We humans are natural problem solvers. We spend a large portion of each day doing it, and, for the most part, we’re pretty good at it. But we’re especially good at it when our problems are concrete and easy to define. For example, finding an alternative route to work is easier than thinking of ways to motivate a flagging team.
The problems we face in organizations tend to be of the more difficult and abstract variety: they are ambiguous, intermittent, and seldom have one root cause. The only way to gain traction and solve these problems is to develop a structured and disciplined method.
Use the following problem solving framework to help you tackle your organization’s abstract problems.
Prioritize and Pursue
If you attempt to solve all of the problems that your organization faces at the same time, you’ll accomplish nothing. If you focus your energies only on the most recent problem instead of the ones most crippling to your organization, you’ll accomplish nothing. Work with your leadership team to develop a list of issues and then prioritize them by determining which of them are doing the most damage to your organization. Pick the top three and make the commitment not to tackle other problems until you’ve solved one of these.
Discuss the Problem, Not the Solution
Invite people who are being directly impacted by the problem to discuss the problem, but don’t let anyone jump ahead and start proposing solutions. Just as an army commander orders his troops to do reconnaissance before launching an attack, you need to map out the problem, view it from a variety of perspectives, and define it as completely as possible before proposing solutions. Be as objective as possible. Discussing the problem first and waiting to propose solutions will enable your team to suspend their judgments, biases, and assumptions and see the problem as it is, not as they want or fear it to be.
Searching for Solutions
I remember my first boss, Bill Paberzs, telling me that there were two types of mechanics in the world: those who just start replacing parts until the problem is fixed and those who actually diagnose a car’s malfunction in order to precisely address the problem. As leaders, we want to be like the second kind. After your team has thoroughly described and understood the problem, you can begin diagnosing the problem and searching for the most elegant and effective solution.
Everyone involved needs to come to an agreement on the proposed solution, and if not, explain why they don’t agree. Buy-in is important, because without it people are pulling in different directions, which is one of the least productive things a team can do.
Assign Tasks and Provide Resources
A meeting should always end with specific tasks assigned to specific people. If no tasks are assigned, all you did was have a talk. Also, don’t forget that people need the correct tools and the necessary resources to complete their work. Make sure they have them.
Monitor progress weekly
Hold your team accountable and have your team hold you accountable. Missed deadlines and lack of follow-through sow seeds of chaos in an organization.
As a leader, it is not only your responsibility to practice constructive problem solving yourself, but also to embed these methodologies in the culture of your company. The truth is, few things are as rewarding as solving a tough problem and getting traction. If you can show your team that this methodology works, those around you will be eager to apply the same principles.