When a project gets stuck, the obstacle usually falls into one of these three categories.

When groups of people get stuck on a problem–whether over culture, systems, process, understanding, or something else–the best solutions can come from asking the right questions.

This question, cited in Big Change at Best Buy (by Elizabeth Gibson and Andy Billings), is one of my favorites: “Is this an issue of heart, head, or hands?”

  • Heart: Do you have the will, passion, leadership, or clarity of goal to rally the people to the task?
  • Head: Does your team have the available capabilities, knowledge, processes, experience, and other components necessary to overcome the obstacle?
  • Hands: Do you have the right resources (in the right quantities) to make this happen?

The first step in solving a problem is correctly diagnosing it. As a facilitator, I often watch groups jump past this diagnostic step in an effort to find a quick, silver-bullet answer. Although this is understandable, it’s not ultimately helpful: Getting the right answer to the wrong problem is the wrong answer.

Using the Technique

If you are in a meeting or brainstorming session and the group is in a repetitive or circular discussion about a problem, ask the “heart, head, or hands” question.

There may be some disagreement–a failure in one area could be causing other ones, for instance–but you can usually come to an answer as to the primary obstacle. Start with that one first. After you’ve resolved it, you can work your way through the other two.

Your next action will depend on what you’ve decided is the key problem:

  • Heart: Is this project lacking leadership from a clearly respected sponsor? You may need to select, assign, and empower a project owner–and then offer the right resources–to bring the initiative to completion.
  • Head: When “head” is the diagnosis, typically expertise is the issue. If you are a “go-it-alone” leader, it may be difficult to admit to not knowing how to do something. But in a world of accelerating complexity, it is unreasonable to expect that you can figure everything out yourself. If you don’t have the expertise personally, there are lots of easy ways to find it. You can look for help internally, as well as through business partners, and externally through consultants, suppliers, or contractors.
  • Hands: There is a difference between “not having enough time” and “not having enough time right now.” Rarely have I found an organization that felt it had enough resources–whether technology, people, equipment, money, or time. But if you clearly define what is needed–as well as how much and when–you can build a plan that properly allocates your company’s resources for the current priority.

I was recently in a leadership team session trying to address this question, and the debate was pretty energized. What we discovered was this: Everyone wanted the initiative accomplished, but no one wanted to lead it. There was no heart for the change.

The CEO’s reply was very strong: “If this isn’t important enough for any of you, my executives, to want to take this on, then I don’t want to hear about it from any of you until one of you will.”

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