A Thinking Process for Solving Problems

I was asked to develop the problem solving capabilities of a group of staff. The group, like many of us, had members who were zealous about various steps, tools and forms they used somewhere else and now advocated for. The leaders were completely agnostic about the philosophy underlying the methodology. They liked how I helped them solve problems and wanted me to help their teams.

Most problem solving methodologies are limited to the task of cause analysis; a very important task, but not the only task. In the end, I prescribed the framework below – a thinking process – to guide the group through solving problems that honors the existing knowledge of the people involved and allows them to use any tool at their disposal.

**Two ways to apply these steps: (1) deductive – solving repetitious problems (2) inductive – designing the problem / risks out (opportunities in). It’s all cause and effect – either what did cause or what would cause an effect.

1. Awareness: How do we know there’s a problem to be solved? What is the importance / value of intervening?

  • Collect data and relevant information.

2. Team: Who should be involved in solving the problem? Involve Stakeholders (aim for representation from each group that touches or is impacted by problem) to:

  • Build problem solving skills
  • Improve understanding of process and interdependencies
  • Increase support and sustainment of outcomes
  • Transfers ownership to team for thinking and doing.
3. Contain – How can we manage loss while we identify the cause and correct it?
  • Band-aid over a bullet hole or finger in the dam. If we stop here, we’re firefighting and nothing ever gets fixed.
4. Define the Problem: What outcome or effect is problematic?

  • “We want an outcome that is…”
  • “We want an outcome that is not…”
  • Reach agreement of what the problem is. If you can’t agree on the problem, you won’t agree on the cause or solution.
  • Tip:
Say “so what” until everyone on the team cares.

5. Identify cause(s)

cause [kawz]: 1. the producer of an effect.

6, Action Plan: Identify, select and implement best solutions to the problem.

  • Identify countermeasures or corrective actions to prevent and/or control each potential cause.
  • Leverage Lessons Learned: search of all possible locations and resources for information that may be beneficial.
    • have experienced / addressed a similar problem.
    • have consistently avoided the problem.
  • Prioritize Actions
  • Assign accountability for execution.
  • Tip: When something is really important, bring in outsiders to critically analyze the plan.

7. Verify: Each solution on the action plan should have an expected outcome; how will you verify it?

  • Follow-up to determine if corrective action(s) have been effective in resolving problems.
  • Verify that training updates, use of updated standards and accountability audits are occurring.
8. Share: What needs to be communicated? With whom? Why?
  • Communicate results with stakeholders.
  • Scan for opportunities to prevent occurrence of the same or similar problems and leverage learning throughout the organization.

Come on down

“Being charismatic and wrong is a really bad combination.” – Jim Collins

This post is about questions. There aren’t enough questions being asked and those that are asked are often really statements disguised as questions. I don’t hear (or say) “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” nearly enough. Answers and solutions are praise worthy; questions to ensure a problem is defined, not so much. I’ll share a few different ideas related to questioning in posts to come.

A lesson I learned from Jim Tull has really influenced how I think about learning, persuasion and influence. Jim presented Argyris‘s Ladder of Inference as a way to model situations where you’re trying to reach agreement. Imagine an issue you have very strong beliefs and opinions about. If you apply the Ladder of Inference to your situation, when it comes to this topic, you are at the top of your ladder. You act based on these beliefs and you feel good about it. You’re living your values. Then, you’re confronted with a person or situation that challenges your “position” on the issue. They’re on the top of another ladder. To reach agreement – which yields benefit you want – you need to get on the same ladder. So if an agreement is to be reached, either someone’s changing ladders or you’re both going to move to a third ladder. Otherwise, no agreement. So how do you go about this process of determining who’s switching ladders, where to build a shared ladder, or deciding that your position is more valuable than the benefit?

Questions of Inquiry vs. Questions of Advocacy

It turns out that most people try to accomplish this challenge from the top of their ladder – using advocacy – the equivalent of suggesting the person leap from the top of their ladder to the right ladder, your ladder. Advocacy develops a position (or moves up the ladder) and consequently, strengthens the attachment of other parties to their position(s). The skill is to go down the ladder – using inquiry. Inquiry is based in questions about what others believe to move down the ladder. This is not a new obscure idea. Stephen Covey has popularized the principle (Habit 5) “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Once you’re down your ladder, you can learn and understand their “data,” interest, rationale, etc. and also review your own. Without inquiry, we cannot empathize. Without feeling understood, you are much less likely to find mutual purpose. And, without mutual purpose, you’re not likely to reach an agreement or solution. If we have no agreement on the problem (shared purpose), we will most likely not agree on the solution (shared benefit).

Curiosity of how others form their positions and how their interests are served by maintaining these positions is undervalued and underutilized. It really doesn’t follow the social order, making it that much more powerful and differentiating for the skilled. Why is inquiry not practiced more? Perhaps:

1. an attempt to appear confident and of strong conviction in your position due to fear of being taken advantage of or belief that seeking to understand will bring you to a less powerful position (fear or lack of confidence)

2. seeing situations at hand as zero-sum (bad logic or bad motive)

3. lack the skill to explore your and others’ positions and seek mutual benefit (ignorance)

Being interested is often more persuasive than being interesting. When someone truly feels that you understand them, yet still do not draw the same conclusions and agree with them, the natural response is curiosity. What additional information do you have? How are you ending up somewhere else? This is the time for advocacy. You are now serving their need and not your own. You don’t concede your position (or values / beliefs) by working to understand others’ positions and how they arrived at them. You can always climb back up. Though, be forewarned, you may learn something that will cause you to choose not to.

Additional Reference:

http://www.solonline.org/pra/tool/inquiry.html

http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Yes-Negotiating-Agreement-Without/dp/0140157352/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1240334060&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Discuss-what-Matters/dp/014028852X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1240334517&sr=1-1

TPOV: Good News Fast, Bad News Faster

Today, I was reminded of an impacting Teachable Point of View (TPOV) from Mike Wells, CEO of Wells Enterprises – makers of the worlds best, Bluebunny, ice cream. When introducing the company’s updated “Fundamentals,” Mike communicated a principle for communication that resonated with me immediately as one that I share, support and advocate. I read it on the handout provided at the all employee meeting I attended as he said the words, “Good News Fast, Bad News Faster.” I can’t remember the words he used. I left knowing that he meant the organization believes in recognizing, celebrating and rewarding success, but it also depends on each person to confront reality and make problems visible to allow the team to provide support, problem solve, and act accordingly. It agrees completely with a couple of ideas I regularly express to my teams and colleagues:

1. never, EVER, hide a problem

2. If I have to take a hit now or later, I’ll take it now

An example: A high performing consultant from my team sent an email to a group of managers with an excel spreadsheet as an attachment that he learned minutes after sending was a pivot table that contained confidential information. He immediately called my cell phone and told me directly what happened and who it went to. I then called my boss and IT. Within about 10 minutes we had surgically removed and destroyed the message and attachment from each recipient’s mailbox, identified who had opened the email and whether a copy had been saved locally, and replaced the message with an attachment including only the information intended to be sent. The next day, I took the opportunity to recognize the employee that made the mistake for modeling our values. His response – “I made the mistake and wanted to make sure you (me) weren’t surprised and that we got it fixed before it got out of control.”

We will make mistakes. We will form imperfect plans and then imperfectly execute them. It is certain. This does not and should not limit our drive for excellence, even as Toyota states it in their Lexus brand – the pursuit of perfection. If you are a purpose driven person that acts on ideals, you are pursuing an asymptote. This principle that tells employees bad new faster is an expectation that is liberating. Do not play not to lose. Do not waste valuable time and resources hiding information and strategizing how to skirt ownership or place blame because you are afraid to share what is now reality with your team. The message is also clear that when bad news is presented to you, don’t punish the informant to teach them to fear making mistakes and keep them far from you.

Though not common, I’ve witnessed great individuals, relationships and teams that are truly safe and open. When something happens, there is little or no inhibition to discuss it. It may be a lucrative opportunity, a total disruption to the status quo, or a threatening mistake made by the team. They are able to lay the issue out, walk around it and look at it from various points of view and assess:

  • is this real?
  • what is happening here? how does it work? how did it happen?
  • what does it mean to us? who does it impact?
  • is there a lesson to be learned? is there a weaknesses that is revealed?
  • is there an opportunity to exploit?
  • what will we do?

The environment is engaging with heightened arousal in focus and curiosity. There is ownership and accountability. There’s no burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away. Run to the issue. Assess what it is, does and means. Own it. Move forward.

This TPOV creates competitive advantage and is a fundamental to a learning organization. It takes what most organizations fear and run from – their richest lessons – and uses them as fuel for success and growth for talent and the organization.