Tag Archives: problem solving

The Sight of a Newbie

“Not sure what to try next,” Melissa lamented. “I have my best people on the problem and they are stumped.”

“And?” I asked.

“And, it just doesn’t make sense. We have tried every resolution, every best practice related to a problem like this.”

I waited for Melissa to stop, to take a pause in her thinking. “I talked to one of your new teammates this morning and he said he might have a solution,” I said.

“I know who you are talking about,” Melissa replied. “He’s new. He has never seen a problem like this. He needs to stick to his orientation training, maybe he will learn a thing or two.”

“Is it possible your new teammate can see the fix for your problem, and that if he completes the training, he might not be able to see it anymore?”

Legacy Thinking

The landscape is littered with technology initiatives that died. Some wimpered, some imploded, collecting significant collateral damage.

We know what happened and why it happened. The question – how to create technology initiatives that deliver on the promise?

What got you here, won’t get you there. – Marshall Goldsmith

The solution to a problem will not be found by the same thinking that created the problem in the first place. – Albert Einstein

Many technology initiatives fail in an attempt to preserve existing methods and processes. Adopting a piece of software supplants existing work. Technology changes the decision making and problem solving of humans. Human work changes.

Mother of Invention

The point is to determine the best alternative. Not the best alternative that you can imagine, but the best alternative that is possible. Step one requires temporarily suspending judgement, to consider alternatives outside of your own experience or imagination. Without suspending judgement, outside ideas get filtered.

But, why waste time on outside ideas that are likely nonsense?

See, you already filtered those outside ideas as nonsense.

Suspending judgement is difficult, because it requires you might have to admit you were wrong in your assumptions.

Suspending judgement, temporarily requires that you consider ridiculous alternatives. And if you consider ridiculous alternatives, it frees your mind to generate more ridiculous alternatives in a chain of ideas containing many elements, one of which may actually save the day. Idea fluency.

You may never get to the idea that saves the day without the meanderings of ridiculous alternatives. When we temporarily suspend judgement, it gives us permission to consider things run backward, the front end of one idea connected to the back end of another idea, the ridiculous context of one idea as the crucible for the right idea.

Whose Problem Is It?

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“I cannot believe my technicians are running into the same problem, again,” Roger complained.

“Again?” I asked.

“Yes, and they keep coming back to me, thinking I will solve it for them.”

“Whose problem is it?” I pressed.

“It’s their problem,” Roger insisted.

“Their problem?” I repeated. “Sounds like it is your problem. Tell me, if it was your problem, would your problem be the same as their problem?”

Roger stopped. “I am not sure where you are going with this.”

“Look, if your technicians have a problem, it is likely to be a technical problem, and yes, they can handle the technical problems. What impact does that have on you? What are you accountable for?”

Roger took a deep breath. “You are right. I am accountable for the overall output for the day, the week, so if there is a technical problem, it is going to impact the overall output. I guess it is my problem.”

“Not so fast,” I smiled. “You are not the only one affected. What about your manager?”

“What about him? I just hope I can get this solved before he finds out,” Roger replied.

“Oh, really. What if the problem is really your manager’s problem?”

Roger did not respond, so I continued.

“The problem your technicians have, if it is a technical problem, they can fix it. If it takes a while to fix it, you have an output problem. You are going to fall short by the end of the week. You might have to call a customer about a late order. But, you said this is the same problem over and over. This might be a system problem. Something in the system might need some attention. If we fix the problem now, for this one customer, and we don’t fix the system, do you think the problem might happen again?”

Now Roger was engaged. “So, my technicians have a problem today. I have a problem for the end of the week. But my manager might have a problem forever, until he fixes the system?”

“Yes, this is not one problem, this is three problems, each at its own level of work. Requires a cooperative effort to identify the problem, gather the data and execute the solution at each level of work.”

The Underlying Problem

Often, the problem we seek to solve is only a symptom of something underneath. We examine the symptom to identify its root cause. And, sometimes, even root cause analysis fails us.

Sometimes, the root cause does not lie in the problem, but in the way we see the problem. The way we talk about a problem is a function of what we believe, our assumptions about the problem.

Does the way we state a problem have an impact on the way we approach the solution?

What we say is what we believe.

Before we grapple with the problem, it is important to understand our beliefs and assumptions about the problem. It could be the problem is not the problem. The problem could be what we believe about the problem that is simply not true.

Three Magic Words

“I don’t why my manager is so bull-headed,” Marjorie complained. “He asks for my advice and then argues with me. It’s infuriating.”

“Infuriating?” I asked.

“Yes, just because he has his opinion doesn’t mean he is right.”

“Marjorie, seldom are things so stark that one person is right and the other wrong, but if that is the case, doesn’t it make sense to make sure you are not the person who is wrong? The only way you can do that is through thoughtful dialogue.”

“Oh, yeah, and how am I supposed to do that?” Marjorie wanted to know.

“Three magic words. In the face of disagreement, just say – Tell me more.”

How the Team Avoids an Issue

“How do I know, working with my team, when we are dealing with a real issue?” Deana wanted to know.

“How does your stomach feel?” I asked.

“It feels fine,” she replied with a quizzical look.

“Then, we are just having polite conversation,” I nodded. “Have you ever sat in a meeting when someone said something that made you feel uncomfortable?”

Deana’s eyes glanced to the ceiling, then back to the conversation. She nodded with me. “Yep. We were working on a big project, tight deadline, behind schedule, angry client. In the meeting, the project manager jumped all over the ops manager, accused him of manipulating the project schedule to cover up the ops team being late. It was kind of creepy. Usually if someone has a beef with somebody else like that, they talk about it in private.”

“What impact did that have on the discussion?”

“Everything stopped. My manager was in the room. She called a halt to the meeting, said if they couldn’t get along, they would have to leave the meeting.”

“Then, what happened?”

“Everyone shut up and moved on to talk about the next project. It was under control, so things calmed down so we could finish our meeting.”

“So, what do you think was the real issue? And how did your stomach feel?” I prodded.

“So, if the conversation has my stomach doing flip-flops, then the team is probably facing a real issue?”

“And, did your team deal with the issue, or did they avoid it and move on?”

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The Aretha Franklin Rule

From the Ask Tom mailbag.

Question:
I’m going to be promoted in July as a manager and I will have to manage 5 people who are older and more experienced than me. I have been working with 2 of them for a year and 2 of them are new to the company, the last person has no experience. My boss knows this will be a real challenge for me. He is promoting me because I have the technical ability to do the job. I need to work on my soft skills. I have strong analytical skills which are not always an asset to manage a team effectively. Do you have any advice?

Response:
Age and maturity is always a problem for a younger manager working with older team members. You will have to earn their respect and you will not be given much room for error.

Here is the principle I follow.

Every team member of an organization, in their pursuit of doing a good job, will always seek out the person who brings value to their problem solving and decision making.

Wouldn’t it be great if that person was the manager? Often, it’s not, and that is where the trouble begins. My advice to any manager who wants to be successful is very simple.

Bring value to the problem solving and decision making of your team.

That’s it. What can you do, as a manager, to bring value to the thinking and work of your team members? -Tom

No Longer the Glow of the Project

“Management is not all I thought it was,” Miriam explained.

“How so?” I asked.

“I started in the marketing department, working on projects by myself. It was satisfying. I would finish a project and I could stand back and look at it. My friends could admire the project. The project had a glow and it was me.”

“That’s because you are a results oriented person and the results were close at hand and tangible. What it different, now?”

“Now, it is slower,” Miriam started. “As a manager, I don’t get to work directly, I work through other people. The results of the project are the results of the effort of my team. I don’t get the glow out of the project, the team gets the glow. What do I get?”

“And this is frustrating?” I prompted.

“Yes, most of my problems, now, are not project problems, they are people problems. I can get the people problems resolved, but the glow is elusive. It is hard to put my finger on the result.”

“So, in your brief experience as a manager, where is the glow?”

“Sometimes, the glow doesn’t take place right away, and it is subtle, in the background,” Miriam stopped. “The glow for a manager is in the development of the team, learning, tackling tough issues and moving to tougher issues. It’s a very indirect glow. I used to have passion for the output of the project, now, it’s a matter of placing value on the development of other people.”

“Congratulations, you have discovered the true role of a manager. You thought being a manager was so people could report to you. Management is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team.” -Tom

Discretionary Judgment

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
You talk about work as making decisions and solving problems. You talk about discretionary judgment. When I tell a team member about their role (in a role description), it seems more like a list of tasks that have to be completed. How do I talk about discretionary judgment in a role description?

Response:
Most role descriptions are as you describe, a disorganized list of tasks and activities. But, when we hire a team member, we are not paying for their tasks and activities, we are paying for their discretionary judgment. If we were just paying for task completion, we would hire robots. And, every role has decisions to make and problems to solve. Every role requires discretionary judgment.

A typical supervisor task is to post a work schedule for the team for the following week. But that is just the outcome. Here is the discretionary judgment part.

This task requires the supervisor to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to team member vacations or other circumstances that will affect the team member’s attendance. And to look ahead on a rolling 4-6 week basis, to anticipate changes due to production fluctuations which may require a reduction in shift personnel or overtime. The supervisor will use discretionary judgment to create the schedule based on those circumstances.