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Maggie Harlow

My Signshop Is Full of Snakes, Hawks and Bears

I’ve got a zoo of problems on my hands, but at least I’ve categorized them.




THERE’S A SEEMINGLY endless array of problems to solve in our businesses. People issues, machinery issues, regulatory issues, technical issues, client issues, financial issues. This month I want to focus on identifying problems and their urgency, versus their importance. Yes, there’s a difference.

Often we have so many issues coming at us, we just end up tackling things without much regard to the selection. Maybe it’s whatever is easiest. Or when a VIP client is involved. Or maybe we just hope many of them solve themselves and tackle the ones that won’t go away.

One method I’ve learned from my mentors is to take time to categorize your issues and problems. Organizing them makes it easier to see the issues more clearly and to prioritize what gets attention now versus later. Using the analogy of predatory animals (and who doesn’t often feel stalked by their problems?) can simplify how to think about the issues and address them more deliberately.

SNAKES — Problems that quietly slither up on you, low-lying, but still dangerous. They don’t move fast, so you can evade them temporarily when you know they’re present. You can outrun them for a bit, but they just keep creeping forward. Snake problems are things like overstock of inventory, a bad employee who is eroding goodwill, a truck that doesn’t want to start on cold mornings.

Snake problems need to be addressed, but they can be managed unless they are ignored for a long time. They’re quiet and can easily be put off till later, but should be on your ‘to do’ list in the short term, not long term!


HAWKS — Problems that are circling overhead, waiting for an opportunity to do damage. They aren’t evident unless you’re actively looking for them, and you generally have plenty of opportunity to do something — or you can choose to ignore them, hoping they’ll eventually go away.

Good examples of hawk problems are rising costs of payroll, a new competitor that’s targeting your clients, advancements in technology that you don’t explore, an aging facility that’s starting to look dusty and scruffy.

BEARS — Problems that are likely close on your heels, you may be in a full sprint from, or you’re having to decide quickly how to handle them. These kinds of problems are immediate, must be dealt with and are truly hazardous to your business!

Good examples would be a sign that has fallen down and needs immediate repair, a project that went off the rails and is due tomorrow, or an employee who must be terminated for something dangerous or egregious (stealing, endangering employees, etc.).

While you’re sitting quietly, assess what kinds of issues you are dealing with and make a list. Categorize them methodically and give yourself time to think about them and decide on some next steps and timing.

  • Snakes — Think how you might keep yourself out of harm’s way while you devise a solution. Take action, but maybe not today. Be aware of snakes and where they lie in your business world. Keep a very close eye on them until you act.
  • Hawks — You might determine which are circling closest and decide next steps. No rush on dealing with Hawks right away, as some may fly off in the meantime. Always keep an eye on the sky, however. Delays here are manageable but have a plan and timing in mind.
  • Bears — This one you shouldn’t think too hard about. Act, whether that’s a write up, a conversation, change in policy or a meeting with a client/vendor/employee. Do not delay. Even making a mistake in this situation is better than doing nothing!

While I’m not offering much in the way of solutions to your problems, this might help you organize your thinking, prioritize what you need to do first, and have clarity and focus on your future.


Maggie Harlow is the CEO of Signarama Downtown Louisville (Louisville, KY), one of the largest and most prestigious locations for the global sign franchise. Contact Maggie at



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