The Zen of Problem Solving

I get asked a fair amount to comment on various problems with companies I work with. 

It appears I have some level of experience with things that work, don't work, are completely broken and in some cases no one knows this and there are no steps in place to address it. 

In many of these cases, I am not even that familiar with what the processes are.  Conceptually I am, but empirically, not so much. 

What I found out is it does not always matter what specific things I know or don't know.  What matters in this case is I can help guide them through the process of fixing it. 

I am going to use the word "Problem".  I know that isn't a great word to use and some people want to sterilize the actual problem and call it an issue or a challenge or an opportunity, but let's cut to the chase, it's a problem. And it needs to be fixed.   The iceberg in front of the Titanic was not an opportunity, it was a problem.  Stepping into the rattlesnake den is not a challenge, it's a problem. 

The fact of the matter is every company has some problem, challenge, issue or one of their processes simply isn't working.   That's ok, as long as someone is addressing it. And when I mean someone, that might be you.  For the sake of this illustration, it's you.

I suggest the following as a template. 

1) Observation

You see a problem.  You have choices.  You can ignore it or you can do something about it.  I suggest you do something about it because it isn't going away.  No matter how badly the navigator and the captain of the Titanic wanted that iceberg to disappear, it wasn't going to.

This is the easy part of the process.  You could walk out your door and find a few.

As a leader in some capacity you should also be developing a culture where if someone else observes a problem they tell someone (ideally you in many circumstances) that can do something about it.  If your staff doesn't believe it's their responsibility to do anything about it or worse, tell anyone there is a problem, that in itself is a much larger problem and you need to address that.

So now that you know there is a problem, and you've decided not to ignore it, you get to move to step two. 

2) Analysis

Mind you, this is analysis, it isn't research into how to send robots to mars to grow organic free-range artichokes.  This is analysis.  

What is the problem?  How does it effect the company or the customers or what we do?  What is the cause that we have observed and what is the effect we have observed?  

You need to get information and based on the type and severity of the problem, you may not have a lot of time.   You are responsible, you are the captain of this ship.

Having lots of meetings, sending thousands of mass emails, putting up banners and slogans, building consensus committee is well and fine, but it isn't solving the problem and if it isn't germane (really cool word by the way) to the analysis of the problem, it's a waste of time. 

So gather data, talk to people, make determinations, prepare your action to resolve the problem. 

The captain of the Titanic didn't do a survey of the passengers and sent out emails asking their opinion of icebergs.  But he could have... 

Also, be diligent about this.  Don't over think and under react any more than under think and over react.  You are a leader, this falls to you to properly address.  Remember, it isn't going away now. 

After you have completed your analysis, you move to the next phase. 

Get the ship on a different course to avoid the iceberg is a solid idea.  

3) Take Action

You know the problem, you understand the complexities, you have looked into it, you have spoken with people, you have data, now do something. 

As a leader of your institution, implement your plan.  Instruct your staff.  Have processes written and in place for each part of the team to take.  

Lead your people through the steps and trust in them to do their job.  

Your people are your people, if they do not implement the solution because your directions were not clear, this falls onto your shoulders.  If you haven't ever read Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" there is a great section that addresses leadership and giving instructions. 

Delegate and allow the process you have defined to resolve the problem.  

Inspect what you expect.  

Find a reasonable way to obtain updates to the resolution in process.

I strongly suggest you do not resort back to analysis paralysis.  That is a sure fire way to never actually get anything done, but look really efficient while getting nothing done.

If you have followed these steps, and as a leader you have owned the process and allowed the trust in your staff to manifest into tangible action, ideally the problem has been solved. 

In some cases, it will not be solved.  We know this already. 

Either way, you are going to step four.

4) Review

Start with one simple question.

Is the problem solved, yes or no? 

If it is, great, your staff should be given all of the credit.  You're a leader, you never blow your own horn, ever. 

Have this process documented.  

Understand the cause and effect.  

Ideally take a look into your other areas of responsibility and see if you can proactively get ahead of any other problem before it rears its ugly head. 

If the problem is not solved you need to know why.  

You will never publicly blame the staff, ever.  

You will take full responsibility for the process and go back to step one and Observe what is going on to compare it to your original observations and repeat the steps as listed. 

However, you must reach a different conclusion as what the solution is or you will be in the infinite definition of insanity loop.  We call this Politics in the U.S. 

Learn from your mistakes, don't repeat them, don't over analyze any more than don't under analyze.

Lead your team, take responsibility and place trust in those that report to you. 

If it is determined that a member of your staff failed to do as they were told, or refused to do as you instructed, it falls to you to coach, train, discipline or replace them. 

As you continue to develop this culture and belief set you will notice a decrease in your problems and a corresponding increase in the efficiency of your processes. 

And the best part about this, a part that is often completely overlooked.  You will gain support of the staff because they see you are a leader that takes responsibility.  

Your staff morale will improve because they aren't putting out fires or spinning their wheels. 

Leaders that lead a winning team that give credit to the team are respected.  Period.  

After you grasp the simplicity of problem solving by breaking it down into understandable components you and all those around you grow as individuals and the net sum is truly the definition of success.