Tag Archives: problem solving

The Measure of Complexity

“Would you agree,” Pablo asked, “there are some simple problems that most people can easily solve?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“And, would agree that as problems become more complex, some people struggle?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“So, how do we measure the complexity of any decision, the complexity of any problem?”

“I suppose,” I started, “it would have to do with the number of variables in the decision, difficult enough for those variables we know about, even more so for those variables we do not know about.”

“And, how would you define a variable, start with one we know about,” Pablo prompted.

“A variable would be something we anticipate, and we don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go,” I replied.

“Like the weather,” Pablo stated. “We anticipate it is going to be cloudy, but we don’t know for sure if it is going to rain.”

“Yes,” I said, not sure where Pablo was taking me.

“And, how do you know it’s cloudy?” he asked.

“I looked outside, no sunshine. Observable, visual evidence, I can see it.”

“But, you don’t know if it is going to rain? Do you take an umbrella?”

“I suppose I might. A minor annoyance if it doesn’t rain, and a handy thing to have if it does,” I assumed it was a smart response.

“So, in the face of uncertainty, you make a decision based on something that is observable right now. Would you make the same decision a half-hour from now?” Pablo baited.

“It looks pretty cloudy, I believe a half-hour from now, I would still take an umbrella,” I hedged my bet.

“So, in a short timespan, you believe you have enough evidence, in spite of the uncertainty, to make a decision to take an umbrella?”

I nodded, “yes.”

“How about a week from now?” Pablo’s eyes shifted and he grinned.

“Well, who knows, a week from now if it will even be cloudy, much less rain?” I asked.

“So, one week from now is less certain than a half hour from now?”

Again, I nodded, “yes.”

“Is it possible to measure the uncertainty of any decision using timespan?” Pablo stopped and rested.

Decisions at Every Level of Work

“You said that if the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, the manager might take better care in selection?” I asked.

Pablo nodded. “It does no good to bring someone on board without the capability for the work, only to later blame that person for underperformance.”

“If that is the case,” I picked up the unspoken question, “then why do managers struggle finding the right fit for the role.”

“They struggle,” Pablo replied, “because they rarely sit down and figure out the work. Most managers see work as a series of task assignments. Do this, do that. No more. Following the task assignment, the manager often asks, ‘So, do you know what to do?'”

“And?”

“You see, it slips by so easily. That question barely begs understanding. The question from the manager should more properly be, ‘In completing this task assignment, what decisions will you have to make? What problems will you have to solve?’ Most managers miss that completely.”

“But, if the team member knows what to do, what decisions are left?”

“See, even you, my most aware friend, have overlooked discretion built into the work. There is always appropriate decision making at every level of work. Take a fork lift driver, and a pallet to be moved from point A to point B,” Pablo laid out.

“I got it.”

“Do you?” Pablo pushed back. “What decisions are to be made by the forklift driver?”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “Am I moving the right pallet to where it needs to be placed?”

“You’re right, that is the obvious question,” Pablo started. “And, let’s look at some other questions, any one of which could create failure.

  • How heavy is the pallet?
  • Is the pallet properly balanced?
  • Is my forklift rated to handle the weight of the load?
  • Will the size of the pallet, plus a safety buffer, clear the designated pathway to location B?
  • Are there unanticipated obstacles that might temporarily be blocking the pathway?
  • Are there any over height restrictions to the movement?
  • Will this move require flag walkers during movement?
  • Is the forklift in operating order?
  • Are all safety signals, warning lights and sounds operating?
  • Am I wearing appropriate PPE during the move?
  • Is the designated point B a permanent location within a specified perimeter? Or a temporary staging area that must be flagged for safety?”

“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “I get it.”

“Most managers rarely sit down and figure it out,” Pablo was adamant. “What’s the work? What decisions have to be made? What problems have to be solved?”

What Was the Purpose?

“What would you do differently, to get a different outcome?” I repeated.

“I don’t know,” Susan replied. “They are just not a very creative team. I don’t know why I even try to get ideas from them.”

“Susan, what if I told you that your team is as creative as any team I have ever seen work together, and that you, as their manager, have to find a different way to get them to contribute?”

“I would say you were wrong.”

I nodded. “Yes, and if your team really was a creative team, what could you do differently?”

Susan realized I was not going to let this go, but she was still stumped in silence.

I continued. “When you gave the team a list of your ideas up front, before asking for their ideas, what were you communicating? Not with words, but with the list?”

“You mean I should not have given them my list?” Susan asked.

“What was your purpose in calling the meeting?”

“I wanted to get the team’s ideas,” she replied.

“To get ideas from the team, what could you have done differently?”

What Would You Do Differently?

“I don’t understand,” Susan complained. “My team just isn’t very creative, they never contribute ideas.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have a problem meeting our output goals, some days we fall a little short, some days we fall short by a lot,” she started. “I called a meeting to get some ideas on how we could speed things up. To kickstart the meeting, I distributed a list of my ideas and then asked for ideas from the team.”

“And?”

“And, I got no response, zero, nothing. The team just sat there, avoiding eye contact, looking at the ceiling, doodling on my list. Someone said they liked my ideas. After two minutes I adjourned the meeting. The team was worthless.”

“Then what happened?”

“That’s the worst part. One of my ideas was to start on time, but when I called out half the team for being late to start, all I got was grumbling. That day, we had the worst level of productivity of the week.”

“So, if you had the meeting to do over again, what would you do differently?” I prompted.

Susan just shook her head. “I would have cancelled the meeting before it started,” she snapped.

“But, if you DID have the meeting, what would you do differently to get a different outcome?”

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.