How DO You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Or Any Other Problem, Really….

When something goes wrong, our first instinct is to fix it. Stop the bleeding. Patch the hole. Just make it go away. We are good at jumping right into action on the first and most immediate solution that pops into mind. And we often muster up considerable creativity and ingenuity in developing work-arounds and short-term solutions.

What we are NOT so good at is taking the time to truly understand what went wrong, and exploring HOW and WHY the problem happened in the first place.

My #1 tip for solving any problem or finding solutions to any given workplace crisis is to flip the script: spend more time, more energy, and more creativity in the exploration of the problem, BEFORE coming up with solutions (once the bleeding is under control, that is).

Title of this article obviously comes from “The Sound Of Music,” the classic musical that tells the story of Maria, a feisty and resourceful nun in training. At the start of the story, Maria is driving the more traditional, older, stricter nuns crazy with her antics.

  • She’s always late.

  • She sings when and where she’s not supposed to.

  • She’s earnest and well intentioned, but doesn’t always channel her energy into the proper activities (prayer is approved, frolicking in the Alps is not).

The other nuns sing a song about how to solve the problem of Maria –- how to make her become a better nun. Most of their proposed “solutions” mirror exactly how most people go about trying to solve a problem: they look for immediate, obvious solutions to “solve” Maria. Discipline her. Mentor her. Get her to conform to traditions.

These are the proverbial band-aids, all quick fixes.

The nuns would have saved a lot of stress, strained relationships, and bruised egos (not to mention the audience’s time -- at nearly 3 hours, the movie is slightly too long, in my opinion) had they worked with Maria to figure out how and why she had so much trouble conforming to the nuns’ lifestyle.

Spoiler alert: it turns Maria wasn’t meant to be a nun after all.

Great problem solving doesn’t come from simply brainstorming different solutions and welcoming suggestions from a wide variety of diverse stakeholders. These are all very important components, for sure, but jumping right in too often leads to simply treating the symptoms but missing the underlying problem.

Great problem solving comes from asking better questions and exploring what lies behind the symptoms. Get creative in the questions you ask to better understand what is really going on and to improve the information you collect as evidence.

  • Is this a one-time problem, or is it recurring?

  • Are different symptoms all tied to different underlying problems, or are they related?

  • How are different stakeholder groups affected? Do they understand and experience the problem differently? Do they have similar explanations for how and why the problem happened?

Think like a detective, pulling all the pieces of evidence together and connecting them with strings on a bulletin board. The deeper you go in understanding why the problems is happening, the better the solution will be in the end.

And THAT is how you solve a problem like Maria.