Category Archives: Problem Solving Skills

Wasn’t My Fault (Was It?)

Eight managers and a senior VP sit around the table, this table of Eager Beavers, Vacationers and Hostages. What will prevent them from participating? What will drive them to contribute with enthusiasm?

“Houston, we have a problem!!” booms the senior VP. Enter FEAR stage right. The VP just raised the spectre of fear. Here’s the question, “Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution?”

I could see the Face of Fear as I looked around the room. The silent responses were predictable. The darting eyes spoke volumes. Beneath the whisper level, emotions pounded.

  • It wasn’t my fault, (was it?)
  • It couldn’t have been my fault, (could it?)
  • It was supposed to happen that way, (wasn’t it?)
  • Since it wasn’t my fault, it must have been Tim’s fault (right?)
  • I didn’t approve that, (did I?)

Multiply those responses by the eight managers and then calculate what has been accomplished so far. What headway has been made toward solving the problem in Houston? Worse yet, if no headway has been made, what direction is everyone looking?

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? The mindset around the table is looking for blame, a scapegoat, something, anything to deflect responsibility for the problem in Houston. Everyone is checking out, the quicker the better, last one standing holds the bag. Disengage, no eye contact, pass the buck, Chuck.

As the Manager, you don’t know who has the idea that is going to save the day. You cannot afford to have a single person disengage from the meeting. You need full engagement from everyone in the room for the entire meeting. One idea, one phrase, one twisted word may trigger the solution.

Does the way you state the problem have anything to do with the way people approach the solution? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution.

IWWCW. In what way can we increase sales in our Houston territory? Take the problem and create a positive question that points toward the solution. Now, look around the room. You will find positive engagement. It is impossible not to. (Sorry, for the double negative.)

A bit of science. The human mind cannot “not answer” a question. (Another double negative.) The way the human brain is wired, when presented with a question, it is impossible for the mind to do anything other than search for the answer. If you want to engage the mind, ask it a question. If you want to engage a team, ask them a question. If you want to engage a team to solve a problem, state the problem as a postive question that points toward the solution. In what way can we…?

What’s Wrong With My Org Chart?

“What’s wrong with my org chart?” Ron wanted to know.

“You tell me,” I said.  “An org chart is just a piece of paper with a picture of the way you think.”

“What do you mean?”

“Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people.  Org structure is a mental construct, your mental picture of the way people ought to get on together at work.  You drew the picture.  What did you have in mind?  You tell me where the friction is?”

“Okay,” Ron started.  “Just this morning, the sales manager called a meeting with the marketing manager to talk about their expenses to date related to the budget each submitted at the end of last year.”

“And?”

“And, the marketing manager said it wasn’t the sales manager’s business to see how marketing dollars are spent.  She tactfully refused to attend the meeting.  She said the sales manager was NOT her manager and declined to go.”

“What was your response?” I asked.

“I had to admit, the marketing manager has a point.  The sales manager is not her manager.  When she took the position, we were very clear that it was her department.  She has very clear objectives and unless she is off track, we expect her to run things without interference.  But, still, declining to go to the meeting seemed a little insensitive.”

“So, when you think about their working relationship, how do you see it?  Clearly, neither is each other’s manager.” I said.

“Well, they seem to get along fine, at least until this meeting thing,” Ron shook his head.

“Let me be more specific in my question,” I replied.  “How do you see these two questions? –

  • In their working relationship, what is the accountability for each of them?
  • In their working relationship, what is their authority?

“Well, when you put it that way, marketing should coordinate with sales, and sales should coordinate with marketing.  We have significant trades shows we attend that eat up a lot of marketing budget.  Our trade show booth is generally staffed with people from the sales department.  So, the two departments need to coordinate together.  The company has a high vested interest in their coordination.”

“And, in their working relationship, what is their authority to make what decisions?”

“Each department has a department budget, submitted each year and approved by their manager?”

“Same manager, between the two of them?”

“Yes, our VP of business development is the manager of both,” Ron clarified.

“How clearly have you spelled out their accountability and authority in the work they do together?  You just explained it to me, how well have you explained it to them?”

“But, they are supposed to work together, shouldn’t they be able to figure it out?” Ron asked.

“Apparently not.  You think you understand their working relationship, in fact, on your org chart, you drew a dotted line.  So, the situation looks like insensitivity, when the friction is because you failed to define the accountability and the authority in that dotted line.  You put the dotted line there for a reason, but failed to define it.”

Spares?

“Looking at the future,” Glen contended, “we are desperately looking for that new something that is going to help replace some our declining lines of business. We find something, we gear up for it, commit some people to the project, but so far, all of those projects have failed. We end up pulling the plug.”

“Who have you committed to these new projects?” I asked.

“Well, they are new projects, so we generally take those people that we can spare from our core project lines.”

“Are these your best and brightest people?”

“Well, no. Our best people are still running our core projects. But we can usually spare a couple of people from one of their teams.”

“So, you are trying to cobble together a launch team, in an untried project area, where unforeseen problems have to be detected and corrected, and you are doing this with spares?”

Freedom in Limits

“But, I want my team to feel free to approach problems on their own terms,” Monica insisted.  “I don’t want to stifle their creativity.  But often, my team just wanders in a state of confusion, trying to solve a problem that’s not that difficult.”

“It’s a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?” I replied.  “We think if we set limits, then we stifle the team, when limits can be actually be very productive.  If we set the limits too narrow, then there is little opportunity to discover a new or better method.  Yet, if we set the limits too wide, we promote confusion, disarray, introduce delay.”

“That’s what I see, I think I am promoting creativity by giving free reign, but the outcome often falls short,” Monica nodded.

“The thing is, we live with limits all the time.  Social structures are designed to impose limits on those involved.  Organizational structures are designed to define the limits within which reality lives.  They are not designed to stifle, but designed to release creativity in real productive ways.”

“Like, when I tell the team to contribute ideas where money is no object, when the reality is, there is always a limit to the budget.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “You may gather ideas with an unlimited budget, but there is always that reality that tempers the ideas.  Brainstorming has its place, but so does problem-solving.”

Setting Context

“One of my main responsibilities, as a manager, is to set the context for my team? What do you mean?” Paula asked. “I assume this is more than introducing each other.”

“It’s all about the work,” I replied. “Context starts with a clear understanding of the task at hand. What is the quantity, quality standard, necessary resources and the time frame. QQT/R.

“Next, is how that assigned task fits with the larger picture, that you, as a manager are accountable for. This provides the team with an understanding of just how big their role is, in the larger picture.

“Context also includes the work their teammates are doing, work that intersects with their work, work output they may be waiting for, work output they produce that someone else may be waiting for.

“Context answers the questions – How do I fit in? What is the importance of the work I am doing? What do others depend on me for? One of the primary accountabilities for every manager is to set context for the team.”

99 Dumb Ideas

Todd raised his hand. “I have an idea,” he said, in response to my question to the group. I nodded, he continued, explaining a thumbnail of a solution to the problem.

“That’s a really dumb idea,” I said. There was a silent gasp. Eyes got wide. Blank stares remained frozen.

“What just happened?” I asked.

Marion spoke first. “You just shot Todd,” she said.

“And what was the team’s response? More specifically, how many of you are now willing to contribute your idea to solve this problem?” I pressed. Around the room there were no takers. Weirdly quiet. I smiled with my next questions.

“How many months have we spent working together, to gain each other’s trust? Side by side, we grappled with problems, solving them, trading those problems for another set of problems, working together, growing together?” I stopped.

“And, yet, how long did it take to stop this team in its tracks?” I continued. “Ideas are fragile. In search of an idea to solve a problem requires a risk from each of you in the room. And, we just saw how quickly all the work and all the trust can be sidelined in one sentence. So, ground rules for the next 60 minutes –

  • No idea is a dumb idea.
  • Every idea has the possibility of spurring the next idea.
  • Ideas can be built on each other, subtle variations may make the difference.
  • Ideas can be seen forward, backward and sideways.
  • One part of an idea can be coupled with a different part of another idea.
  • If the best idea is 1 in a 100, then I need 99 ideas that don’t work to find the idea that saves the day.

It’s Just Wrong

“But, that’s just wrong,” Jeffrey pressed. “I tell my team what’s wrong and then tell them to fix it. It’s up to them how. I am not going to spoon-feed the solution. I want them to figure it out.”

“And, when you tell them something is wrong, what state of mind have you left them in?” I asked.

“I hope the state of mind is urgency. When they screw up, they need to fix it and fix it fast,” he replied.

“Exactly. And, how does that state of mind contribute to the quality of the solution?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “You’re right. Most of the time, the team acts like a deer in headlights, frozen, unable to move, no alternatives, no solutions.”

“Does the way you state a problem have an impact on the way people approach a solution? Is there a more productive state of mind you could leave with the team other than something is wrong, someone is to blame and there will be a price to pay.”

“But, I want them to know that mistakes are serious,” Jeffrey pushed back.

“And, does that get you closer to a solution or does it stop solution-finding in its tracks? In what way could we restate the problem, to be accurate in our observations, without laying blame, promoting a sense of teamwork, generating alternatives and selecting the best solution?”

Not a Communication Problem

“I think I have a communication problem with my team,” Jordan explained. “It seems like I have to constantly explain, interpret, assign and reassign, clarify, all to come back and do it over again. I think my team needs a communication seminar.”

“And, what would you hope the outcome of this seminar to be?” I asked.

“That the team understands,” Jordan simply put.

“And, what if I told you I don’t think you have a communication problem?”

“What do you mean? It sounds like a communication problem to me.”

“My telephone rings for two reasons,” I replied. “Most people call to tell me they are in the midst of a communication crisis, or have an unresolvable personality conflict on their team.”

“Like me, a communication problem.”

“In my experience, in the throes of explaining and clarifying, you fail to establish two things. I don’t think you have a communication problem, I think you have an accountability and authority issue. You failed to establish, in the task, in the working relationship, what is the accountability, meaning, what is the output? The second thing missing, in the pursuit of that output, who has the authority to make decisions and solve problems?”

“So, I need my warehouse crew to move material, according to a list, from the warehouse to a staging area for a project. I explain what needs to be done, give them the checklist and then they get stuck.”

“Stuck on what?” I asked.

“The material to move is blocked by other material, the forklift aisle isn’t wide enough for the material, or the forklift is down for maintenance,” Jordan shook his head, “so I have to come back and solve those problems before the team can do their work.”

“Not a communication problem. It’s an accountability and authority problem. What is the accountability (output)? And who has the authority to shift materials, find an alternate forklift aisle or fix the forklift?”

Cognitive Power

“Here’s a question for you,” Sam smiled. “We talk about potential, that is something we want in every candidate. You have also asked me to be specific in my language. You chided me about using analogies like – potential for growth, higher level thinking, more bandwidth, mental horsepower. Just exactly what are we talking about? And, why is this so important?”

My turn to smile. “Let me introduce a term – cognitive power. Cognitive power relates to the maximum number of variables a person can simultaneously deal with, in a given period of time. A manual task generally has a limited number of variables. Moving a pallet of ceramic tile in a warehouse requires a forklift, knowing which pallet, where is it located, where does it go, what’s in the way? There are a limited number of variables. And, those variables are physical and fixed.”

Sam nodded, so I continued. “Constructing a building is more complex. There are site considerations, zoning, platting, ingress, physical constraints, functional use, building codes, material availability, coordination of trades, availability of labor, influence of unions, finance logistics, even the weather. And some of the complexity arrives, not from the variables we know about, but, based on the timespan of the project (objective, goal), there will be variables we do not know about. The longer the project, the more uncertain the variables. Yet, to be effective, all the variables must be accounted for, including the ones we do not know about.”

“And so, a more complicated project will require more cognitive power,” Sam chimed in.

“We might try to count the number of variables to understand the complexity in a project, but the longer the project, the more some of those variable are unknowable. A better metric of complexity is to simply calculate the timespan of the project. We have to account for that uncertainty, ambiguity, in the decisions we have to make today.”

Current and Future Potential

“I want to hire someone who has potential,” Sam described. “But, I need them to hit the ground running today.”

“What do you mean when you say, potential?” I asked.

“You know, they have the ability to grow, so as things get more complicated, they don’t get lost,” Sam replied.

“I need you to be more specific. You used the word, grow. Do you mean grow taller, measured in inches? You used the word, lost. Do you mean lost in the woods? If you really want to find someone with potential, your language will lead you to the qualities you look for in a candidate.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean,” Sam flatly stated.

“I can make assumptions, but they might be wrong.” I stopped, then started again. “Instead of looking at the person, let’s look at the work, specifically the context of the work. What does hit the ground running mean? Please use terms related to capability, decision making and problem solving.”

“Okay,” Sam was slow to piece things together. “The role, today, has certain problems to be solved and decisions to be made.”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “So, the candidate has to possess the actual capability to solve problems and make decisions without significant input or direction from you, today.”

“Yes, but, the candidate will still need some initial direction from me, just to find out how things work around here. We have certain processes unique to our company, so the person will need some orientation, initial training.”

“And, how long will you give them to learn this stuff in the beginning?”

“Easy,” Sam said. “Training last two weeks. If they haven’t demonstrated some initial capability by then, we might counsel them out during a probation period.”

“So, you cannot see the performance on day one, but you expect to see performance after two weeks, benefit of the doubt, four weeks or eight weeks? In that period of time, has their potential changed?” I pressed.

“No, potential doesn’t change that fast,” Sam responded.

“So, on day one, you see their actual capability, in a raw state, it is what it is. You need this person to learn and learn quickly, so that two weeks, four weeks, eight weeks from now, the candidate’s decision making and problem solving will be at a higher level, meaning they have current potential. The difference between actual capability today and current potential two weeks from now is initial orientation and training.”

“Yes, but I want more than that,” Sam said, almost complaining.

“Of course you do,” I furrowed my brow. “What you really want is future potential. Potential is not something that can be trained, it can only mature. And, you want to see that in a candidate?”

“It sounds like a tall order, but yes, that is what I want.”

“Then, what questions will you ask?”