Tag Archives: problem solving

Not Warm and Fuzzy

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been reading a couple of books on Servant Leadership. It makes sense, but seems kind of warm and fuzzy. I am not necessarily a warm and fuzzy person.

Response:
So, let’s shift your viewpoint of Servant Leadership from a warm and fuzzy concept to getting some work done. If you read this blog, you know I define work as problem solving and decision making. In your role, as a manager, you have a team to perform some organizational function (marketing, sales, account management, ops, quality control, research & development, HR, accounting). In the work of your team, they have appropriate problem solving and decision making. When things are stable, your team can manage all the routine problem solving and decision making.

And, when things change, and the level of decision making creeps up, sometimes they struggle. And, that is where you come in, as the manager. It is your role to bring value to your team’s group and individual problem solving. You do not do this by telling people what to do, you do this primarily with questions.

So, the concept of Servant Leadership has little to do with warm and fuzzy, everything to do with decision making and problem solving.

The Bloated Organization

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I grew up, as a manager in a small company. I just received an offer, which I accepted at a large company with over a thousand employees. As I look around, and I know this is a corporate structure, I feel a little lost. There are managers of this and that, directors, senior levels, junior levels. I got a copy of the org chart, looks like there are about eleven levels between the clerical team and the CEO. I have only been here for two weeks, but it looks like chaos. Even the meetings I attend seem misdirected. There is a formal agenda that gets blown through quickly, then there is a discussion (argument) that goes until the end of the meeting (always ends on time). Did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed at my old company? (Unfortunately, too late, they already filled my old position.)

Response:
At least they end their meetings on time.

I often get a call from a company like this, complaining of two things. They think they have a communication crisis or a personality conflict between two people. The company wants to know if I can arrive, do some personality profiling and conduct a communication seminar. Your description gives me better clues to what is really going on.

In most cases, I do not believe in communication breakdowns or personality conflicts. I believe there is a structural issue. Structure, organizational structure, is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. On paper, it looks like a chart, in real life, a messy chart.

The most important definition in working relationships is two related concepts, accountability and authority, one goes with the other. To be accountable for an output, I must have the authority to make a decision or solve a problem in the way I would have it solved. If I have the authority to make such a decision, I must also have the accountability that comes with it.

This basis for organizational structure, accountability and authority, also provides guidance for the number of management levels required. Without much more due diligence, my intuition tells me this organization needs no more than five levels, meaning it needs no more than five levels of accountability.

Organizations, like the one you described, get bloated because there is no framework for decision making or problem solving. Supervisors get promoted to manager because someone needed a raise and got a title instead. Or, someone got a raise and needed a title to go with it. Or, an underperforming team member needed more supervision, so they got a special manager to watch over them (instead of a demotion or termination). Organizations get bloated for all kinds of reasons. And, that bloating costs the company in decision friction and problem solving throughput.

But, you are in a situation you are stuck with, at least for now. And you are likely a junior manager with lots of accountability and little authority. Here is your first baby step. Get clear with your manager, in each key area of your role, what is the specific output and how often will that be reviewed. For each accountability, what is the authority you have to make a decision or solve a problem in the way you would have it solved. That will keep you from getting fired in the first 60 days.

Check back with me then and tell me what more you have learned.

Bring Value to Problem Solving

“What were the specific things your manager did that brought value to your problem solving and decision making?” I repeated. “We have already established that it is not barking orders, bossing you around or yelling at you when you screwed up.”

Kim had to think. She could easily tell me all the bad experience with previous managers, but, thinking about positive experience was much more difficult.

“There was this one time,” she started, “where I was working on a problem and I had no idea what to do next. After an hour thinking about it, I finally went to my manager, who I knew had all the answers. I expected to have the best solution right away, so I could get on with my job.”

“Apparently, that’s not what happened.” I said.

“Not at all. My manager asked me to describe the problem, asked me what I thought was causing the problem.”

“Sounds reasonable,” I agreed. “Your manager couldn’t give you the solution without understanding the problem.”

“Then, she asked me what the alternatives might be. She said I was closest to the problem, I probably had an idea how we might be able to solve the problem.”

“You said you had already been thinking about it for an hour and couldn’t come up with anything.”

“Yes, but that is because I was trying to come up with the perfect solution. My manager wanted a bunch of alternatives even if they weren’t perfect.”

“And?”

“Since I wasn’t looking for the perfect solution, I had four or five things that might work or might not work.”

“So?”

“So, my manager asked me, of all those alternatives, which had the best chance? Actually, I think they all would have failed, but if I put solution number two with solution number four, then it might work. So, she told me to go and try it, so I did and it worked.”

“So, your manager did not give you the answer. Didn’t tell you what to do, didn’t boss you around or yell at you?”

“Nope. Just brought value to my problem solving by asking questions.”

Not in the Job Description

Across the lobby, I spotted Kim. Out of seven supervisors, she had just been promoted to manager. She had a good team, positive vibes, but I could see Kim was a bit nervous in her new role.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, so far,” Kim replied. “I think I can handle all the stuff I am supposed to do. It’s that other stuff, I am worried about.”

“What other stuff?”

“Team stuff, morale, the stuff not in my new job description. You talk about bringing value to my team. I want to do that, but I am not sure what it means.”

“It’s not that difficult,” I replied. “Just think back, when you were a supervisor. What did your manager do that really helped you, I mean, really helped you become the manager you are today? Was it barking orders at you? Bossing you around? Yelling at you when you screwed up? Solving problems for you?”

“No,” Kim replied. “It was none of those things.”

“So, think about it. What were the specific things your manager did that brought value to your problem solving and decision making?”

Bright and Shiny

“What do you mean, make mental sense of the noise?” I asked.

“When you are working on 20 simultaneous project,” Andrew continued, “each project screams for attention. The urgency of the minute details leaps out and hijacks your brain. It is easy to get wrapped around the axle and lose focus on the other 19 projects that also have to be done.”

“So, what’s the strategy?”

“You always have to look at the context. The project and its project manager look only at the context of the project. I have to look at the context of all the projects together, including projects that haven’t started. It’s a longer timespan of focus. And, only with that longer timespan of focus can I anticipate the resources necessary, now and in the future, for all the minute details that have to be resolved.”

“So?”

“So, looking inside a single project is very noisy. I can’t ignore the noise, but I can’t let it consume me, prevent me from seeing the patterns inside the entire portfolio of projects. The noise is bright and shiny, easily grabs your attention. I have to see the larger context.”

The Learning Never Stops

We are in the process of learning and the learning never stops.
What are the impacts to your business model?

  • Pretty much everyone has discovered Zoom. It is not as good as being in person, but it works pretty well. We are learning its impact on travel budgets, travel time avoided, continuity stops and starts between travel trips that did not occur.
  • Individual initiative. We have learned who can work independently (making decisions and solving problems) and who struggles without constant oversight.
  • Necessity of being there. When it is not possible (or prudent) to be there, we learn more about the necessity of being there. Human inspection is replaced by remote sensors, providing not periodic data, but constant 24/7 data.
  • Distributed decision making. If it is convenient for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by managers. With a distributed workforce, where it is not convenient (incomplete data, delay) for managers to make decisions, decisions get made by the most appropriate person.

What are the impacts to your business model?

What’s New?

Problem solving at S-II works really well as long as we have solved the problem before. Elliott’s problem solving schema related to states of thinking –
S-I – Declarative (trial and error)
S-II – Cumulative (best practices)
S-III – Serial (root cause analysis, single system)
S-IV – Parallel (multi-system analysis)

S-II – Cumulative state is one of connection. Given a problem, a person with S-II capability can see the pattern causing the problem AND only has to match the pattern to an existing (documented) solution. This is the world of best practices. Best practices work well as long as the problem is one we have solved before. Forty percent of the population can effectively use best practices to solve problems (which is why “best practices” are so popular in management literature).

But, best practices are of little use if the problem is new (we have never solved it before).

S-III – Serial state is one of cause and effect. This is where NEW problems are solved. And, only 4-7 percent of the general population can effectively engage in root cause analysis. COVID-19 presents itself as a problem in all four states of thinking. Initially, COVID-19 was characterized as something we have seen before and could be dealt with using best practices (treat it like the flu). When it became apparent that the contagion rate was higher and the (yet to be defined) mortality rate was higher, the medical community responded with trial and error problem solving (S-I), recommending social distancing, initially no masks, then masks. Trial and error solutions became best practices and now the world is mask-wearing (go figure). But, root cause analysis (S-III) will provide the only inroads to a lasting solution (vaccine).

S-IV – Multi-system analysis will confront the longer term problems of vaccine distribution (capacities and priorities, medical systems) along with economic impacts (economic systems) and social behavior (social systems).

How much trouble do we create for ourselves when we mix up an S-I solution to an S-IV problem?

Am I Capable?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have been an avid reader of Jaques’ books for quite some time, and I have a question: most of what you say is to help managers and HR workers to find and hire the correct people.

But what about someone who is creating a company (my case)? How can I accurately measure my own capability, and, therefore, structure my company correctly so that its complexity doesn’t surpass my own level of thinking, while also hiring subordinates exactly one stratum below, in the case of the first hire(s)?

I would be very much interested since I’m having a hard time to be objective trying to evaluate myself.

Response:
How does the song go? “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

First, your interest in assessing your own cognitive capacity will almost always lead you astray. Don’t attempt to assess yourself, assess the work.

Second, a start-up organization has a different focus than other, more mature organizations. There are so many missing pieces and fewer resources to work with. The start-up has a quick timeline to death.

So, my first question is always, what’s the work? As you describe the work, what is the decision making and problem solving necessary? More specifically, what is the level of decision making and level of problem solving required to make a go as a start-up?

Here are some other necessary questions for your start-up.

  • What is the (market) problem you are trying to solve?
  • Does your product or service solve that market problem?
  • Can you price your product or service high enough to allow for a profit?
  • Is your market big enough to provide enough volume for your product or service? Is your market big enough for a business or just big enough for a hobby?

The first focus for every start-up is sales. Can you get your product or service into the market place and please find a customer to buy it?

In the beginning, the level of problem solving is very tactical. Can you make it and will someone buy it? That’s about it. That is why there are so many budding entrepreneurs out there. That is also why so many fail. They cannot get their company to the next level of problem solving.

Once you have a sustained momentum of sales, the next level is all about process. You see, if you can create a sustained momentum of revenue, you will also create competitors. The next level is about process. Can you produce your product or service faster, better, cheaper than your competitor? This is a different level of decision making, a different level of problem solving. It is precisely this level that washes out most start-ups.

So, focus on the work. Do you have the (cognitive) capability to effectively make the decisions and solve the problems that are necessary at the level of work in your organization? Stay out of your own head and focus on the work.

BTW, we have only described the first two levels, there are more.

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

Permanent and Temporary

What changes have become permanent and what changes are only temporary? As we live in this science-fiction movie, we think, at some point, the movie will be over, we can walk into the sunshine and everything will be normal again.

It is too easy to think that things are temporary, when some things will never return to the way they were. So, some things require only a short-lived adjustment, an accommodation. AND, some things will require new habits.

If it is temporary, we can live with a small discomfort, an awkward way. If the change is permanent, we better figure out a better way and get really good at dealing with it.