Tag Archives: problem solving

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 the Team Avoids an Issue

“How do I know, working with my team, when we are dealing with a real issue?” Deana wanted to know.

“How does your stomach feel?” I asked.

“It feels fine,” she replied with a quizzical look.

“Then, we are just having polite conversation,” I nodded. “Have you ever sat in a meeting when someone said something that made you feel uncomfortable?”

Deana’s eyes glanced to the ceiling, then back to the conversation. She nodded with me. “Yep. We were working on a big project, tight deadline, behind schedule, angry client. In the meeting, the project manager jumped all over the ops manager, accused him of manipulating the project schedule to cover up the ops team being late. It was kind of creepy. Usually if someone has a beef with somebody else like that, they talk about it in private.”

“What impact did that have on the discussion?”

“Everything stopped. My manager was in the room. She called a halt to the meeting, said if they couldn’t get along, they would have to leave the meeting.”

“Then, what happened?”

“Everyone shut up and moved on to talk about the next project. It was under control, so things calmed down so we could finish our meeting.”

“So, what do you think was the real issue? And how did your stomach feel?” I prodded.

“So, if the conversation has my stomach doing flip-flops, then the team is probably facing a real issue?”

“And, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?”

Working Leadership comes to Austin TX. For more information, follow this link.
Here are the dates –

  • Session One – Aug 25, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Two – Sep 1, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Three – Sep 8, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Four – Sep 18, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Five – Sep 22, 2017, 1-4:30p
  • Session Six – Sep 28, 2017, 9a-12p

For registration information, ask Tom.

The Aretha Franklin Rule

From the Ask Tom mailbag.

Question:
I’m going to be promoted in July as a manager and I will have to manage 5 people who are older and more experienced than me. I have been working with 2 of them for a year and 2 of them are new to the company, the last person has no experience. My boss knows this will be a real challenge for me. He is promoting me because I have the technical ability to do the job. I need to work on my soft skills. I have strong analytical skills which are not always an asset to manage a team effectively. Do you have any advice?

Response:
Age and maturity is always a problem for a younger manager working with older team members. You will have to earn their respect and you will not be given much room for error.

Here is the principle I follow.

Every team member of an organization, in their pursuit of doing a good job, will always seek out the person who brings value to their problem solving and decision making.

Wouldn’t it be great if that person was the manager? Often, it’s not, and that is where the trouble begins. My advice to any manager who wants to be successful is very simple.

Bring value to the problem solving and decision making of your team.

That’s it. What can you do, as a manager, to bring value to the thinking and work of your team members? -Tom

No Longer the Glow of the Project

“Management is not all I thought it was,” Miriam explained.

“How so?” I asked.

“I started in the marketing department, working on projects by myself. It was satisfying. I would finish a project and I could stand back and look at it. My friends could admire the project. The project had a glow and it was me.”

“That’s because you are a results oriented person and the results were close at hand and tangible. What it different, now?”

“Now, it is slower,” Miriam started. “As a manager, I don’t get to work directly, I work through other people. The results of the project are the results of the effort of my team. I don’t get the glow out of the project, the team gets the glow. What do I get?”

“And this is frustrating?” I prompted.

“Yes, most of my problems, now, are not project problems, they are people problems. I can get the people problems resolved, but the glow is elusive. It is hard to put my finger on the result.”

“So, in your brief experience as a manager, where is the glow?”

“Sometimes, the glow doesn’t take place right away, and it is subtle, in the background,” Miriam stopped. “The glow for a manager is in the development of the team, learning, tackling tough issues and moving to tougher issues. It’s a very indirect glow. I used to have passion for the output of the project, now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“Congratulations, you have discovered the true role of a manager. You thought being a manager was so people could report to you. Management is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.” -Tom

Discretionary Judgment

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about work as making decisions and solving problems. You talk about discretionary judgment. When I tell a team member about their role (in a role description), it seems more like a list of tasks that have to be completed. How do I talk about discretionary judgment in a role description?

Response:
Most role descriptions are as you describe, a disorganized list of tasks and activities. But, when we hire a team member, we are not paying for their tasks and activities, we are paying for their discretionary judgment. If we were just paying for task completion, we would hire robots. And, every role has decisions to make and problems to solve. Every role requires discretionary judgment.

A typical supervisor task is to post a work schedule for the team for the following week. But that is just the outcome. Here is the discretionary judgment part.

This task requires the supervisor to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to team member vacations or other circumstances that will affect the team member’s attendance. And to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to production fluctuations which may require a reduction in shift personnel or overtime. The supervisor will use discretionary judgment to create the schedule based on those circumstances.

What Do You Look for in a Candidate?

“We are hiring for a new supervisor. And this time, there is no one on the inside that we can promote. We have a good crew of technicians, but none is going to be able to do what we need them to do. We have to go outside,” Roger explained. “What do we need to look for in the person we want to hire?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, what kind of person should we look for? You know, someone who is self-motivated, dependable. Someone who can project confidence to the team. That’s important, you know. We need someone who is flexible, who can adapt to change. Someone who is a team player, you know, someone who is good with people.”

“That’s all interesting, but what is the work?”

“It’s a supervisor. Supervisory work,” Roger floated.

“So, what is the work of a supervisor, in your company, what is the work?”

Roger looked at me blankly.

“Look,” I said, interrupting his stare. “You seem to be focused on trying to climb inside the head of the candidate without any real definition of the work that has to be done. In this role, what are the decisions that have to be made? What are the problems that have to be solved? I am more interested in whether the candidate has made those kinds of decisions and solved those kinds of problems.” -Tom

How to Bring Value to Decision Making

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was just promoted to a new role in my company, as an S-III manager. Every working relationship is now different. All these years, I avoided my manager because the only feedback I got was criticism, my task assignments seemed like barked orders. The less we talked, the better we got along, at least from my perspective.

As time went by, my manager moved on and I was tapped to take his place. So, now, I have a new manager. In your workshop, you said it is the role of every manager to bring value to the decision making and problem solving of each team member. While this is certainly advice for me as I work with my new team, I am more curious how I might kickstart things with my new manager. I refuse to stand by the same dysfunction I had with my old manager. How can I get the most out of the working relationship with my new manager?

Response:
First, congratulations on your promotion. I can see from your question why your company selected you. I assume your new manager is in a role at S-IV.

  • Clarify expectations
  • Organize expectations
  • Define the output
  • Schedule a recurring meeting
  • Set the agenda
  • Don’t skip the meeting

Clarify expectations
The central document to clarify expectations is a role description. The tendency is to assume understanding without a written agreement. Write it down.

Organize expectations
In your new role, you will be accountable for a range of outputs. An S-III role is a big role. You will have a long list of tasks and activities. Some of the things you do will go together, but some things will be separate and distinct from the other tasks and activities. All are important, none can be overlooked. Find the things that go together and collect them (in the role description) into a Key Area, a Key Result Area (KRA). Go back to your list and find the next things that go together, separate and distinct from the other tasks and activities. Collect them (in the role description) into another KRA. By the time you finish this exercise, you should have defined approximately 6-8 KRAs.

Define the output
In each KRA, based on the tasks and activities, define the output. What is the accountability in each KRA? Each Key Area must have at least one, no more than three defined outputs.

Schedule a recurring meeting
Schedule a recurring meeting with your manager, two hours, once per month. This meeting is just the two of you, 1-1. This is not a casual meeting, but a formal meeting with a start time and an end time. You set the agenda.

Set the agenda
Your agenda will follow the Key Result Areas (KRAs) you defined. Your role description will give you a general idea of the tasks and activities, as well as the defined output in each KRA. Your agenda will identify the specific actions and short term goals for the next thirty days. In the meeting, as you describe your intentions to your manager, you will make notes and commitments.

Don’t skip the meeting

There will always be something that seems more important at the appointed time of your meeting, but it’s not. The event that gets in the way of your meeting will be more urgent, but never more important.

This is the meeting where your manager will bring value to your decision making and problem solving. -Tom

Difference Between S-II and S-III Problem Solving

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
The manager understands he is accountable. The result he achieves on a key metric is well below the expectation which he or she clearly understood. They have achieved success before on this same metric but are now way off acceptable performance. What now?

Response:
Indeed, what now? Embedded in your question are stratum II descriptions of problem solving.

  • Solve problems based on experience.
  • Solve problems based on documented experience.
  • Solve problems based on best practices.
  • Solve problems according to standard operating procedures.

All of these methods have delivered output according to the metric before. They achieved success before on this same metric, but now, are way off acceptable performance. What now?

They now face a problem they have not faced before and their stratum II problem solving methods fail them. Understand this team can solve all the routine problems, but now faced with this problem, they struggle, even the supervisor. This is where the stratum III manager must step in. This problem requires a stratum III solution.

  • Solve problems through root cause analysis.
  • Solve problems through A-B testing.
  • Solve problems through comparative analysis.
  • Solve problems through what-if?

Solving problems with these methods requires a higher level of capability on the part of the manager. And that’s what a manager is for, to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.

Team members can solve the routine problems and make the routine decisions, it’s when they struggle, they need the active support and coaching from their manager. This is the critical nature of managerial accountability and the building block of organizational structure.

Just Promoted, No Respect

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was just promoted to the supervisory position on a crew I worked with for the past 2 years. Unfortunately, I am having a hard time gaining the trust and respect of my co-workers as well as other supervisors and managers. It seems to be difficult for some to grasp the fact that I have been entrusted with the responsibility for this team. It might be the fact that I have not had a great deal of time in the position, as of yet, so hopefully it may get better with time and my ability to be patient. But if there is any bit of advice and/or support that you may be able to provide, I am all ears.

Response:
It is always tough to become a new supervisor, to an existing peer group or a new group. A new supervisor always means change. And most people don’t like change, at least they don’t like the unknown parts of change.

Respect comes, not from the authority of the position, or the experience of the supervisor. Respect comes from bringing value to the work and thinking of the individuals on the team.

Team members always seek out the person in the company that brings value to their decision making and problem solving. If it happens to be their supervisor, that’s great. All too often, it’s not.

Think about it. We all work for two bosses. We work for the boss who is assigned to us, and we work for the boss we seek out. The boss we seek out is the one who brings value to our work, our thinking and our lives.

So, if you are the new supervisor, that’s the boss you need to be.