need keep the light from falling into the sink and/or possibly starting an electrical fire.


I often come across clients who focus only on the long-term problem. They want the solution to fix everything at once. This usually isn't possible. Instead, we help them look at both the long-term and the short-term needs. By building a gradual approach towards a problem, we develop a solution with phases. Then the immediate needs can be addressed quickly, and we'll build on that remedy for permanent change.


Once the short-term need had been identified, my wife looked at all available resources. She didn't focus solely on the collection of tools in the garage. Instead, she looked at everything we owned that could temporarily provide support. A crutch is designed for exactly that purpose to temporarily provide support. Normally that support is for an injured leg, but this was not the time to remain stuck on semantics.


When looking at problems, look at all your available resources, not just the obvious ones. Can a software program be used in a way other than intended? Do you have staff assigned to one function, but they are available to do something else? Will a vendor modify its process to help with the problem? Don't rule anything out until you give it a try.


Focus on effective, not elegant, solutions. Using a crutch to hold up a ceiling light probably won't be featured in Martha Stewart's next book. However, it was an effective way to solve a problem.


Don't worry if the solution to a problem doesn't use cutting-edge technology; worry about whether it works. Maybe the best way to move documents is to have a person walk them over to the recipient. Maybe you shouldn't send an online survey, but you should meet with someone face to face. Maybe the simple answer is the right one.


We'll all be faced with challenges without obvious answers. Instead of trying to solve everything at once, focus on the problem at hand. Consider every available resource, not just the usual suspects. Fix the problem correctly, and don't focus on appearance. When an "either/or" situation looks bleak, create a third option.


Mark Fallon is President and CEO of the Berkshire Company. For more info, visit www.berkshirecompany.com.