Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

Toward a More Accurate Prescription

“To determine the cause of the problem,” I continued, “you have to look at more than symptoms. Look at any medical doctor. Before they can prescribe a remedy, they are trained to look at very specific things. I assume you have a physician?” I asked.

Sarah laughed, “Of course.”

“When you go to see the doctor, after the pleasantries, what does the doctor ask about?”

“That’s easy,” Sarah said. “She asks me where it hurts?”

“Not only where does it hurt, but is the pain specific or general? Is it an ache, or a sharp stick? Does it happen all the time or only occasionally? If only occasionally, what happened right before you noticed the pain?”

“Yes,” Sarah nodded.

“These are symptoms, the kind of things your team members complain about,” I said, “but they are only symptoms. But while the doctor is asking you about your symptoms, what else is she doing?”

“That’s funny,” Sarah replied. “While she is asking me questions, she is listening with her stethoscope, tapping my knees with a little rubber hammer.”

“So, not only is she listening for symptoms, she is also looking for signs. Symptoms, the things you (your team members) complain about may mislead. The doctor must also look for signs, evidence of something amiss. That is the point of diagnostic tests, blood work, x-rays.”

“That’s it?” Sarah asked.

“Nope. With the symptoms and signs, the doctor must now rely on a theory that ties them together. When you described the feedback you got from your team, that there was a communication problem, that was only a symptom. In addition to the symptom, we also have to look for signs, like a reduction in productivity or confusion in delivering our services. And, with those two together, we now must rely on a theory that ties them together to arrive at the proper diagnosis.

“Your communication seminar was based on a breakdown in communication. Your outcome from the communication seminar was neutral at best. More likely, the problem occurred from an absence in defining the accountability and the authority in the working relationship. Accountability and authority is a completely different organizational theory than a communication theory. Only when we apply the right framework, can we make a more accurate diagnosis and prescription.”

The Story of Our Intentions

“Once you understand this elegant simplicity, that timespan is nothing more complicated than the time measure of our intentions, the story of our intentions, the target completion time of our goals and objectives,” Pablo started, “you can begin to see that timespan is going to touch every aspect of a manager’s life.”

“Starting with?” I asked.

“You would agree with me that some problems are simple and most people can solve them?”

I nodded.

“You would also agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

I nodded again.

“And, while some struggle, others see the solution clearly. And, as those problems become more complex, more struggle. And, yet, there are still those who see solutions clearly.”

“I am still with you,” I confirmed.

“If we measure those problems in timespan, we get a clear demarcation of the problem’s complexity and those individuals who struggle and those who see clearly. For thousands of years, we have intuitively created organizations where we observe multiple levels of problem solving by different levels of people, but without a metric to measure that complexity. Timespan becomes the metric by which we can measure the complexity of problems and more accurately select people to clearly solve those problems.”

Based on Objective Measures

“But, if a forklift driver has enough experience on the resume, and properly answers a few questions, isn’t that enough for the manager to make the right hiring decision?” I asked.

“One would think,” Pablo replied. “But, it begs the age-old question, ‘How big is the role? And, how big is the person?’ Two questions, pretty simple.”

“I am following you, but, I don’t think it is as simple as you say. Or else, we would have figured it out by now.”

“Often, it is because we are looking, desperately so, in the wrong places. We think if we can simply understand human behavior, it will all fall into place. So, we try to measure human behavior. If you ask any CEO their biggest challenge, it is almost always, right people, right seats. Even psychologists struggle with measuring human behavior. They arrive at psychometric assessments with some statistical repeatability that they call reliable. The problem is, just because I can demonstrate repeatability in one measured system does not mean it is causative or a predictive indicator for something else. Where the art of engineering is built on objective measures of physics, and medicine is built on objective measures in anatomy, physiology and bio-chemistry, the art of management is, for the most part, built on alchemy, which is of little use in predicting decision making and problem solving.”

“Objective measures, in the art of management? Predictive in decision making and problem solving?” I repeated the statement as a question.

Pablo nodded. “Let me give you three buckets of water, one iced-cold, one room temperature and one heated, but not boiling. Put your right hand in the heated bucket and your left hand in the iced-cold bucket. After a moment, remove your right hand and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“It will appear cold, because of the change in temperature,” I replied.

“Now, take your left hand from the iced-cold bucket and place it in the room temperature bucket. Is the water warm or cold?”

“To my left hand, it will appear warm, while my right hand in the same bucket will feel cold.”

“Well, which is it?” Pablo asked. “Warm or cold?”

“It depends on the context,” I nodded.

“Change the context, behavior follows,” Pablo smiled. And waited. “And if I placed a thermometer in the room temperature water and said, ‘your experience of the water, whether warm or cold is of little consequence, the water is 75 degrees.’

“Now, we have an objective measure upon which we can all agree, no matter if it feels warm or cold, the water is 75 degrees. What does that have to do with management?” I wanted to know.

“Even more important,” Pablo replied, “what would an objective measure have to do with the art of decision making and problem solving? How big is the role, how big is the person?

Impact of Thoughts

“You’re serious,” said Nathan.

“As serious as a heart attack,” I replied.

“You want me to actually try to think about Mr. Johnston watching me whenever I have a big decision to make?”

“It’s better than allowing your worst boss into your head.”

“It’s funny,” said Nathan. “It kind of makes sense. I just don’t know why. It’s weird.”

“Here’s the thing, Nathan. You are what you think about. Only you have control over what you think about. You can think positive thoughts or you can think negative thoughts. But whichever thoughts you think will be the thoughts that influence your decisions, your problem solving. Those thoughts will ultimately define who you are.”

Who Listens to Whom?

“If you don’t think I should have given the team my list of ideas before asking for their ideas, why didn’t you just say so?” Susan curtly asked.

“Would you have listened to me?” I replied. “Does your team listen to you?”

“Apparently, my team does NOT listen to me,” Susan stopped. “My team doesn’t listen to me, and I don’t listen to you. Nobody’s listening.”

“If your team is not listening to you, what could you do differently?” I smiled. “Remember, the goal is NOT to get them to listen to you (because they won’t), but to get their ideas on how to speed up daily output?”

Susan was obstinate, but the questions were breaking her down.

I continued. “If your team is not listening to YOUR ideas, whose ideas will they listen to?”

Susan was reluctant to reply, but she finally did. “I guess they will only listen to their own ideas.”

What Was the Purpose?

“What would you do differently, to get a different outcome?” I repeated.

“I don’t know,” Susan replied. “They are just not a very creative team. I don’t know why I even try to get ideas from them.”

“Susan, what if I told you that your team is as creative as any team I have ever seen work together, and that you, as their manager, have to find a different way to get them to contribute?”

“I would say you were wrong.”

I nodded. “Yes, and if your team really was a creative team, what could you do differently?”

Susan realized I was not going to let this go, but she was still stumped in silence.

I continued. “When you gave the team a list of your ideas up front, before asking for their ideas, what were you communicating? Not with words, but with the list?”

“You mean I should not have given them my list?” Susan asked.

“What was your purpose in calling the meeting?”

“I wanted to get the team’s ideas,” she replied.

“To get ideas from the team, what could you have done differently?”

What Would You Do Differently?

“I don’t understand,” Susan complained. “My team just isn’t very creative, they never contribute ideas.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have a problem meeting our output goals, some days we fall a little short, some days we fall short by a lot,” she started. “I called a meeting to get some ideas on how we could speed things up. To kickstart the meeting, I distributed a list of my ideas and then asked for ideas from the team.”


“And, I got no response, zero, nothing. The team just sat there, avoiding eye contact, looking at the ceiling, doodling on my list. Someone said they liked my ideas. After two minutes I adjourned the meeting. The team was worthless.”

“Then what happened?”

“That’s the worst part. One of my ideas was to start on time, but when I called out half the team for being late to start, all I got was grumbling. That day, we had the worst level of productivity of the week.”

“So, if you had the meeting to do over again, what would you do differently?” I prompted.

Susan just shook her head. “I would have cancelled the meeting before it started,” she snapped.

“But, if you DID have the meeting, what would you do differently to get a different outcome?”

Negative Stream

Around the water cooler, have you noticed the tone of conversation?

  • “Did you hear about so and so, can you believe what happened?”
  • “You should have seen this guy who cut me off in traffic this morning.”
  • “Can you believe the gall of that person, why are they so opinionated?”

And, most of this is unconscious. It comes streaming out with little thought, guidance or direction. So easy to find fault, condemn or complain.

Ask a person about something good that happened yesterday, and they will stop, suddenly out of flow. Something positive requires conscious thought, does not come streaming out. We can usually find that positive moment from yesterday, but we have to interrupt our unconscious negative stream to do so.

The negative stream and positive thoughts sit in two different parts of the brain. Negative thoughts, from the primal brain arrive from a mental state of survival. Reflexive in speed, we don’t have to think. Positive thoughts require that we trigger the neo-cortex, fully visible on a fMRI brain scan. Responsive in speed, we have to think. Which part of the brain are you thinking with? Which mental state are you using to solve problems and make decisions?

Getting to the Defect

“So, how did it go?” I asked.

“I thought my team was on the edge of revolt,” she replied. “But, turns out, they solved the problem for me.”

“How did that happen?”

“I knew how I wanted this problem solved, but, instead of telling the team what to do, I just asked questions and listened. At first, the ideas went in the wrong direction, so I asked the question in a different way. I was surprised. They gave me the solution I was looking for. And, before I could say anything, they volunteered to fix the problem.

“It seems the defect on the plastic parts were all from the same lot number. Sherman volunteered to run the defective parts over a grinder to remove the burr, but it was Andrew who surprised me.

“He volunteered to call the molding company and find out what was causing the burr. In fact, he left the meeting for five minutes and had the answer. The molder knew there was a problem with that lot, but didn’t think it would matter. He has since fixed the problem, sending a short run over for us to inspect. Andrew said he would be standing by.”

“So, why does this surprise you?” I asked.

“Instead of a confrontation, turns out, all I had to do was ask two questions.”

“So, what are you going to do with the rest of your day?”

Most Difficult Thing To Do

Cheryl was impatient to get to her meeting. She knew how this get-together would be different. Her behavior would be the first to change. Instead of a one-way interaction, Cheryl planned to ask questions and listen.

“I know listening is important,” she said.

“It is the easiest thing to do and also the most difficult,” I prompted. “Tell me, what will you be listening for?”

“I will be listening for good ideas to solve this Quality Control issue,” Cheryl was quick to answer.

“That’s a good start, but the solution isn’t the hard part. Heck, they know the solution. The hard part is getting the solution executed. That’s where you have been getting push-back.”

Cheryl glanced at the ceiling, then at the table. “You’re right. The resistance has been implementing the inspection program. I will just have to try to understand their position better.”

“Cheryl, it’s more than listening for understanding. Understanding only gets you halfway there. You have to listen for discovery. You have to discover where their position intersects with your position. Only when you find that intersection, that common ground, can you begin a conversation to build the best solution. When you find that common ground, you will begin to build the trust necessary to gain the willing cooperation of your team.”

Cheryl lifted her pen to the paper on the table. She drew a line and wrote “the team.” She drew another line crossing and labeled it “me.” Where the lines intersected, she wrote “the starting place.”