I’m a big fan of simplicity, whether it’s about strategy and innovation or personal productivity. In a complex world, there’s no use making things more difficult than they need to be.
It’s just so easy to complicate things — even I am guilty. But in reality, there are three questions I’ve used in consulting with executives that have much wider applicability to all sorts of problems people encounter in business and in life.
At the risk of severe hyperbole, I believe these three questions can help solve any problem. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Think of any problem you are dealing with right now — a difficult colleague, changes to your business wrought by the digital revolution, or even, say, the struggle to get into better physical shape —and honestly ask yourself these three questions:
Are you really willing to change what you’ve been doing?
Nothing gets done until you say “YES” to this question. Otherwise, it’s all just talk.
Think about it. Companies that struggle to adapt to changing business conditions are held back almost entirely by their own unwillingness to change. It’s not that companies cannot change, it’s that they’re unwilling to do so. Taxi companies the world over have been unwilling to provide better service at a lower price to customers, and so Uber and others have emerged to take their business away.
It might take a lot of work, but if you’re not willing to do it, then stop complaining.
How about your own life? That colleague who is congenitally uncooperative? He’ll keep doing it until he has a reason not to. Are you prepared to take him on? If he works for you, are you prepared to reassign him, or fire him if necessary? It might take a lot of work, but if you’re not willing to do it, then stop complaining.
The company trapped in an analogue world when everything is now digital? Consider Facebook: the social giant was willing to shift from desktop application to mobile, and is now generating as much as 80% of its revenue from mobile. There are lots of reasons companies don’t change in the face of massive challenge, but I’d put their unwillingness to do so at the top of the list.
By this point, you should be able to connect the dots on the third example: improving your physical health. And deep down I bet most of us know it, too. Despite all the excuses we come up with — too busy, we don’t really have a problem, I’ll get to it later — the reason we choose not to go to the gym or select a healthier diet is because we don’t really want to.
All of us — individuals and companies alike — could be well on our way to better personal and corporate health if we were willing to recognise that things could be better and have the guts to do something about it. There is no replacement for the courage to say yes.
Can you think of a better strategy or idea than the status quo?
Even if you are willing to change, you’ve got to come up with a solution to your problem. In some cases, it’s quite easy. Becoming healthier by improving your diet and doing more exercise is not exactly a secret or a revolutionary solution.
Other times, however, it is more difficult. Companies can bring in armies of consultants to help them come up with new solutions to what’s ailing them, but the old-fashioned idea of expecting you and your own staff to have ideas isn’t all that unreasonable either.
No matter how great your strategic idea, if you can’t execute on it you’re doomed.
Take Blockbuster and Netflix as one example. The writing was on the wall for some time on how digital streaming was going to become a better solution for more people than heading to your local DVD store. And a more profitable solution for companies able to deliver that service. Blockbuster did have choices — buy Netflix when they were still quite small and run them as an independent entity, create their own “Netflix” business, retrench into a small niche player doing what you’ve always done for the tiny market that might still prefer to browse the shelves, or selling out to another company better — or dumber — than they were. Blockbuster made an attempt, too late, to create its own version of Netflix, but ultimately collapsed under the weight of change.
The point is, when you are open-minded, curious, and creative, you’ll have options.
Can you execute on your chosen solution?
This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. No matter how great your strategic idea, if you can’t execute on it you’re doomed. This is how it should be, of course, but that doesn’t make it easier. Blockbuster did create a small unit designed to replicate Netflix, but it died a quick death in a corporate culture that only knew one business model.
Dealing with that difficult colleague requires courage and a plan of action, but then you have to actually have the difficult conversation. Or you have to convince others to move the troublemaker to another place where he might add more value and do less damage. Or you have to initiate an often-long process of documenting grounds for dismissal. All of it is hard work.
Even going to the gym and eating better doesn’t happen by itself. Maybe you need a personal trainer to keep you motivated (and raise the embarrassment factor if you quit or the financial strain if you have to pay for a missed training session). If you don’t have the personal discipline to stay away from those wonderful French fries, there’s an entire industry that has sprung up to help you execute on your eat-healthy strategy: diet clubs, diet programs, diet apps galore.
I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of answering, with actions, these questions. Every step of the way is challenging, from having the courage to change, to creatively developing a new way of doing things, to actually making it happen. But these three questions will always be at the heart of any solution. Getting to a much better place as an individual, or for a company, really is possible. It need not be so confusing and overwhelming.
When you really think about it, you’ve got everything you need to solve your problem.
Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016).
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