Asking For Help

For many people, especially clever people, asking for help is hard. Very hard. Like many of you, I enjoy solving problems on my own. I get great satisfaction from solitary problem-solving tasks such as finishing a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, mastering a particularly challenging Sudoku or climbing a difficult mountain trail.

There are other kinds of problems that need solving. No, I’m not talking about crossword puzzles, but the fuzzy, complex and nuanced problems faced in business and life. The ones where a worthy solution creates a new crop of problems (or in business-speak, opportunities) that need equally thoughtful consideration.

These problems come in all shapes and sizes. The economic: what is the best use of my abilities? The political: how can I foster peace, understanding and growth in my community? The business: how much money and skills (if any) should I invest into solving a market need or customer problem?

On the surface, asking for help creates the appearance of vulnerability. But a deeper analysis demonstrates that asking for help is one of the most powerful forms of leadership. Why? Because solving fuzzy problems isn’t an individual task. This is mainly because not everyone agrees that there is “a problem” or that a particular “solution” is valuable.

Those who seek to solve these sorts of problems on their own are tilting at windmills. To paraphrase H L Mencken: for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat-and wrong.

Alternatively, asking for help is an opportunity to understand how others feel about the issue. Does the problem need urgent attention? Is a solution vital to others? Sometimes you’ll find out if the problem is correctly framed. For example, is the use of modern phone call recording technology a matter of personal productivity, national security or constitutional rights? No simple answers here.

Asking for help is a chance to get feedback on a potential solution to the problem. If others agree with the solution, you can take a more aggressive step and ask for an endorsement or for resources to further your proposed solution. It is in these important moments that asking for help crosses the line from vulnerability to leadership. It’s important to note that this type of leadership and persuasion brings with it an obligation to further the desired end. I’ll discuss obligations at a later date.

Fuzzy problems need organization, clarification and consensus, not a solitary solution. So the measurable unit of success in asking for help is the degree of support behind the proposed solution. Building support, building a coalition, accumulating resources toward an end involves as much problem-solving attention as any puzzle. And the help, the support, the admiration that you get from others in advancing the solution is mighty satisfying.