Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

Frustrated or Curious?

“You look a little rigid today,” I said, looking across the table.

“Yes,” Roland nodded. “I am having an argument with my sales manager and I just cannot move him off his position.”

“And, that makes you feel how?”

“Frustrated. If he would just listen to me, we could solve this problem straight away.”

“How are you, when you don’t listen?” I asked.

“When I don’t listen, it’s because I am right,” Roland flatly stated.

“Does your sales manager thinks he is right?”

Roland stopped, shook his head. Deep breath. “Yes,” he slowly drawled.

“So, if you both think you are right, how are you going to find out who is wrong? You get to decide if you want to be frustrated or curious.”

Benefit of NOT Solving the Problem By Yourself

As a manager, you are often faced with a problem to solve. And, you think, if I could just get my team involved, there are some benefits. Team problem solving –

  • Communicates the accountability to the team
  • Brings in a diversity of fresh ideas
  • Brings in ideas that can be combined with other ideas
  • Challenges the team to contribute their best thinking
  • Brings in other perspectives on what the real problem is
  • Surfaces additional “what if” scenarios
  • Speeds execution of the solution

So, why don’t we get our team involved more often?

  • We don’t have time
  • Our team members are already overworked
  • Our team members are too busy to attend a problem solving meeting
  • It’s not their problem

Our objections are just head-trash. Every time the manager solves a problem for the team, it cripples the team from engaging in problem-solving behavior.

The team still needs a guide. And when you float the problem, they will resist, at first they will panic. Your job, as a manager, is to simply outlast the panic. If you want to build a team, give them a real problem to solve. -Tom

The Sight of a Newbie

“Not sure what to try next,” Melissa lamented. “I have my best people on the problem and they are stumped.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, it just doesn’t make sense. We have tried every resolution, every best practice related to a problem like this.”

I waited for Melissa to stop, to take a pause in her thinking. “I talked to one of your new teammates this morning and he said he might have a solution,” I said.

“I know who you are talking about,” Melissa replied. “He’s new. He has never seen a problem like this. He needs to stick to his orientation training, maybe he will learn a thing or two.”

“Is it possible your new teammate can see the fix for your problem, and that if he completes the training, he might not be able to see it anymore?”

Legacy Thinking

The landscape is littered with technology initiatives that died. Some wimpered, some imploded, collecting significant collateral damage.

We know what happened and why it happened. The question – how to create technology initiatives that deliver on the promise?

What got you here, won’t get you there. – Marshall Goldsmith

The solution to a problem will not be found by the same thinking that created the problem in the first place. – Albert Einstein

Many technology initiatives fail in an attempt to preserve existing methods and processes. Adopting a piece of software supplants existing work. Technology changes the decision making and problem solving of humans. Human work changes.

Mother of Invention

The point is to determine the best alternative. Not the best alternative that you can imagine, but the best alternative that is possible. Step one requires temporarily suspending judgement, to consider alternatives outside of your own experience or imagination. Without suspending judgement, outside ideas get filtered.

But, why waste time on outside ideas that are likely nonsense?

See, you already filtered those outside ideas as nonsense.

Suspending judgement is difficult, because it requires you might have to admit you were wrong in your assumptions.

Suspending judgement, temporarily requires that you consider ridiculous alternatives. And if you consider ridiculous alternatives, it frees your mind to generate more ridiculous alternatives in a chain of ideas containing many elements, one of which may actually save the day. Idea fluency.

You may never get to the idea that saves the day without the meanderings of ridiculous alternatives. When we temporarily suspend judgement, it gives us permission to consider things run backward, the front end of one idea connected to the back end of another idea, the ridiculous context of one idea as the crucible for the right idea.

Productive by Design

The response in the room was silence. Everyone counted, one, two, three, waiting for Jeanine to nod her head indicating that the discussion was over. Today would be different.

The team knew that the less they contributed, the less they could be held accountable. Jeanine would describe an issue or a problem, and then ask for ideas. No one ever had any ideas. No ideas meant no accountability. The team was not doing this on purpose. Most counterproductive thinking is unconscious.

Productive thinking requires conscious thought. It most often happens by design, rarely happens by chance. Jeanine’s statement of the issue played right into the hands of chance. “The customer is complaining that their product is always late, even though they know it was manufactured by the deadline. Does anyone have any ideas?”

Chance of an idea? Fat chance.

We changed Jeanine’s question to make it more specific. “In what ways can we move the customer’s product from our manufacturing floor to the staging area and onto the truck in less time?” Suddenly, there were seven ideas.

Productive thinking happens by design. Make your question more specific. You will get more ideas.

The Underlying Problem

Often, the problem we seek to solve is only a symptom of something underneath. We examine the symptom to identify its root cause. And, sometimes, even root cause analysis fails us.

Sometimes, the root cause does not lie in the problem, but in the way we see the problem. The way we talk about a problem is a function of what we believe, our assumptions about the problem.

Does the way we state a problem have an impact on the way we approach the solution?

What we say is what we believe.

Before we grapple with the problem, it is important to understand our beliefs and assumptions about the problem. It could be the problem is not the problem. The problem could be what we believe about the problem that is simply not true.

Three Magic Words

“I don’t why my manager is so bull-headed,” Marjorie complained. “He asks for my advice and then argues with me. It’s infuriating.”

“Infuriating?” I asked.

“Yes, just because he has his opinion doesn’t mean he is right.”

“Marjorie, seldom are things so stark that one person is right and the other wrong, but if that is the case, doesn’t it make sense to make sure you are not the person who is wrong? The only way you can do that is through thoughtful dialogue.”

“Oh, yeah, and how am I supposed to do that?” Marjorie wanted to know.

“Three magic words. In the face of disagreement, just say – Tell me more.”

How to Cripple a Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

Faced with a problem to solve, my team never really comes up with anything. Sometimes it seems they just want me to tell them what to do so they don’t have to think. We are really busy, so most times, I give in, tell them the answer and get them back to work. But, at the end of the day, I am exhausted.

Of course they want you to tell them what to do. If you tell them what to do, then they are not responsible for the solution. Every time you solve a problem that the team should solve, you cripple the team from solving the next problem.

It’s a tough assignment for you to turn down. You get all the glory, you get to strut, you get to be the head Fred, you get to be the go-to guy when there is a problem to solve. It feels good AND it destroys your team.

Most of all, your team likes it that way. They are relieved of the difficult decisions.

This is not just a method called team problem solving, this is a mind-set on the part of the manager. If you want to build a team, give them a problem to solve. As the manager, you may have to help define the problem, facilitate alternate solutions and ask questions related to the best solution, but let the silence do the heavy lifting.

I can always tell a team is stuck when they fail to solve the same problem they had a year ago. I can always tell a team is growing when they trade in the problems from a year ago (now solved) for a new set of problems for tomorrow. -Tom

Not the Manager’s Problem to Solve

“Timing?” Miriam repeated. “I don’t wait for the team to struggle. I don’t wait for the panic when the problem emerges?”

“As soon as you put the problem on the table, the panic will ensue. Let’s say you have three head-strong team members, individually, they are all very competent in their roles. But, whenever they have to work together, the three butt heads, with their own opinions about the direction of the project. In this state, emotions run high, cooperation and support disappears, there is passive agreement in public and aggressive backstabbing in private. As the manager, on this project, you need mutual support and cooperation. What do you do?”

“When I see the misbehavior, I would sit them down, individually, and communicate my expectations. I would explain that I would monitor their behavior and that I would not tolerate disagreement and shouting.” Miriam stopped. “I think you are going to suggest something different.”

“This is not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic.” -Tom