While the importance of patience in leadership is evident to many who manage people, it’s a topic that doesn’t get as much attention as others.
Today, we’re changing that by digging into why and how leaders should allow certain challenges to “ripen” before tackling them. It’s a relatively easy approach to implement, but this specific type of patience in leadership can be a game-changer for individuals and organizations.
Below is an audio post (with transcript), which you can jump to right away by clicking here. But I’ll start with an overview. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What it means to allow a problem to ripen
- Why great leaders’ (wonderful) get-it-done attitude can actually be a stumbling block to patience
- Specific types of problems that might need more “time on the vine” before getting solved
- How to begin testing problems for ripeness right away
Overview: The Ripening of a Problem
Just as fruit is best eaten when ripe, some problems need to “ripen” before they’re ready to be solved.
Learning to differentiate between ripe and unripe challenges is a skill learned with practice. But there’s a way to get started—and make huge improvement—right away. It relies on learning to pause and question, and it’s really a quick and simple trick for patience in leadership.
But first, why is this important to begin with? And what types of problems often fall into the underripe category?
The Importance of Patience in Leadership & Problem Solving
Trying to fix un-ripe problems when they’re still in the green-fruit stage doesn’t just create a frustrating time trap; it can actually be a complete waste of time.
Here, we’ll explore some of the challenges that are commonly attacked when still underripe, such as
- Problems that need broader ownership before a resolution is possible
- Problems that don’t need any more (or different) ownership than they already have
- Problems that will “solve themselves”
- Problems that can (and should) get solved by someone else
- Problems that never get to a point where they’re truly worthy of a solution
Notice how your doctor performs a diagnosis when you think you have a health problem: She listens. Then, she asks more questions and listens again. Then, she probes and examines. She does tests. She doesn’t just rush into surgery.
Let’s learn how (and why) smart leaders take a similar approach by tapping into the power of patience in leadership:
Listen Now: The Ripening of a Problem
“Usually, ripening of a problem…it’s really a natural outcome of a lot of successful people in organizations, especially in the business world, because they tend to be, generally, fix-it people. They think in terms of fixing issues. Something comes to them, their brain turns to fixing it.
Their brain does not automatically switch to, “Does it need to be fixed?”
Someone walks in the office or the hallway—whatever—to the boss or a colleague, and talks about the problem on the manufacturing line or with a customer or whatever. And the brain of the high-performance individual turns to “fix” and immediately goes down that pathway.
If it’s a super emergency, like, “There’s a fire in the building, we have to all get out,” that’s perfectly appropriate. No problem.
But a lot of times, form a new reaction is what I recommend. A pause.
Practice Patience in Leadership with a New Response to Triggers
The trigger is the person coming to you with the problem. Form a new habit—a new reaction to the trigger. Pause. Do a quick evaluation:
- Ask the question, first of all, “Is this problem ready to be solved—by anybody, number one?”
- And then, the secondary question will be, “By me? Is this right for me to solve it? Or should I delegate it to someone else? “
And I called the first part of that, “the ripening of a problem.”
The Ripening of a Problem
Is this problem ripe?
The analogy I use is, if I handed you a peach and you felt it and it was hard as a rock, you wouldn’t eat it. You wouldn’t even bother. You don’t need to put your teeth in it to figure out that it’s not ripe yet.
If it’s way too soft, you might also pause, thinking it could well be rotten. It’s way past ripe enough.
But if it felt just right, you dive in. And you’re ready for a good experience if you like peaches.
A Few Problem Categories
A problem can be unripe, and it later will become ripe in time.
Some problems never get ripe.
Some problems get fixed without you doing anything and you save all that time.
So, there’s lots of different scenarios if you will pause first and determine, “Is this really ready?”
Identifying Symptoms of Unripe Problems
So, are there indicators? Are there symptoms? Are there clues to whether a problem is ready yet? Yes, there are.
First of all, of the very key 1st step is to ask questions about the problem that the person just brought you or the group just brought to you. Ask questions.
Because, first of all, they may not have asked all those questions, and there might be a lot of information they need to explore before its even worthy of using your time further—or using their time further. And so asking questions about…
- When did you learn of this?
- What are the implications of this?
- Ask people—and this really engages them—ask people, What would you propose that we do about it?
- Have you talked to others about that proposal?
- You did? (If they did.) What do they propose?
- You didn’t ask them what they propose? How about you ask them?
So, a lot of those kinds of questions that get the person who brought it to you—or the team that brought it to you—it gets them exploring it further.
The Huge Compliment that Can Impede Patience in Leadership
A lot of organizations—it’s sort of a compliment that get you in trouble—a lot of organizations are run by leaders, managers, who people have high regard for. They respect them. They think of them as really good and really effective.
Well, that’s a huge compliment.
But at the same time, what that can result in is that people think, “Well, I’ll go to John—whoever the boss is—he’ll know what to do.” And they’ve got such confidence that they don’t even dig into the problem by themselves first.
And the fact is, they’ve learned that over time. And so, you’ve sort of trained the organization to come to the fix-it person.
That first step of asking questions and probing, seeing what they think, seeing, have they investigated? People will start to form the habit (very short period of time, this isn’t years). After several of those approaches on your part as manager, people will start to form the habit when they hear about a problem or they observe a problem, as they start to think of coming to you, they’ll think, “Well, she’s just going to ask me this and this and this and this, because that’s what she’s done the last 4 times.”
And that will help people probe the fruit on their own before they even bring it to you.
Underripe Problems that Need Broad Ownership
There are other kinds of problems besides the ones that just are, hey, they would be fixed if people just dug into them further on their own.
Another category of problem that is not yet ripe are problems that are of a nature that they need broad ownership before you’re going to come up with an effective solution.
These are beyond the category of “the faucet’s broken on a piece of equipment” or “the hydraulic is broken.” That’s a fixable thing. You just have to diagnose it and go fix it.
These are things, for example, there may be a problem in the culture. Maybe there’s a problem with—I’ll just pick 1 example—there might be a problem of how people are handling conflict during team meetings. And it’s not being handled constructively. Its either being ignored or avoided—it’s not being dealt with. Just to bring up a significant nuance problem in the culture of the company.
That’s not going to be fixed with a 5-minute piece of work.
But it’s also the kind of thing that is probably not going to be readily fixed until people really own it. The level of intensity gets big enough that the organization wants to give it attention.
People are, after all, very busy. And the simple fact is, problems have to prioritize themselves to get their time and their attention and their effort.
And if a problem has not become big enough yet, for the whole organization—or a good part of the organization—to care about it… If it’s a nuanced problem like culture, attitude, those kinds of things, all the work in the world that some effective person does on it, it’s going to be like pushing the Titanic—a giant ship. It’s just not going to get you anywhere. You’re like a drop in the ocean.
So in those cases, communicating it, discussing it, giving voice to it, talking about it, etc., is going to gradually move the organization toward a point where they’re ready to actually do something about.
So those are the ones that need broader ownership before they’re ready.
Unripe Problems that Don’t Even Need a Fix
There is another category that I see actually more often than people would think of, and that is, they really don’t have to be fixed at all.
And that gets kind of a shocking “What? I mean, all problems need to be fixed!”
No, they actually don’t. The world is not perfect. It’s not in equilibrium. It’s never going to be perfect. And there are going to be issues—there are going to be problems—that remain and then go away.
Or they remain, but they’re not big enough to deserve the attention. You just aren’t going to fix everything. No matter how many people you have, no matter how much staff you have, you’re not going to be able to fix everything. And so, some things are just going to remain.
An old house is going to have issues. And you could throw boat loads of money at fixing every single thing the instant that it went bad. And my guess is, you’d still have things that were short of perfect in that big old house.
So, accepting a certain level of “Okay, that’s a problem. I get it. I don’t think it’s worthy of being fixed. It’s just not big enough—it’s not significant enough.”
And you could miss a 2-pound problem that’s going to become an 8000-pound gorilla while you’re paying attention to a 2-pound problem that’s not going to become an 8000-pound gorilla.
The “Who-Knows-What-We’re-Waiting-For?” Underripe Problem
There’s a final category that I will address: Sometimes, you don’t even know what you’re waiting for.
Sometimes, there are outside forces—government regulations, something a customer is going to do or a consumer is going to do—that, low and behold, is going to make a difference in how you solve that problem—or in whether you need to solve it.
There are events, while you’re evaluating the problem. Time is not always the enemy. There are often events that will help
- Mitigate the problem
- Soften the problem
- Solve it—it gets solved some other way that you never anticipated
There are also problems that with time—and this surprises me continuously throughout my life, and I see it with clients, and I see it in my personal life—there are problems that actually end up creating benefit.
So, something breaks. And the first reaction is—the organization—to come unglued.
This will happen often with—just using analogies—electronics, computers, technology that we get dependent upon. The computer goes down, and I can’t do task X anymore on that computer. So I figure out another way to do it.
And while I’m doing it, I say to myself, This is really time consuming this way; this is stupid.
And then I say to myself, The fact is, this is not worth doing by pencil. Is this worth doing on the computer?
And you conclude no. Why are you doing it? Because it’s been really easy and really fast to do. That doesn’t make it a good thing to be using your time on.
And so, out of the adversity of the computer going down, lo and behold, you learn, I didn’t need to do that anyway.
It’s a mini example of adversity leading to growth, which is a much broader topic, but it’s the same thing with a lot of problems.
Your First Step toward Greater Patience in Leadership
So there probably are a lot of people listening that are thinking, So, I get the big picture. I’m really excited about it. But what, specifically, can I start doing tomorrow differently? What’s a first step that I can take?
What I would say is that the easiest next first thing you can start doing—immediately, like, after you stop listening to this recording—is, when the trigger happens (that’s the stimulus, the issue, the person coming to you, or you read the email, or whatever), change your response to the trigger to asking questions.
If you just start with that, you set up a little rule for yourself:
When I first see a problem, I know my brain wants to respond, fix it! Since I know that response is something I want to re-learn—change—I’m going to change to a different response to that trigger. Like, I’m going to ask 2 questions. And then I’ll go fix it. [Chuckles.] Let yourself be yourself!
But in that 2 questions, you’re going to start having an aha experience. Your fix-it mode will calm down a bit and your ears will perk up a little bit and start taking over and listening.
So good luck with this. Good luck with the tools. Good luck trying to change your response to the triggers.
And if I can be any help as you begin tapping into the power of patience in leadership, send me an email and let’s schedule a time.
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