Tag Archives: problem solving

The Big Derailer

“Tell me what you accomplished so far with the pattern we talked about?” I asked.

“We met, everybody, same room. I acknowledged the heated exchange between Fred and Jim from the week before, that there was an issue of underperformance on a project. I asked everyone to write down how they felt during the exchange, then once around the table, everyone speaking only for themselves. No one was allowed to say -we all felt this, or most of us felt that, everyone can only speak for themselves,” Ron started.

“Okay,” I nodded. “We know what the issue is, that we are attempting to resolve underperformance on the project. We were clear to acknowledge the emotional load that went with it. Fred and Jim are now aware of the impact of their heat on the team. Now we get curious.”

Ron furrowed his brow. “What do you mean get curious?”

“I mean, questions and only questions,” I said.

“Who is asking the questions and who is responding?” Ron wanted to know.

“Everyone on the team is asking the questions. Fred and Jim get to respond. Here is a quick list –

  • Working on the project, what did you observe? What did you see, what did you hear?
  • What was the impact on the project? What were other impacts on the project? How did that make you feel?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Ron stopped me. “We keep talking about feelings. What do feelings have to do with this?”

“That’s easy. First, it is out in the open that there was underperformance on the project, which is what we are trying to fix. Fixing the problem got derailed by the emotions in the exchange. We can avoid those emotions, we can stuff them down, we can ignore them, but they will come back, they always come back. Let’s get the emotions out on the table now, so we can acknowledge them, check them with reality, so we can get on with fixing the problem.”

Give Them a Problem to Solve

“It’s all about connection,” Pablo said. “If a team member is connected closely with their manager, most likely they will remain engaged. If the team member becomes disconnected from their manager, or connected to a toxic manager, the job search has already begun.”

“Only the manager?” I asked.

“The manager relationship is the key, with a supporting cast of the team,” Pablo explained. “Conceptually, a manager’s accountability is simple (not easy). Create connection, prevent disconnection.”

“That’s the popularity of team exercises,” I said.

“The problem with exercises is just that. Exercises are exercises. They startup muscle memory, but if you really want to build a team, give them a real problem to solve. Stand back. Allow the team to struggle. In that struggle, you will see some things occur. Leadership will emerge, automatically. Leadership takes the form of restating the problem, clarifying the obstacles and laying down the challenge. If the problem is complex, it will require expertise in specific areas, team members will consult, rely on each other to help carry the burden. In essence, problem solving builds connection.”

Discretion in the Quality of the Data

“You describe the role as entry level. The output must conform to strict guidelines, which creates the quality standard. What are the decisions that must be made in connection with the work?”

Arlene was shaking her head from side to side. “We don’t allow a lot of latitude with this work. Sending prescription drugs by common carrier is serious business.”

“You think you don’t allow latitude. In fact, you tell your team members there isn’t a lot of latitude, when in fact there is. There are a ton of decisions that must be made.”

Arlene was quiet.

“Look, most of the prescribed duties involve collecting data from your customers to determine their qualifications. While it seems cut and dried, there are many decisions that must be made about the quality of their responses, the accuracy and completeness of the data.

  • Is the customer address we have on file their current mailing address?
  • Is the customer mailing address the same as the shipping address?
  • Is the telephone number we have on file a mobile number we can send a confirmation text message to?
  • Will the shipping priority we have on file assure the product reaches the customer on time?
  • If the customer does not answer the door, is it okay to leave the product on the front porch, or is there another more secure location?

“The difference between ok performance and outstanding performance is not in filling out the forms, but in the decisions related to the quality of the data that goes on the forms. The job may be completing the forms, but the work is the decisions that must be made.

“An important discussion between the manager and the team member is not about the forms, but about those decisions.”

Entry Level Work, Not Cut and Dried

“I still don’t know what you are getting at,” Arlene shook her head. “It’s entry level work. You are right, it’s not that interesting.”

“Don’t be so swift,” I reprimanded. “Let’s talk about this entry-level work. First, what is work?”

Arlene was looking up, retrieving the answer planted in her mind some weeks ago. “I remember. Work is making decisions and solving problems.”

“Okay. And what decisions must be made in connection with this entry-level work?”

“It’s pretty cut and dried,” Arlene related. “Our work is highly regulated. Everything we do has to be within very specific guidelines.”

“And what if it’s not cut and dried,” I challenged. “You see, the guidelines you work under only set the quality standards for the output. Let’s ask the question again. What decisions must be made in connection with this work? And as we answer, I think you will find this work is quite a bit more than entry-level.”

Interest in the Work (Not the Job)

“What’s missing in this young recruit’s career?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Arlene replied. “All she seemed interested in was how many vacation days she is going to get.”

“Why do you think she is focused on her vacation days? What’s missing? What was missing in her work before she came to your company two months ago? And perhaps is still missing in her work?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Arlene. “It is pretty basic, entry level work. Perhaps there really isn’t that much to focus on, except how much vacation comes with the job.”

“You might be right be right about the job,” I agreed. “But what about the work?”

Leadership Charisma

Leadership is a billion dollar business, yet all around us, we rarely see effective leadership. There are books, seminars, groups and programs to build better leaders (that’s the billion dollar business), yet much of that effort is wasted and fruitless.

The effectiveness of an organization is based on its structure and the role of leadership is to design and build that structure. Effective leadership has less to do with charisma and personality, more to do with building an organizational system to get work done.

Structure begins with the founder, a structure of one. There is work to be done and the founder is doing the work. There is always work left over, so the founder hires three or four people. These people do a little bit of everything. The work is organized around the scarce resources of infant structure. At some point the founder realizes the work can no longer be organized around the people, the people have to be organized around the work.

Organizing the people around the work requires that specialized roles be defined, tasks, activities and expected outputs from those activities. This is the emergence of roles.

This organization is no longer a structure of one, but a structure of many. It is not enough for each person to play their role, the roles have to be designed to work together, more complex than a structure of one, a structure of many. And, organizational structure is born.

Organizational structure is simply the way we define the working relationships between people. The two things that must be defined are –

  • In this working relationship, what is the accountability?
  • In this working relationship, what is the authority? Authority to do what? Make decisions and solve problems the way I would have them solved.

And, so the structure of one becomes the structure of an organization. I don’t care about your personality or charisma as a leader. I only care whether you can design and execute the structure, to get some work done.

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, 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.”


“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?”

It’s the Job of a Manager

“What kind of questions?” asked Ted.

“Look, in your position, as Manager, you often don’t have the technical details necessary to make a decision. As a Manager, that’s not your job. Your job is to bring value to the thinking and work of your team.” I waited for Ted to catch up.

“By asking questions?”

“Most Managers think their team will see them weak if they have difficulty making a decision, even if the Manager doesn’t have the technical details. So, sometimes Managers make a decision because they think it’s their job.

“If you have two engineers, each with a different method of solving a problem, you may not know which method is technically the best way.”

“So, how do you make the decision?”

“You don’t bring value by telling them what to do. You bring value by asking questions.

  • What were the top three criteria on which you based your recommendation?
  • What impact will your recommendation have on the time frame of the project?
  • What two things could go wrong with your recommendation?

“Your job, as Manager, is not telling people what to do. Your job is to bring value to their problem solving and decision making.”