You’re driving down the road and suddenly you hear this cacophonous CHUNKACHUNKACHUNKA noise. You smell burning rubber. Your power steering goes out. Your engine dies and you coast to a stop. When you try to turn the key, all you hear is this sad, pathetic little shuuuurrrmmmmmm sound. You call a tow truck, wait for them to haul you to an auto shop, and anxiously await the inevitable bad new.

The mechanic looks it over and sadly says:

It looks like you need to change the air freshener, get a new paint job, and retake drivers ed.”


There’s nothing wrong with changing the air freshener, the paint job, or taking drivers ed. If your kid threw up in the car on the way to Yellowstone, then yeah – changing the air freshener is probably a good idea. A good paint job protects your car from rusting. And sometimes you need a refresher course in what all of those broken and solid lines on the road mean. Those ARE the right things to do when you run into certain problems. But those answers don’t match the weird sounds your engine made, or explain why your power steering went out and my car wouldn’t start.

It’s the kind of mistake I see in business owners making every day as they face small problems and big crises. When a crisis hits, they immediate jump into “What’s wrong with me?” mode. They tell themselves they need to work harder, stop being lazy, get their act together, and think positively. And they spend so much time telling themselves that they need to change that they never really stop to analyze the problem. It never occurs to them that “I’m lazy” doesn’t really explain why their marketing campaign isn’t getting results, why their project is going over budget, or their customers are unhappy. Their explanations are superficial – and needlessly shame-inducing –  and they certainly don’t fit the symptoms. But they’re hesitant to dig into the details of cause and effect, and it’s usually because they’re insecure and doubt their own understanding of how business works.

Now, my husband is one of those people who can diagnose a mechanical problem just by hearing the sound the engine makes. We’re polar opposites that way. The car makes a weird noise and I immediately go into “IS the car going to fall apart?? Should we pull over??? Please oh please oh please don’t let us break down! Please don’t let us break down. Please don’t let us break down.” mode.

Mmmmhmmm. That’s right. I’m a crisis manager,  and I freak out when my car makes a funny noise. Feel free to point and laugh at me.

But my husband? He just listens for a second, and then says something like “Huh. I need to tighten up the water pump when we get home.” FROM A SOUND, folks. It’s uncanny.

He wasn’t born knowing how to do that, and he doesn’t know more about cars than I do just because he’s a man. He learned how to do it. He took auto shop in high school. He bought the repair manual for our car and actually read it. He’s learned how engines work and why things happen – whereas most of what I know about how a car works is “I turn it on, and drive it and change the oil regularly until it makes a scary noise and breaks and costs a lot of money to fix and I curse a lot.”

In short – my husband understands the process of how a car works, so he can identify the source of abnormal behavior. I don’t, so I panic and pray. Business is the same way. More than a century of business analysis has show that it is not people, but the processes they’re working in that cause problems. The same is true for your business. It doesn’t matter how motivated someone is if they don’t understand the process – the simple cause-and-effect of how a problem came to be.

That’s why personal development is not a substitute for problem solving. Positive thinking is not a substitute for positive action. They’re partners. Unfortunately, present-day entrepreneurs are inundated with positive thinking messages; they’ve spent hours filling Pinterest boards with motivational quotes, but haven’t spent a fraction of that time studying processes and problem solving. You have to use the right tool for the right job. Misunderstanding that – and using the wrong tool for the wrong job – causes more crises than any other factors combined.

So if you are business owner or manager in a crisis, I promise you — you don’t need more positive thinking or square shoulders(though I am a fan of square shoulders and optimism!). I have yet to deal with a business in crisis where most people weren’t working hard or doing their best. But I’ve run into far too many where people were working hard instead of stopping to ask hard questions.

Deming, that great quality guru, summed it up in one of my favorite quotes: “It’s not enough to do your best. You have to know what to do, and THEN do your best.”

Don’t know where to start? Starting in February, I’ll be sending our subscribers one easy, actionable crisis-fighting tip every Monday morning. You can get in on the action by entering your email address here:

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A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.