I recently experienced a setback in my battle with cancer. While it gave me a lot to think about, it also reminded me of a very common problem building materials companies face when trying to increase their sales.
But first, my story.
In the middle of December, I began experiencing extreme fatigue and some pain in my body.
I could barely recognize myself. I didn’t want to get out of bed, talk to anyone, or even read my emails. It wasn’t just my body that felt tired – my mind felt drained too.
This is not me. I am used to getting up early every single day so I can do my part to make the world a better place. My therapist has always told me that the day I stop learning is the day I’ll die – so you can imagine how alarming it was not to have the mental energy to do much research.
I had to solve this problem. I needed to get my mojo back.
I focused the energy I still had on what I thought was the problem.
Was I dealing with a side effect of the chemo or was the cancer getting worse? It had to be one of those two things, right? There was no reason to waste my time looking for other explanations for the fatigue and pain.
I should’ve known better. That’s the same mistake I warn building materials companies about. And yet, there I was, falling for it myself.
Taking Aim at the Wrong Problem
I am such a ball of energy that my oncologist, doctors and therapists all told me the same thing: “Mark, listen to your body. If it needs rest, give it rest.”
In hindsight, I think they had been wanting to tell me this for years. No one is supposed to have this much get up and go!
My workload was already lighter because of the holidays, so I decided to give it a try. Not that I had a choice – I didn’t really have the energy to do anything else.
My definition of rest is brief – a quick day or two to get refreshed and get myself back in tip top shape. But after two weeks off my feet, I still didn’t feel better.
I took what little energy I had left and started looking for other solutions – anything but lying in bed for another week.
I tried yoga but it just tired me out. Acupuncture didn’t help either. None of the new meds or supplements that were supposed to give me my life back could get me up and back in action.
But it’s not because there’s anything wrong with those solutions. It’s because they’re not solutions to the problem I was actually dealing with.
I thought I knew what the problem was. I had narrowed it down to chemo or cancer. Once I figured out how to properly manage those, I’d get my energy back.
When building materials companies want to grow their sales, they focus on something like making more sales calls. Reaching out to more customers equals more sales, right?
Well, not if you’ve got a deeper issue. You can make as many calls as you want, it won’t tip the scales in your favor if there’s something wrong with your messaging or the way the customers perceive you.
That’s what I was doing with the yoga and acupuncture. I was taking every solution I could think of and throwing them at the wrong problem.
Uncovering the Real Problem
This week, I asked my oncologist how I could still have side effects from the chemo after being off of it for several weeks. Did that mean the cancer had grown to the point where it was causing these effects?
He ordered a scan and it uncovered another condition. Turns out I have diverticulitis with an abscess.
I went to the ER right away, got an operation the next day to drain the abscess and got started on a course of antibiotics.
I’m hoping to get discharged from the hospital soon. After I do, I’m still looking at another surgery and weeks on antibiotics.
But it’s a relief to have a real answer for what I’ve been dealing with.
The pain is gone. My energy is back. I even woke up at 5 AM to write this article.
I was convinced that the cancer was the problem, but the scan showed that it’s been shrinking. The chemo wasn’t making me weak – it’s been working as intended.
Don’t Jump to Solutions Too Quickly
I wanted to write this so I could give you an update on my health. But I also wanted to share this as a lesson in problem solving.
I wasted a lot of time and effort because I thought I understood my problem. Before putting some muscle into a solution, it’s a good idea to step back and make sure you’ve got the right one. In my years of consulting, I’ve seen countless companies that were sure they knew what was holding them back – only to find out that it was something they hadn’t considered at all.
In their case, it’s often because they focus on sales instead of customer service, because they don’t realize how many customers want to do their own product research, or because they’re selling to the wrong customer type.
In my case, it was putting everything into treating the things I knew I was dealing with – while the real culprit hadn’t even been diagnosed yet.
Either way, when you have a problem to solve, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. You don’t have to accept the obvious answer – you can take some time to find the right one instead.
Keep digging until you get to the heart of the problem. If you do, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and start making real progress.
After I published this, Ed Spahl sent me the following quotes that nicely summarize the point I’m trying to make.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Albert Einstein
“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” – Thomas Edison
“We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – as stated by Sherlock Holmes – What it means is if the truth is limited to either a or b or c, and you investigate a and b and find they are both impossible, then c must be true.
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