The Art of Efficient Problem-Solving: More Than Just Skill

Have you ever wondered why two equally skilled individuals can have drastically different efficiencies in solving the same problem? This question struck me as I observed various people working on SQL tasks. Remarkably, some completed the task in just 10 minutes, while others took up to 2 hours. Why such a disparity?

Interestingly, everyone in this group rated themselves 7 out of 10 in SQL proficiency. Certainly, some people might have misrated themselves, or used different scales. But even among those with similar knowledge levels, one major difference stood out – their approach to problem-solving. It’s fascinating how the approach, more than the skill level, dictates efficiency.

However, the right approach, honed through experience, can be a game-changer. By watching them, I’ve identified five key steps to streamline the learning curve and enhance efficiency in any endeavor, including SQL:

  1. Focus on the Core: Start with the main thread or problem. In SQL, start with selecting the right table. Once you’ve done that, choosing fields and building your query becomes easier.
  1. Leverage Available Tools: Utilize features like IntelliSense in SQL. This tool auto-completes field names and commands, saving time and reducing errors such as misspellings that can cause unnecessary delays.
  1. Simplify Concepts: Start with using aliases in SQL. Instead of memorizing long table structures, use concise, meaningful aliases. For instance, ‘c’ for customers and ‘o’ for orders. This makes your code easier to read and remember.
  1. Begin with Familiar Territory: Break down the problem and start with what you know. In SQL, begin with a single table and gradually incorporate additional tables as you build your query.
  1. Validate Your Progress: Regularly check that you’re making positive progress. Execute your code often. This practice helps you stay on track and catch errors early, rather than revisiting and debugging later.

These steps, while tailored for SQL, can be universally applied to many other fields. The essence lies in taking a step back to assess and refine your approach. Whether it’s SQL or any other skill, the right strategy can dramatically improve your efficiency and output.

This observation goes beyond just coding; it’s about how we approach problems in our professional lives. A methodical, well-thought-out approach not only saves time but also enhances the quality of work. It’s a testament to the fact that experience isn’t just about knowing more; it’s about knowing the right approach.

Why is Design Important?

In today’s tech-driven world, design is no longer just a visual element. It’s a powerful force that can make or break a company. Look at the iPhone’s fusion of artistry and innovation or Elon Musk’s visionary ideas in electric cars. Both are testaments to the significance of design.

But what happens when design is overlooked?

Let’s explore the real-world implications of design neglect, where one company’s flawed design decisions reveal a harsh truth: bad design can be the silent killer of companies.

A few years ago, my company selected a prominent HR software provider, a name synonymous with NBA jerseys and women’s soccer. On the surface, they seemed poised for success, having recently merged two major companies and with plans for product enhancement and cross-selling.

However, the problem lay in their design philosophy.

Instead of crafting a thoughtful design, they opted to amalgamate the “best of” their two existing apps. This decision proved disastrous for this type of software. It was akin to forcibly marrying two mismatched puzzle pieces, resulting in a disjointed and ill-fitting solution.

The repercussions of this design choice were profound:

  • Administrative Hassles: Managing two separate systems required administrators to learn and use both, introducing complexity and challenges during implementations.
  • Duplication of Infrastructure: Each system had its distinct code base, leading to the replication of reporting tools and APIs. This substantially increased the workload for users attempting to learn and implement them.
  • Support Challenges: Support personnel were restricted to working on one system, often leaving clients more knowledgeable than their own support staff. Resolving issues frequently necessitated the involvement of multiple personnel, resulting in extended response times.
  • Data Synchronization Problems: Data needed to flow between these systems, but there was no seamless way to synchronize it. The absence of synchronization led to a cascade of downstream issues.

Within the software company, problems escalated. Protracted support queues, lingering software glitches, and a revolving door of employees became the norm.

Despite its subpar design, the company won’t vanish overnight due to legacy clients and the complexities of transitioning HR systems. Nonetheless, I foresee a gradual exodus of clients as competitors with superior design or fresh alternatives gain momentum. Someday, they’ll reflect on their downward spiral and wonder where they went astray.

The answer will be glaringly evident: they fell victim to bad design.

This real-world example underscores the profound impact of design on a company’s destiny. It is a stark reminder that design isn’t confined to aesthetics alone; it profoundly influences functionality, efficiency, and user experience. Businesses that disregard structure do so at their peril, often succumbing to a gradual decline driven by poor decisions.

In Teams We Trust: The Secret Ingredient to High Performing Groups

A few years ago, Google conducted a survey of its employees to determine what’s the main contributor to a high performing team. As I saw the headline I was intrigued to find out the result. I was sure leadership was the number one reason for team success- mostly because I was a manager and I had read a lot about the impact of good leadership. I read eagerly hoping to learn some tips. I even anticipated secondary reasons like: talent, team composition. But when I read the results I was shocked and disappointed by their conclusion- it did not include any of my assumptions. The research claimed that the #1 factor for high performing teams was “Psychological Safety” aka trust. It didn’t make sense to me. In general, I think people are good- especially in a professional environment. I thought in any reasonable organization people dont lie to each other, and are going to get paid on time. I really didn’t understand what this was trying to say- was it just some new fad? 

A few months later I finally understood.

The company I worked for at the time had reorganized. Within a few weeks my team’s work quality started to suffer or so it seemed. Almost each time after we released a new update of the software to our operations team, there were issues. They were typically small and easy to fix but the issues escalated quickly. It went from the operations person who discovered the issue to their manager, to the VP, to the President of the company, to my boss (The CIO) and then it hit my desk as the VP in charge of that area. If you’re counting, that’s 7 steps. I knew where to go to get it fixed and involved an 8th person, Carla. She had recently switched from the operations department to my team in IT and understood the intersection between technology and operations well so was well suited for her new role. But it seems she started making a lot of mistakes all of a sudden. While the fixes were typically minor (e.g. change a number from 100 to 1000), each time I’d need to write up a full report on what happened, how it happened and how it was fixed etc and send it around the organization. It was very frustrating to say the least. Sometimes we needed to meet about it- wasting even more time. Of course I put in preventative steps to ensure that root cause wouldn’t happen again. I reviewed processes and put in more checks and balances. But the next time a different small issue would crop up and trigger a large chain of events. It was reflecting badly on the team, especially Carla as her mistakes came to light. As I worked to close gaps in the development/testing process, I tried to understand how quality tanked and so quickly. Finally in one discussion with Carla, she admitted that these mistakes were always happening. In the past her friend in the operations department would call her with the issue directly. They both came in early so they typically solved issues before others noticed. What had changed was that her friend moved to a different role. With new people in new roles in the organization no one reached across to solve issues and instead went up and down the chain. A small issue became a crisis.

When I rehashed this episode I realized that admitting mistakes early could have solved the issue early when Carla was starting out in her new role and saved countless hours of CYA emails and wasted meetings. Trust is important. Trust that a person won’t get in trouble for making a mistake. Trust to go across the organization. Trust that an issue is being taken care of appropriately. Trust that a manager will have appropriate solutions. 

I realized I needed to do two things: first I had to make her comfortable enough to admit mistakes and gaps in knowledge so we can learn from it and prevent it from happening again. I also needed to give Carla more training. The problems soon went away and Carla succeeded in her role, but first came trust.

As I build a new team I know what I need to start with- Trust me.

In Search of a Teammate

Isn’t it crazy that we spend about half our day with people but we don’t get to choose them? This article is your chance to find out a little about what working on our team will be like. 

The ideal teammate has good character, smarts, and initiative. We try not to get bogged down if a teammate shows up a little late sometimes or wants to leave early to go to their child’s game. Someone with good character would be courteous, communicate and not let it impact their work.

We try to add small twists to the mundane. When you’re asked if you have read this article, just tell us your favorite candy. Why do we care about your favorite treat? Because it’s the little things that make a work environment more interesting. If your favorite treat is waiting for you on your first day, that will get us started on the right foot.

We believe process and proper design are important. Henry Ford didn’t necessarily invent the best car- he invented the best process: the assembly line. Let’s work together to create the best plan to achieve the best results with the least effort.

We strive to create a culture of learning and hope that working together will be fulfilling. Lesson one: the secret to good communication is to get to the point and move on- Brevity.

Let’s make an impact! Join the team:

Consultants and people with big ideas


Getting Better Every Day

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as Improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

Benjamin Franklin


Long ago in the town of Opshitz in the Carpathian Mountains there lived two great woodcutters: Boris and Andre. One day they decided to settle the debate of who was the greater woodcutter. They hired a referee to ensure they would have a fair contest. The referee positioned them in different parts of the forest. They were close enough to hear each other but couldn’t see the others results. As the contest began both worked feverishly. After about an hour Boris realized he hadn’t heard anything for 10 minutes straight. He figured Andre was resting so he redoubled his effort. This pattern continued every hour- Boris heard Andre taking a break and he doubled his efforts. Finally after 6 hours when the referee called the contest over. Boris was proud of his results. He realized that he cut down more trees than he expected. The referee counted both cutters results and declared Andre the winner. Boris was beside himself and confronted Andre “How could you have won? I heard you taking breaks and I worked twice as hard then.”


Andre responded “I wasn’t taking a break. I was sharpening my ax.”


In my early days of my career we had just installed a new  system and there was much to be done to support it. One challenge was tracking the programs and configurations changes we were making on almost a daily basis. We needed to ensure we moved all the appropriate changes into production when it was ready.  This seemingly minor housekeeping task was very important because without it the full work that my team would do wouldn’t go into the production causing issues to end users. Another chore to track was the list of over 300 items that the team needed to enhanced but there wasn’t a consistent tracking mechanism. With so much going on there wasn’t time to address these items and everything else going on. People always say there’s always more to do then there is time and resources available. Enter Incremental Improvement.

Incremental Improvement improvement is where you take small deliberate steps to improvement. With time all these small steps lead to huge change. On a corporate level it’s sometimes called “Incremental innovation” or Kaizen. On a product level it’s called “Minimal viable product”. In a development environment it’s called “Agile”. On a personal level it’s been called Person Kaizen or CANI (by Tony Robbins). As you see this process has many names and helps in various facets of organizations and personal life, but to me it’s more a mindset and I’ll take you through the four steps to get it implemented. No matter what you call it, it’s about starting small and constantly improving.


Gmail is a great example of incremental improvement. When Google launched its email application the market seemed mature. Further, email users don’t like to change their addresses as it’s disruptive. Hotmail & Yahoo were the dominant players with their robust web based technology. Gmail, by contrast, launched with a limited feature set but it did have a few innovative features like conversations that set it apart. Because of its limited features it was considered in “beta” for a long time. Early adopters accepted the limitations and enjoyed the extra functionality. With time Google improved Gmail and added more features until it became the dominant email solution. Google has continually used this philosophy across their new product launches.


There are many advantages of incremental improvement including:

  • Minimal investment- being that the changes are minimal it doesn’t take a lot of resources to get them implemented.
  • Quick results- with minimal scope the results appear quickly.
  • Changes can be impactful- using the pareto principle (aka the 80/20 rule) most of the easy gains can require minimal effort.
  • Targeted- This philosophy offers the ability to correct course early and learn from early results. Instead of implementing a full featured product that may fail when users see issues early on it can be corrected or the entire initiative can be closed.
  • Buy in- With the players involved in their own processes it improves the success of the roll out and shows results there’s more buy in and ownership accepted.

Steps for Constant Improvement Deming, who many credit as the inspiration for the Japanese post-war economic miracle invented the Deming cycle as a quick way to simplify the process: Plan, Do, Check, Act. In short, think about(Plan) what you want to do, Do it, confirm what you’re doing is good (Check) and finally implement it (Act). For those with a system background this is just a compressed System Development Life Cycle (SDLC): Plan/Design, Develop, QA & Implementation.


Identify the vision of what your project will become. You shouldn’t spend much time here as the vision can evolve but it’s important to know where you’re eventually going. It can also serve as inspiration. Jotting down a few notes may be helpful and it can be revised with each iteration. What’s key is identifying what specific function you’ll implement in this round and ensure it’s deliverable.


Here’s some guidelines for ensuring success:

  • Improvements should be small. Reminder: future iterations can include more improvements.
  • Improvements should come from the people with a direct stake in the process
  • Ensure the proper people are aboard on this iteration so they don’t delay it.
  • Changes should be tested and put into use quickly.
  • Be sure you have enough time to finish what you start



In this step you make the changes you identified. Having people involved in the process doing the change is helpful.

Further you should think about how to make the change generically so you don’t need to come back constantly to make new changes. Give users the ability to tweak the solution on an ongoing basis so it can grow with minimal resource input.


There’s no point in trying to improve a process if it isn’t showing the results you want or it introduces new issues. Always check your work. Ideally the person doing the work shouldn’t be doing the checking. Remember all those college papers you worked on all night to make it perfect only to get the response back from the teacher pointing out simple grammatical and structural mistakes. You didn’t see it as you were too involved in the process.



All your work doesn’t count unless you ship a product or implement the process. Ensure others are ready for it by communicating, doing training etc. Take steps necessary to ensure the change is integrated into the routine.



After completing the 4 steps, you start again. Sometimes you won’t have time to improve the specific process you completed. That’s ok, pick the one that gives you the biggest return. The goal is overall improvement and not just for a specific process. For processes that are done on periodic basis (e.g. a monthly report) you don’t need to improve it until the next run- at that point pick what you will improve and start the process.


Incremental improvement has many advantages but there’s some potential potholes along the way.

Fixes only

Some people do fixes only and consider that constant improvement. If you’re always fixing then you have a problem- look at your underlying processes and fix the root cause. Fixes are reactionary, be proactive and get ahead of the curve.


Radical improvement

Continual improvement can lead to radical improvement over time. Sometimes a philosophy of a small change followed by a small change in the future won’t give you the full effect you need. The key here is focus. If there’s an area that needs a lot of changes dedicate the resources to it.


Cost of improvement

Not all improvement are worthwhile. When starting an improvement determine the cost of it in terms of time and effort and compare that to what you’ll get after (i.e. ROI). If it’s low consider another improvement opportunity or break it into a smaller fix that may be worthwhile.

Real life

In my dilemma of tracking move items, the initial quick fix for issue of tracking move items to production was a form that developers would fill out. The quick fix for tracking open items was to put the enhancement requests in a spreadsheet with accountability columns and detail columns for notes. This solved the immediate need but wasn’t ideal. The move document was cumbersome and couldn’t take into account the conflicts between enhancements and the spreadsheet wasn’t easily updated and didn’t fully account for hand-offs and task requirements. I could continue to enhance these forms and spreadsheets but that wouldn’t be a long term answer as it wouldn’t be transparent and would become cumbersome.


Fortunately a newly hired business analyst on my team was interested in learning programming. When I talked about the vision of what I wanted to accomplished he grew interested. At first this rookie programmer created a simple web form to track moves to production. There was limited time for process improvement but we periodically identified small areas that would give us the greatest return on our efforts. With time we added tracking for enhancements and accountability. Later we added workflow and enabled others within the organization to request items and have full visibility into the process.


There was also tough decisions on what wouldn’t be included. There was no administrative access in the system for 6 years but in the meanwhile I slowly built up a set of stored procedures to do the job. Further, knowing that there were be limited time to do wholesale changes to the system we designed it to be expandable. This manifested itself in the way we tracked new fields- we set up a keyword system allowing an administrator to add new fields on an ad-hoc basis. Further, we knew we couldn’t account for every special workflow request so we integrated the ability to call an external stored procedure giving the system unlimited possibilities.


With time this side little project grew into an integrated platform that tracks issues and manages the daily tasks of a number of people within the organization. There have been over 75,000 tickets tracked so far. We make changes to it only every 2-3 years now but with the built in expandability it has continued to evolve. This system has received praise from external auditors and internal people who initially resisted it. The system, although not perfect, is getting better little by little and has become a verb within the company. Some define success as having your brand becomes a verb- you can Google it. By that definition, this effort was a success.

The Best Investment You Can Make Today- Guaranteed

 “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest”

Albert Einstein


PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

This is not an article about money or math, it’s about something much more powerful. But first a pop quiz: What is compound interest? Don’t worry if you don’t know, the concept behind compound interest is simple- you take some money invest it, during the process your investment earns interest and also interest on the interest. Before you know it you have much more than you started with. For example, if you start with $100 and earn 10% interest you’re quick math would say you’d get $10 after the first year. The second year you don’t just earn $10, you earn $11. The $10 you expect plus $1 on the $10 of interest from last year. Each year that’s more and more. So instead of your $100 doubling in 10 years as quick math would tell you ($10 for each of 10 years) you double in 7.2 years! The longer you allow for this phenomena, the more you earn. After 20 years, the return wouldn’t be $200 extra, it would be more than $600 extra!

Math lesson is over, now let’s take this compounding process and apply it to a more valuable asset you have: Time! Time for your family, time for your career, time for yourself. They key is to make your time more valuable and remove items that are just taking your time. Invest in yourself. Here’s five ways to compound time:



Investing in learning time is crucial. Sometimes learning simple techniques can end up saving you a lot of time in the long run. For example you can earn how to type faster or the more advanced features of your word processor. An initial investment of time saves you time daily. With more time daily you can spend it on crafting better documents which in turn leads to more powerful presentations which minimizes rework etc. Just learn.



Invest a small amount of time to get a machine/computer to do your job for you. This is why I love computers. They have the potential to do exactly what you need, you just have to tell it in the right way. It may require a special program, a special setup, a macro or even some programming, but if you find the right command, your computer will do your work for you without complaint.



geralt / Pixabay

You don’t have to do everything yourself. Get rid of the easy tasks so someone else does it for you. Need someone to do your errands, help with cleaning or repairs? Try Need someone to do some of your chauffeuring- try Uber. Need someone to do payroll? Try a company like ADP then all you need to do is spend a couple of minutes sending them your data and they take care of the rest. If there’s any kind of task you need there’s almost certainly someone who is offering that service online. This will cost some money, but if you can directly use that time to make more money by putting in extra hours at the office or free lancing you can profit from the difference and/or save time.



Some tasks are too complex or personalized to outsource- instead you can insource it (delegate). Train someone to do your job inside your organization or family- a few minutes of training or direction can give you huge dividends in the long term. Sometimes, just asking is all you need to do and they may be glad to help out. Other times a barter can have a large impact. For example, your computer knowledgeable friend can write a macro for you and you can arrange everything for the party she’s hosting.



When there is a system to your actions it makes it much easier to succeed. This is potentially the most powerful but overlooked technique. Think about a recipe- it tells you exactly what you need to do. For projects that you create look into making it systematic. It takes away complexity and limits the risk of problems (problems take up a lot of time). This will allow you to outsource parts of it and speed up subsequent runs.


geralt / Pixabay

To get the most value for your time combine these techniques and get yourself organized. I recommend the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. If you don’t have time for the full book yet,  be sure to read 3 techniques to get started ( You can start small but keep investing.


There is so much value to your time, don’t waste it. Invest in yourself.


Your Life is a Movie- Keep it Simple

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.
Mark Twain

Sometimes life is complex. There’s war over conflicting issues. There’s a million things to do and not enough time to do it. The movies make things seem so simple. Sometimes it’s frustratingly simple, “You love her just say so and then we can cut an hour off this really long movie” you think to yourself. How can you get this simplicity in your life? Just take a step back and look at yourself objectively, as if you were watching your own life’s movie.

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Mark Twain

Sometimes the simple things will jump out at you. You realize you should say “I’m sorry” first because in the end to have a happy ending someone needs to cave and you may as well be the good guy in your movie. You can stop pursuing money and realize how precious your family is now before the crisis happens (heart attach, lost job).

Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.
Mark Twain

I was reading Mark Twain’s biography and was saddened that despite all his success he directly brought on himself many of his problems. He loved his wife, his kids, the perfect house, he had great fame and was making plenty of money. So what does he do? He tries to pursue more money and almost loses it all. His lavish lifestyle (spending $30,000 a month on the upkeep of his house in the late 1800s) forced him to close his beloved  house and move to Europe where his family is seperated and isn’t comfortable. He has so much debt he’s forced to go bankrupt. To recover, he’s forced into touring which he dreads and leaves his beloved family for long stretches. If you were Mark Twain wouldn’t you have quit spending money just a little earlier and then your could have had everything.

You’re life’s a move- be the star.

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
Mark Twain

How are Mortgage Professionals Like Doctors and Why It Matters to Your Profession?

I was reading the results of a consumer report survey that said 78% of respondents said that lenders need to be reined in. This surprised me. Sure those lending professionals who were unethical should be reigned in (and many are in front page headlines) but that’s not 78%. Could it be that those few unethical lending professionals made a bad name for all? Could it be that people are just looking for a skapegoat for their financial problems? I’m sure there’s some truth to both of these reasons but I suspect there’s something more fundamental going on that I read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.”

In Section five of the book entitled “Listening to Doctors” Gladwell talks about various studies on the incidences of malpractice among doctors.  The studies show that the risk of being sued for malpractice has little to do with the number of mistakes you make. In fact there he found something completely different.

He found the element that corresponded most to the risk of doctors being sued was: how the patients were treated on a personal level by their doctor.  Did they have a relationship with their doctor?  Was he snotty with them?  Negative?  Condescending?

One study Gladwell mentions provides some interesting pointers to you, no matter what your profession. Doctors who spent even a few minutes longer in consultations with patients, who gave orienting comments explaining the process, who were active listeners and who had a sense of humor/tried to be funny were much much much less likely to be sued for malpractice even though they made just as many mistakes as other doctors (who WERE sued).

Gladwell brings out instances where patients went to lawyers and said “I want to sue my specialist”. After reviewing the case the lawyer would say actually it wasn’t the specialist that was at fault it’s your primary doctor. The patient would insist on suing the wrong doctor, despite the evidence, just because they felt like they were not treated well.

Gladwell points out that it is all about your tone of voice with your clients, are you dominant or concerned?  That one aspect (tone of voice) makes all the difference in the world.

So…how are you treating your clients these days? How long does it take you to return a client’s phone call? When was the last time you sat down with a client to actually explain your opinion letter to them?


You Will Only Get What You Want, If You Ask For It

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You can’t always get what you wantgetwhat1280x1024.jpg
And if you try sometime you find
You get what you need

Rolling Stones

The simple rule “you will only get what you want if you ask for it” is very powerful in two ways.

1) People won’t know what you want unless you ask. That’s why it’s important to have a goal. What do you really want? Now go ask for it. You just might get it. Example: Ask for that girl’s number.

2) Be more forceful when you ask for what you want. Sometimes you just need to be more confident or clear when you ask for what you want. This works well when dealing with bureaucracies. The rep on the phone may not have the power to get you what you want but his manager might. If not try that manager above. Example: I used this today to get my loan rate lock-in extended and I was dealing with a big bank.

I’ve heard many stories of how this works well for credit card late fees also. A classmate in graduate school said he used this successfully five times in the previous year. Then finally one of the companies caught on and said they can no longer waive the late fee because he used it numerous times. Three levels of management later and he got it waived again! But this time he promised the manager, it was the “last time”.

photo credit: geishaboy500