Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

Inside the Function

“Take your most important internal function,” Pablo instructed. “In the beginning, likely will be operations. What is the work most closely related to producing the product or delivering the service? Especially in the beginning, that is mostly short-term work, 1 day to 3 months. Most production roles have a supervisor, with longer term goals and objectives, 3 months to 12 months. The supervisory role is to make sure production gets done, completely, on time, within spec.”

“So, every production person knows they have a supervisor?” I added.

“And, every supervisor knows they have a manager,” Pablo smiled. “This is the beginning of structure, nested goals and objectives related to successive roles (context), a production role, to a supervisory role to a managerial role.”

“The roles are distinguished by longer timespan goals and objectives?” I suggested.

“Yes, the roles are different in that way, but also in the way they relate to each other. Organizational structure begins with nested timespan goals, but also includes the way we define two things associated with those role relationships.”

“Accountability and authority?” I chimed in.

Pablo nodded. “In this working relationship between the team member and the supervisor, what is the accountability? What is the authority?”

My turn to show off. “The accountability on the part of the team member is to apply their full capability in pursuit of the goals and objectives agreed to by their supervisor, in short, to do their best. It is the accountability of the supervisor to create the working environment that makes those goals and objectives possible (probable). It is the accountability of the supervisor for output.”

“And, the authority?” Pablo prompted.

“The authority to make decisions and solve problems appropriate to the level of work in the task.”

All About the Work

“Brent, let me get this straight. You said that your salespeople may not be doing their best because they may not be interested in the work? Do your salespeople understand the work?”

“You’re right! Sometimes, it’s like they are brain dead. They are just mechanistic, going through the motions,” Brent described.

“So, they understand the prescribed duties, show up, make a presentation, ask for the order. But let me confirm, they may not understand the problems that must be solved or the decisions that must be made to create a successful sale?”

“Exactly, I mean we train them and train them again on the presentation, until they have it memorized, down cold, but you are right, that does not make a successful sale. The success of the sale depends much more on the questions they ask and the data they collect about the customer’s problem.”

“So, as the Sales Manager, do you sit with your team and talk about the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made during the sales call? That’s where the work is. That’s where the excitement is. That’s where the challenge is. If you are looking for interest from the salesperson, the connection is in the work, not the prescribed duties.”

A Sale That Sticks

“You are going to have to go slow, because I am still not getting it,” Brent shook his head.

“In order to close the sale by the end of the second sales call, what are the problems that must be solved and the decisions that must be made by the salesperson?” I repeated.

“Well, we know that to make a sale that sticks, that doesn’t get canceled or delayed, we have to collect certain information, then do some research and then present a case that is difficult to resist. Right now, it can’t even be, just a good deal. It has to be difficult to turn down.

“If the first meeting is going too fast or the data we collect is too superficial, we cannot do the analysis and we won’t be able to make an irresistible offer. The salesperson has to use judgment to determine if the information is right. It’s almost a gut decision.”

“So, the work of the salesperson is using discretion to judge the pace and quality of data collected in the first sales call?” I confirmed.

“Absolutely, the customer, in the first three minutes will tell you how this sale is going down, if you listen.”

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?”

“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?”