Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

By Design

“I keep telling my team that we need to be proactive,” Lonnie said. He wasn’t defensive, but you could tell he wasn’t having any fun.

“So, tell me what happens?” I asked.

Lonnie shook his head. “It’s just day after day. The problems jump up. You know, it’s not like we don’t have a clue. We know what problems customers are going to have. Heck, we even know which customers are going to call us. We just don’t ever get ahead of the curve.”

“Lonnie, being reactive is easy. It doesn’t require any advance thinking, or planning, or anticipating. Being reactive just happens.

“Being proactive, however, requires an enormous amount of conscious thinking. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. You have to make it happen by design.

“At the beginning of the day, I want you to gather your team together. Show them a list of the work you are doing for the day and for which customers. Then ask these two questions.
–What could go wrong today?
–What can we do to prevent that from going wrong?”

Lonnie smiled. “That’s it?” he asked.

Any Decision, Any Problem

Think about any decision. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that decision immediately, but also the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate positive consequence may create the circumstance for a negative consequence in three months time.

Same thing goes for a problem to be solved. You have to think about, not only the consequences of that solution in the near term, but the consequences in a month, three months or a year. An immediate solution may create the circumstances for a larger problem in three months time.

Take a high mileage vehicle and extend its preventive maintenance cycle by 30 days. You will save the cost of a maintenance cycle. In three months time, you will not likely notice any difference, but over two years time, you may experience catastrophic vehicle failure. And, it may not just be the cost of the repair, but the delay in the critical path of a project (just to save an oil change).

A World That No Longer Exists

Best Practices are based on past experience, a best practice to a problem that we already solved. Necessary but not sufficient.

Past experience may be helpful, but seldom covers all the bases. Past experience seldom anticipates change and often misses critical elements that will be different in the future.

Best Practices are what we teach in school. Those who live by Best Practices will find themselves perfectly equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Accomplishment always happens in the future.

Whose Idea Is It, Anyway?

“But, I am the manager. Everyone is counting on me,” Bryce pushed back.

“Then, why are you in here, by yourself?” I asked.

“I have a problem to solve. It’s a serious problem. Everyone is counting on me to solve the problem. It is my responsibility.”

“Is it your responsibility to solve the problem with the best solution you can come up with, or the best solution to the problem? Have you thought about stepping outside yourself, asking for help, other perspectives? Yes, you are accountable for the best solution, but, no one said it had to be your idea.”

I Already Had the Answer

“So, you didn’t like the idea?” I asked.

“No, and I should have listened to my sales-guy,” Rory replied. “We spent a bunch of engineering time creating a perfect solution that the customer didn’t want. We thought the prototype would WOW them to our way of thinking. All it did, was drive them to our competitor.”

“If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?”

“First, I would listen. Before the problem was completely explained, I thought I already had the answer. I missed some key elements in the problem.”

“And, what else?”

“I think,” Rory glanced to the ceiling and back to me, “that I have to suspend my own judgement for a while. I have to see the problem from the customer’s perspective. Until I can see that, I will make the decision according to my criteria, instead of developing criteria from the customer’s perspective.”

The problem you solve is the problem you name. Make sure you name the right problem. -Pat Murray

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Before you make any decision, before you solve any problem –

  • What do you need to know, to more clearly understand the problem?
  • Does what you know point to the symptom of the problem, or point to the cause the problem?
  • If you gave the cause of the problem a name, what would be its name?
  • What else do you need to know, to more clearly understand the cause of this problem you named?
  • Do you know enough about the cause of the problem to generate a plausible solution, or do you need to know more?
  • How would you explain the cause of the problem to someone else?
  • If you were someone else, how would you understand the cause of the problem differently?
  • If you were someone else, what other alternatives would you suggest?
  • As you consider these alternatives, could some be combined? Could you take the front end of one idea and patch it to the back end of another?
  • What would happen if you ran an alternative backward or upside-down?

Sometimes, solving a problem has more to do with questions than answers.

In the Gap

Humans possess the unique quality of awareness. Not only can we hold a thought, but we can simultaneously be aware we are holding that thought. Awareness allows us to change.

The first level of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is awareness. Self-awareness creates the platform for self-management.

The second level of Emotional Intelligence is social awareness. Social awareness creates the platform for relationship management.

For difficulties in either level, ask yourself – What am I not aware of?

This requires you to be quiet and observe – What am I not clearly seeing, clearly hearing, clearly feeling?

This requires defined periods of focused introspection – What is the cause of my response to the events around me? What is the influence to my behavior?

Awareness is that gap between stimulus and response, between what is coming at us and how we respond to it. In that gap is our choice. In that gap is awareness.

We have the unique ability to be aware. Awareness can have a powerful impact on the problems we solve and the decisions we make.

The Possibility of Wrong

Open minded people can hold on to their own way of thinking, while, at the same time, considering alternate points of view.

There is always the possibility that you are wrong, if you are open to that possibility. It is also possible the other viewpoint is wrong, if you are open to that possibility.

If you are not open to the possibility, then you can only solve the problem one way. And, if that doesn’t work, you are hopelessly stuck.

The possibility of wrong opens other alternatives, that just may contain the idea that saves the day. But, only if it’s possible that you are wrong.