How To Help Solve Problems In 15 Minutes

AUGUST 2ND, 2020


I want to share a framework that’s helped me, help others, solve problems in 15 minutes. I have been using this approach for the last decade, and it’s given me an enormous amount of time back in the day.

Solve Problems

I’d also like to give a shoutout to my friend Otis McGregor, a high-performance coach and former Green Beret who asked me to lay out my approach which he calls the 15-minute solution. I’m confident this process will help you help friends, colleagues, especially if you’re in the coaching or mentoring game.

If you regularly read my content, you’ll know I like to provide principles before a practical step by step process. This post is no different.


Perspective reframes problems

Problems tend to fall into three buckets. There are the ‘I have seen this issue before, and I know how to handle it’ problems. There are the ‘I think I know what to do about this issue, but I need to talk it out’ problems. And there are the ‘this is new to me, and I have no idea what to do’ problems.

We tend to manage the first bucket instinctively because you’ve seen them before in different contexts. In other words, you have perspective.

But in the last two buckets, that perspective is missing, which often leads to over-thinking and little or no action. This kind of paralysis gets broken when trusted people reframe the same problem and offer their experience as an alternate narrative.

The critical point I want you to takeaway is that the real value lies in listening to that similar experience of that trusted person and the way they reframed your problem.

It’s not (often) in the advice they give you.

For the sake of clarity and by way of hypothetical example, I’m going to break this down a little further. John hired a person four months ago. He was in a bind at the time, and against his better judgement, he decided to hire the person who was more technically competent but whom he knew would struggle to fit the culture. That decision is now starting to cause issues in his small team. Obsessing about this issue given he decided to hire this person, John has lost sleep about all the implications of letting this person go.

How to do it.

When is the right time to fire this person?

What will the companies investors think?

How long will it take to find a replacement?

How will the business recover if momentum stalls?

Eventually, John calls Sally, a friend who owns a business. He explains the situation, and Sally immediately relates. She’s been there before and starts recounting a similar experience. She also offers some advice about how John could manage the situation.

John’s sheer relief from knowing someone else understands his predicament and that there is a way through the issue is immense. Now John can think more clearly about what to do.

This is perspective.

And it’s an essential ingredient to problem-solving because it offers new ways to frame and then attack problems. Without it, you are left to solve problems using a single biased lens, your own.

Problems don’t need to be a time sink

Three principles underpin the 15-minute solution, and the first is valuing time. I’m starting here because you might be asking whether it’s possible to solve a problem in such a short time.

My default meeting length is 15 minutes because, in 80% of cases, that’s how long it takes to discuss, resolve and achieve an outcome.

There are some exceptions, and I’m all for banter and friendly conversation, but people find ways to fill the allotted time, especially if the default meeting time was 30 or 60 minutes.

Telling people that you value time isn’t enough. You need to show them.

I make myself openly available to my team, colleagues, investors, students and mentees. They have access to me via my online calendar booking page (I use for diary scheduling which I love). When they land on my scheduling page they are greeted with availability and one key message: we’ll have 15 minutes together when we meet.

This immediately signals that I value time.

It also tells them to come prepared.

When someone knows you value time, and they get a slice of it, they typically come prepared. And the byproduct of that experience is that they see just how much can be achieved in 15 minutes.

Preparation sharpens context

We’ve all been part of conversations where it seems to take forever for someone to get to the point. This third principle is a byproduct of valuing time. It involves helping the person asking for help to deliver context efficiently and then complete the following sentence, ‘The problem I’m trying to solve is…’


How to make each minute count

Nearly all of the calls I take to help solve problems happen via Zoom (and with video on unless I’m driving).

Video and being able to see the other person’s face and for them to see me, reduces distraction and helps both parties take subtle cues from one another.

Greetings at the beginning of the call are thoughtful and authentic and soon after we dive into the following format:

  • 3 minutes on context and the problem they are trying to solve
  • 3 minutes of clarifying questions from me
  • 8 minutes on sharing similar experience and practical tips and steps of what to do next
  • 1 minute of encouragement

It’s never this precise but you get the picture.

The final minute of encouragement is to reaffirm that they can overcome the obstacle in from of them. And I close with this for two reasons. First, because I believe in the power of encouragement and second because I think offering support adds weight to the perspective they have just received. In other words, they are likely to act.

Immediately after the call ends, I’ll email them links to the relevant resources we discussed during the call, or I’ll send them a quick message of encouragement.

Taking the 15-minute solution to the next level

In the military, we refer to a force multiplier as a factor or a combination of factors that gives personnel the ability to accomplish greater feats than without it. For example, air support, advanced equipment and or weaponry.

In the context of solving problems, a force multiplier involves adding more perspective. After all, when someone asks for my views, it’s just one additional perspective which may or may not help. But it’s not just a volume game. The other perspectives should come with relevant lived experience. The consequence of avoiding this critical factor only results in more noise in the system.

I’ve prototyped an approach with my mentees to great effect. If you’re a coach or mentor, it might help you too.

I take the same 15-minute block of time and multiply it by four. Instead of just me and one other on a Zoom call, there are now four other people looking for help with a problem and me. Under strict rules of confidentiality, they each get 15 minutes using the same format as I described above. The only difference is that I speak much less in the 8-minute section (or not at all if I think someone else on the call could deliver more value).

This ‘one to many’ model doesn’t scale much beyond this point, but it does deliver each person 400% more perspective. The feedback I’ve received about this approach is overwhelmingly positive. And the best part is that camaraderie is established in a very short period, often with strangers because every participant has had the chance to give and receive.

One last thing…

Someone asking for help isn’t usually looking for you to solve problems for them. They are looking for your input to solve it.

Perspective is the antidote to paralysis.

The 15-minute solution is a framework that helps guard my time while helping people I wish to see succeed. Steal it shamelessly.