Tag Archives: problem solving

Negative Stream

Around the water cooler, have you noticed the tone of conversation?

  • “Did you hear about so and so, can you believe what happened?”
  • “You should have seen this guy who cut me off in traffic this morning.”
  • “Can you believe the gall of that person, why are they so opinionated?”

And, most of this is unconscious. It comes streaming out with little thought, guidance or direction. So easy to find fault, condemn or complain.

Ask a person about something good that happened yesterday, and they will stop, suddenly out of flow. Something positive requires conscious thought, does not come streaming out. We can usually find that positive moment from yesterday, but we have to interrupt our unconscious negative stream to do so.

The negative stream and positive thoughts sit in two different parts of the brain. Negative thoughts, from the primal brain arrive from a mental state of survival. Reflexive in speed, we don’t have to think. Positive thoughts require that we trigger the neo-cortex, fully visible on a fMRI brain scan. Responsive in speed, we have to think. Which part of the brain are you thinking with? Which mental state are you using to solve problems and make decisions?

Cross Department Committees

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Many times when there is an issue that affects more than one department in the company, we assign committees involving members from each department to solve them. While this seems nice from a cultural standpoint, it seems strange that we would ask people in an S-II or S-III role, to solve issues that span multiple departments, typically an S-IV function. I recently experienced this myself where I established a committee, set a clear direction (I thought), and checked in occasionally. The end result was I now had a group who had reached a consensus, but it was the wrong one! We are still able to move forward and correct it slowly, but it feels like we wasted effort. What’s the right answer to this? Be more involved? Assign another committee leader with level 4 capabilities? Provide better direction? Make a larger committee?

Response:
Quick review on general accountabilities at levels of work.

  • S-I – Production
  • S-II – Making sure production gets done, coordination and implementation.
  • S-III – System work, designing, creating, monitoring and improving a single serial system (critical path)
  • S-IV – Multi-system integration

So, your intuition is correct that, where multiple departments are involved with either output or impact, department integration is appropriate.

Your question – Be more involved? Assign someone with S-IV capability? Provide better direction?
Answer – Yes.

In any managerial role, with team members one level of work below, the manager cannot simply call the meeting and then not show up. Undirected, the team will make the decision or solve the problem at their level of context. Each level of work understands its decisions and problems from their level of context. That context is measured in timespan.

Problems or decisions involving multiple departments generally require looking at longer timespan outputs, more correctly, longer timespan throughputs. A single department is usually heads-down, internally focused on efficient output. Multiple department throughput typically looks at two things. Does the efficient output of one department provide the correct input for the next department as work moves sideways through the organization?

  • Does the output of marketing (leads) provide the correct input for sales?
  • Does the output of sales include all the data necessary agreements for proper project management?
  • Does the output of project management provide all the accurate data necessary for operations?
  • Does the output of operations provide all the necessary checkpoints for quality control?

Multiple department integration also requires a look at the output capacity of each department as they sit next to their neighbor department. Is is possible for sales to sell so many contracts that it outstrips the capacity of operations to produce? A lower timespan focus might say we just need to communicate better. A longer timespan focus (throughput) will realize that no communication solution will fix a capacity issue.

So, yes, the manager has to be more involved, include another team member at S-IV, provide better direction on the requirements of any solution. A larger committee might actually be counter-productive if it contains team members at the wrong level of the problem. I offer these same guidelines as those of a couple of days ago.

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the cause of the problem?
  • What are the alternative solutions?
  • What is the best solution?
  • How will we test the solution to make sure it solves the problem?

Growing Pains

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
As the CEO, I am stretched a bit thin. I have 10 direct reports, with the prospect of adding two or three more as we continue to grow. I have 1-1s with each manager for 60-90 minutes twice a month, but it leaves little time to spend as CEO. I feel a bit like I am pulled into the weeds.

Response:
Your company is too big to be little and too little to be big. Your company is in No Man’s Land. You have enough resources (budget) to make the hires necessary to relieve a bit of pressure, but these are critical hires, you don’t want to make a mistake, so you continue stretching. There is only one way out.

You have to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. You cannot work longer hours. You cannot work harder. You can only spread the burden.

This is a dilemma first faced by every entrepreneur startup, where the Founder makes all the decisions and solves all the problems. As the organization matures, what happens when all decision making continues with the Founder? What happens when all problem solving continues with the Founder? The speed of decision-making, the speed of problem solving slows down, sometimes stops.

You managed to get out of startup, but your inclinations continue. Others, I am sure, have told you that you have to let go. No.

You have to delegate. This is not a task assignment. What you have to delegate is decision making and problem solving. The most important thing you can do, as CEO, right now, is to build the infrastructure of your executive management team. If you cannot do this, you will end up with 13-15 direct reports and you will still wonder why you are stretched so thin.

What Did You Train Them To Do?

“But, my team never comes up with any constructive ideas to solve the problem,” Edward explained. “I ask them to think about the problem at hand and they just sit there, waiting.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked.

“Not long after I arrived at this company. As the incoming CEO, I was briefed about this executive team. I was told they were bright, action oriented, made solid decisions. But, that’s not what I see. I wouldn’t call them dolts, they would never have gotten this far, but day to day, I feel like the quarterback who has to constantly scramble.”

“How have you contributed to the problem, meaning, how have you contributed to the team’s lack of constructive solutions to problems?”

“Now, don’t think you are going to pin this on me. I didn’t hire these people, they were here when I arrived. I am the same person I have always been,” Edward was firm.

“I want to take your description at face value, that at some point this executive team was bright, action oriented and made solid decisions. If they were once that way, what changed?”

“You are still looking squarely at me,” Edward replied.

“You’re the only one in the room,” I waited. “Think back to your early interactions with this team, tell me what happened in the first couple of meetings.”

“Well, the first couple of meetings, I was just sizing them up, seeing who was strong, who was weak, and where we could make improvements. I call it diagnostic work.”

“And, what was your diagnosis?”

“There must have been a reason I was hired in to take over from the outgoing CEO. This team was okay, but needed some firmer guidance and direction.”

“And, if you see those first few meeting as a training session, led by you, what were you training them to do?” I wanted to know.

“They needed to look more clearly at their mistakes and listen to me, to help guide them to make better decisions.”

“And, isn’t that what you have now trained them to do?”

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?