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A Thinking Process for Solving Problems

3 Nov

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.

Speed Kills.

9 Sep

Faster is not always better. Speed chess isn’t great chess. Great isn’t the point. It’s fast. Watch them obsess over the clock…double and triple tapping to be sure.

“If you want to make me twice as smart and helpful, give me 10 minutes notice that we’re going to meet and what about.” This was my plea to a leader I worked with. He would drop in to discuss strategy for important and complex topics on a moments notice. This almost always caught me highly focused on another topic and made it difficult to switch gears and offer the quality of help that I expect of myself. It seemed as though everything was being dealt with as a crisis out of habit and preference rather than necessity and each topic was discussed and planned for individually and not as a system – or at least utilizing the same resources.

Tony Schwartz’s “why don’t we act in our own interest?” brought this all back to me. While the blog is familiar, the synthesis was new. The level of proactivity vs. reactivity that we focus our efforts and resources towards causes us to think differently, ultimately changing the interests (i.e., need or problem) we work to fulfill. We intuitively apply this, but it seems we don’t rationally consider how the time-focus of a planning effort changes how the mind works and impacts outcomes.

…we don’t make a connection between our current behavior and its future consequences. As Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist, put it, “Leaders don’t have time for the future because they’re too busy with the present.”

We’re familiar with the fight or flight instincts that are triggered in response to threat. We physiologically become dumber under these circumstances as blood leaves our brain towards our extremities to support the fighting or fleeing activities. I had not, however, considered that such a condition is created when we work on things that are of great urgency and perhaps importance. In my experience, importance becomes less clear with greater urgency and pressure. When we are fixated on short-term interests we make “dumb” decisions relative to our long-term interests. If we do this long-enough, we may not even be clear on what our long-term interests are. When we allow the focus of our efforts to be too urgent, it’s like bad ergonomics – the cumulative effects hurt you over time because you’re doing it wrong. You’re using parts of your brain intended for mere survival.

Time Matrix for prioritization

The good news is while we may “lack vision” or “have no strategy,” it’s likely as much a matter of process and not ability. This isn’t a new idea. It’s FranklinCovey’s Habit 1 – Be Proactive. When we work on things that are important and not urgent, we make better decisions because we literally plan differently and serve greater interests and values. The bad news is the environment always wins.

Do you reward crisis managers more than those who consistently deliver to plan and implement in a way that integrates?

Do you find yourself inflating the level of urgency of tasks (or procrastinating) because, if you’re honest with yourself, you prefer a crisis?

Are you bothered by the ambiguity of the not urgent but fundamentally important?

The survey results…you really don’t know what they mean

11 Apr

When you’re presented with survey results, do you know how to “read” them? Do you show a great “bias for action” and jump to action planning? Maybe you’re a great communicator and you promptly pull everyone together to explain how they responded and how the organization is reacting. Perhaps you’re skilled in data analysis, use SPSS, remind others that correlation doesn’t mean causation, etc. You likely know what the data is, but most of us can only speculate what it means.

A lesson I learned from Dr. Kathie Sorensen of The Coffman Organization is when you’re collecting information from a group of people to try to understand something of importance, it’s not smart to review data and then tell the organization what their responses mean. When working with Kathie, before leaders received survey results in a report, they were instructed to “Raise your right hand and repeat after me: I will not tell my team what their survey results mean.”

When measuring social factors – why people do what they do, make the choices they make, feel how they feel, believe what they believe – I’ve found it effective to follow a process to share what the results are and use questions to seek to understand in more detail what they mean from the people who provided the responses. I’ve never seen this process fail to drive improvement just through the process itself, independent of any action that comes from it. I’ve also, never seen a leader do this and not be surprised by how much they learn. It’s an exercise of empathy.

When Dr. Sorensen first delivered the “Raise your right hand…” message to our leaders, many of them struggled. They scoffed at the idea that they couldn’t interpret and plan actions against such simple surveys. The very idea of presenting a set of data – some of which wasn’t that positive about their leadership and the environment they were responsible for – and then asking for help with what it meant was threatening. Results come from action, not talking and deliberation, right? We were stuck until I presented an analogy to tip the group back to support by showing similarities to a concept they were more familiar with – a key investment the organization made in manufacturing – the condition monitoring systems.

Me: We’ve made some significant capital investments in condition monitoring systems for the plants right?

Leaders in group meeting: Yeah. Those systems keep our plants delivering the product we sell to make money. What does that have to do with these surveys.

Me: I think they’re similar.

Leaders (laughing): You do? How?

Me: How do the condition monitoring systems work? They don’t actually tell you what to do to the machinery, right?

Leaders: No, the condition monitoring systems measure things like temperature, vibration, and volume. When the machines are going to fault, there are changes in these factors that you can see leaving their normal levels well in advance of the machine failing. This allows us to plan maintenance or repair at a time that works best for us and not shut down production while product is scheduled to run and labor is on the clock.

Me: Exactly what we’re trying to do too. The survey results don’t tell you what the problem is. They tell that something is vibrating or hot and you should work to figure out what it is before it causes a system failure that will be expensive and uncomfortable.

Another analogy that may work better for you if you’re not in manufacturing is measuring your vitals (blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, pulse, weight, blood sugar, etc.) to monitor health.

Related posts:

What is Engagement, Really?

There’s no such thing as a great organization

Come on down

28 Jan

“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 you’re 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 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:

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