Solving The Unsolvable Problem

Is there something stopping you from reaching your business goals? Is there a problem you face that appears insurmountable? Here’s a strategy that could help you deal with your problems and move ahead.

The Leadership Challenge
What would it be worth to you to find a solution to an unsolvable problem – on your terms? The barrier to solution may well be related to your capacity for conception. If something can be conceived, and if the leader is convinced it is right, what is conceived can be made reality.

The challenge of leadership, the challenge of achieving results, is converting vision to reality. Great leaders achieve great results because they don’t limit their vision by the obstacle-strewn reality that many see.

Choose A Learning Context – Follow A Leader
The process of learning how to become a more productive leader is made much more effective by developing a clear, specific, tangible context in which to learn. History is densely populated with powerful leaders whose ability to inspire change in their charges led to substantial success. Perhaps the greatest among the great leaders is Alexander, King of Macedonia. As a military commander, he defeated numerous armies that were numerically superior to his. As a statesman, he won nation after nation to his side. As a ruler, he nurtured an organizational culture that transcended empire. Alexander became an icon known the world over simply as Alexander the Great. Alexander, then, is the context for our learning.

The Learning Framework Within The Context – What Made Alexander Great?
Within the context of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great, the learning framework that we employ is the theory of enactment. Enactment is a powerful and flexible concept. Understanding and embracing it will allow you to expand your vision and achieve previously unimagined results.

Leadership Is About Creating Reality
Great leaders are in the reality creation business. Within some obvious constraints, they make their world the way they want it to be. This is the process of enactment – the process whereby an actor causes an action, the outcome of which changes the world to which that actor subsequently responds. An actor can be anyone – the actor is you. The actor changes the environment, situation, perception, rules, processes, ideas or any other concepts.

The Process Of Enactment
Enactment can be described by four processes that are valuable to leaders:

  • Reframing Problems

  • Building Alliances

  • Establishing Identity

  • Directing Symbols

While Alexander the Great utilized all these processes with spectacular results, we will look at how he applied the process of reframing problems, and then see how you can apply the same process to solving your problems and achieving your vision.

Reframing Problems – Changing Reality
Possibly the most important job of a leader is to create reality for the organization. A fundamental way in which we do this is to frame and reframe problems. To reframe a problem is to change what people pay attention to or deem important. A classic example of reframing is to change an unsolvable task into a solvable one. Alexander did this repeatedly.

Defeating A Navy On Land?
As Alexander moved south along the Mediterranean Sea, he needed to assure his supply line. This meant that he needed secure water routes to transport supplies from Greece. He did not have a substantial navy and his adversary, Darius III, did. How does one conquer a navy without ships? By reframing the problem. Alexander realized that a salt-water navy needs drinking water so must frequently put in to ports to replenish water supplies. Darius controlled the sea but Alexander controlled the land and hence the water supply. What Alexander did was reframe a naval problem into a land-based problem, one that he controlled. He conquered all the water sources on land and denied Darius’s navy the water they needed thus conquering a navy in land battle.

As part of his conquest of a navy by land battle, Alexander had to conquer the island supply port of Tyre. The island was well fortified and considered impregnable. How does one conquer an impregnable island? Again, by reframing the problem. Alexander ordered his engineers to construct a causeway, a kilometer long and 100 yards wide, from the mainland to the island. Once completed, Alexander’s army stormed the island and conquered it in less than two weeks. Alexander reframed the problem of conquering an island into one of conquering mainland, where he had a decided advantage.

How can Alexander’s reframing apply to your business problems? The steel industry provides one example. One of the by-products of the coking operations is a toxic substance that, if not properly contained and disposed of, could pollute groundwater. Remediation by containment is extremely expensive and of questionable reliability. Instead of seeing the problem as one of how to contain the problem, the problem was reframed into how the effluent could become a resource instead of a burden. The solution was to utilize the effluent as part of the fuel used to fire blast furnaces, thus converting an expensive problem into an economic asset. Could there be another way of looking at the source of your problems that would reframe them as either less costly problems or economic assets?

Conquering The Elephants
At the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander faced not only a much larger army but one that included 200 war elephants, an awesome force in those days. Again, Alexander cleverly reframed the problem. Instead of matching resource to resource, he converted his enemy’s resource to his advantage. Through the clever use of his cavalry, Alexander outmaneuvered and destroyed his opponent’s cavalry and then ordered his archers to massacre the elephant’s mahouts. He then ordered his spear throwers to attack the elephants, sending them into a stampede in the midst of the enemy infantry inflicting huge casualties and causing chaos. Thus, by reframing the problem, he converting a major obstacle into an advantage and won the day.

A business example of this reframing is the battle between Fiji Photo and Kodak. Kodak seemed to have a decided advantage because it reproduced color perfectly and dominated the American market. Fuji’s research, however, found that American consumers preferred their color prints biased toward the blue end of the spectrum. Fuji produced a film that had this effect and began making inroads in the American market by exploiting their competitor’s strength. Responding, Kodak attacked the Japanese market by exploiting one of Fuji’s weaknesses, their distribution capability. Here we see instances of major corporations reframing problems, one a strength and one a weakness, to gain advantage.

Crushing A Revolt And Being Seen As A Unifier
Alexander also solved organizational problems by reframing. Shortly after Alexander became king of Macedonia, he set about securing his northern borders so that he could invade Persia without concern for his home base. While he was battling in the north, the city of Thebes rebelled. Alexander quickly marched to Thebes and brutally quelled the revolt. This part was straightforward. It is what he did afterwards that is significant. Alexander chose to act as the Hegemon of the League of Corinth, rather than as the king of Macedonia. Alexander then allowed the League to decide the fate of Thebes. The League made a very punitive decision based on old animosities, jealousy and greed. Many Thebians were massacred, the city razed, land distributed among League members and the survivors sold into slavery. The extreme punishment shocked the rest of Greece and solidified Alexander’s power over the league. It also intimidated Athens, which expected to be sacked but was spared. This changed the image of Alexander from that of a conqueror who could not be trusted into a unifier who was worthy of alliance.

By reframing the problem of suppressing a revolt into one of building alliances, Alexander solidified his home base as allies, rather than subjected city states, and resumed his conquest of Persia.

Are there situations in your business where an obvious goal might be achieved but other, more valuable goals are overlooked because the vision of the leaders didn’t extend far enough?

Concluding Thoughts On Reframing
Reframing problems is, indeed, a powerful tool and one that is within your power to employ. Alexander used it repeatedly. He turned his enemy’s strength against him at the River Hydaspes, employed a surrogate “bad guy” in crushing a revolt at Thebes and defeated a navy by land battle.

It is very difficult to reframe problems if you can’t conceive. If you can conceive, and if you believe in your conception, you can achieve it. Most people and organizations are capable of much more than their leaders realize. This is because the leaders are often the barrier. Don’t be the barrier. Conceive the solution, believe it and achieve it.

Dr. Lance B. Kurke and David M. Ball are Co-Principals of Kurke and Associates, Inc., a premier consulting firm that provides leadership development executive coaching, strategic and business planning and implementation and customized executive training. Dr. Kurke is the author of the recently published book “The Wisdom of Alexander the Great”.

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