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A friend of mine recently told me a story that he heard during his training as a counselor.

A family sits down for a meatloaf dinner and the father reaches for the ketchup bottle. After several frustrating moments of not being able to get any ketchup out of the bottle, he smashes it on the floor. His wife quickly cleans up the mess, gets another bottle of ketchup and puts some on her husband’s plate. She believed she had solved the problem.

The lesson in this story for the counselors in training was that the real problem was not whether or not the man had ketchup on his plate. In fact, the problem had nothing to do with ketchup and the wife’s fix was only temporary. Throwing the ketchup bottle was just a symptom of a much bigger issue.

How often in your work as a business owner or leader do you encounter a problem or complaint? Do you always take the time to take a deeper look at what is really going on, or do time pressure and other distractions lead to you just react in the moment and fix the most obvious symptom?

Consider this recent situation I encountered: The latest numbers showed that sales were down by an average of 8% over the last quarter. The business owner was in a tailspin over this trend. He immediately went to the director of sales and warned her that her job was on the line and that she should take whatever measures necessary to stop the bleeding incentives, discounts to clients, hiring another salesperson whatever it took!

Yes, it could have very well been possible that the director of sales wasn’t doing her job properly. However, as it turned out, the declining sales number was just the “ketchup” and the problem went much deeper.

When the owner took a breath and “zoomed out” on the problem by widening his perspective, he discovered the problem had really nothing to do with the competence of the sales director or how many salespeople she had on her team. Digging deeper, he discovered that the previous owner had encouraged a somewhat vicious competition between manufacturing and sales and that the two divisions hadn’t really spoken much over the last five years. This was the underlying factor for the decline in sales. It had just taken time for the impact to hit.

It takes practice and discipline to toggle between zooming in and zooming out on problems and situations; zooming in to look at the specific individuals and details in order to address the immediate problem and zooming out for deeper problem solving. Zooming out requires you to consider the situation in context how it’s related to other things going on in the organization.

These are two keys to begin this practice:

  1. Step away – Regularly take time to think or to recharge your batteries. This time will allow you to create a little space between you and the issue at hand and allow you to see what’s beyond the “ketchup.”
  2. Partner with others –  Have another person or a group of people to discuss problems and issues with as you zoom in and out. Ask those same people to keep you accountable for not getting stuck fixing only the symptoms.
Jeff HarmonJeff Harmon is the president of Brilliance Within Coaching & Consulting which specializes in developing servant leaders while helping them translate their strategies into actionable plans that drive business results. Jeff is the author of “The Anatomy of a Principled Leader.” Jeff has been developing leaders for nearly 20 years and has led the execution of over 100,000 hours of business strategy for information technology, financial services and non-profit organizations.

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