Sunday, August 20, 2017

How Good Are You At Problem Solving?

Problems, problems, problems – life can be full of them, and how we approach them can make a huge difference to our productivity, both at work and in our personal lives. Get caught up with a problem for too long and it can have dramatic effects on the business environment as well as negatively impacting the relationships of those involved in the problem (both directly and indirectly).
In the Jan-Feb 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg highlighted how a survey of 106 C-suite executives, representing 91 private and public sector companies in 17 countries showed that 85% of them agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations were bad a problem diagnosis, and 87% agreed or strongly agreed that this flaw carried significant costs.
It’s good to see that these organizations aren’t afraid to be transparent about their weaknesses and the impact this has on their organization, albeit that the question seems very generic. I imagine their response doesn’t correspond to every problem they encounter and further detail would be very illuminating, as to what kind of problems organizations struggle with the most and at what levels these problems occur. Although I can think of 10 times that amount of companies that would never even admit a weakness such as this.
Wedell-Wedellsborg highlights how “it has been 40 years since Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jacob Getzels empirically demonstrated the central role of problem framing in creativity. Thinkers from Albert Einstein to Peter Drucker have emphasized the importance of properly diagnosing your problems. So why do organizations still struggle to get it right?”
One answer will be that many organizations do not create or encourage ‘creativity’ across the organizational spectrum, to the extent that in too many organizations creativity is smothered as soon as it raises its head, forming a restrictive top-down driven culture.
And then another “part of the reason” as Wedell-Wedellsborg sights “is that we tend to over-engineer the diagnostic process. Many existing frameworks - TRIZ, Six Sigma, Scrum, and others – are quite comprehensive. When properly applied, they can be tremendously powerful. But their very thoroughness also makes them too complex and time-consuming to fit into a regular workday. The setting in which people need to be better at problem diagnosis is not the annual strategy seminar but the daily meeting – so we need tools that don’t require the entire organization to undergo weeks-long training programs” (p.78).
Which is so true, as many industry sectors don’t have the luxury of being able to allow for lengthy problem solving approaches and need fast track solutions or else they can start to lose market share virtually immediately. Where it’s not just the process but those involved in following it that impact the attention to detail and the time wasted on non-productive factors.
As Wedell-Wedellsborg mentions ‘even when people apply simpler problem-diagnosis frameworks, such as root cause analysis and the related 5 Whys questioning technique, they often find themselves digging deeper into the problem they’ve already defined rather than arriving at another diagnosis. That can be helpful, certainly. But creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of your problem” (p.78-79).
This is when leadership skills succeed or fail – a great leader will always be able to solve problems in the optimum time, gaining consensus on the way, and hence ensuring successful resolution once the implementation takes place. Rush the diagnostics part to much and the ‘celebrations’ for solving the problem quickly will be short lived as the implementation phase starts to stall and falter.
Wedell-Wedellsborg suggests seven practices for effective reframing of a problem, which are quite effective in practice;
1. Establish legitimacy. It’s difficult to integrate a method if you are the only person in the room who understands it;
2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. People who will ‘think outside the box’ and speak freely;
3. Get people’s problem definitions in writing. It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they have different views on the issue;
4. Ask what’s missing. When faced with the description of a problem, people tend to delve into details of what has been stated, paying less attention to what the description might be leaving out. To rectify this, remember to make sure to ask explicitly what has not been captured or mentioned;
5. Consider multiple categories. Powerful change comes from transforming people’s perception of a problem. One way to trigger this kind of paradigm shift is to invite people to identify specifically what category of problem they think the group is facing. Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem? Then try to suggest other categories;
6. Analyze positive expectations. Look for instances when the problem did not occur, asking ‘what was different about that situation?’ Exploring such positive exceptions, sometimes called bright spots, can often uncover hidden factors whose influence the group may not have considered;
7. Question the objective. Are their different personal drivers involved? For example, imagine two people fighting over whether to keep a window open or closed. The underlying goals of the two turn out to differ: One person wants fresh air, while the other wants to avoid a draft. Only when these two hidden objectives are brought to light through the questions of a third person is the problem (potentially) resolved – by opening a window in the next room, for example.
However I suggest the final important ‘practice’ to effective problem solving is to always to debrief afterwards;
What went well?
What didn’t? and
What can we do differently next time?
Organizations have to learn from each problem solving situation; as well as each and every step of the way – helping them become better pro-active problem solvers – which should be the ultimate goal.
Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2017) How good is your company at problem solving? Harvard Business review, Jan-Feb, p.76-83.