In the workplace, we face problems and conflicts every day. How we handle and resolve problems reflects our character and our role as a team member within the organization. As a leader, one cannot afford to take short-cuts only to alleviate the symptoms of a problem as opposed to taking the time to do an effective root cause analysis and tackle the source of the problem. Before a problem can be solved, it must be understood. This understanding avoids impulsivity and counterproductive reactions. Additionally, the best leaders see problems as grounds for opportunity and growth. As the leader of your team are you an operative problem solver? What is your mindset when it comes to problems? Do you take the necessary steps in effectively mitigating and solving issues within your organization?
“Problems are Only Opportunities in Work Clothes,” – Henry Kaiser
There is an effective way to problem solve and it involves the following four steps:
1) Objectively defining the problem at hand.
2) Identifying contributing factors and being flexible to unconsidered factors.
3) Validating or debunking factors with evidence.
4) Creating an action plan for positive change.
To illustrate how to implement these 4 steps, we will use the following common problem: your department is underperforming as compared to your goals and the organizational norms.
Many people, feeling the urge to take action, often overlook this critical first step. In order to accurately uncover the root cause of the problem, it’s imperative to objectively identify the problem without any undue influence from emotion. Doing this step once the emotions have subsided allows you to examine the interpersonal elements (who, what, when, and where) without bias. Objectively, in our example problem we state that your department is underperforming by 25% as compared to the organization’s standards set in January of this year.
Secondly, before asking others, consider writing down what you think contributed to the problem. Once you have your perceptions written down, you can invite your team in a collaborative, brainstorming meeting to discuss the problem (tip: ask for their input first before offering your ideas). Getting their input accomplishes two things: 1) it gives them a sense of ownership in the problem-solving process and 2) it forces you to be flexible and hear what else may have contributed to the problem or even factors you did not think to consider initially. The setup of this meeting is crucial, your team members must feel comfortable enough to honestly express what they think went wrong1. Remember to be accepting of the possible role you may have played contributing to the issue. While facilitating the team’s discussion come prepared with critical questions in order to build a platform for all contributing factors. For the example problem of your department’s performance being below standard, you could think it’s because of those individuals’ lack of effort or work ethic. As you discuss with your team, you might find the real issue involves lack of training or unrealistic deadlines2 that you have implemented.
Thirdly, dive into each factor, and give it weight with evidentiary support. One way to accomplish this is for you and your team to gather measurable, observable, and objective data to prove or debunk the particular factor’s role in the problem. Taking this step increases accuracy and allows for you to focus on what is actually in your control as an organization.
At this point we have considered and evaluated all possible contributing factors to the problem at hand and have deliberately weeded it down to what really caused it. We can now come up with a strategic plan for resolution. The plan must involve SMART (Specific, Measurable, Action-focused, Realistic, Timely) to-do statements, meaning what you and your team are going to do to implement the positive change. Without meeting the SMART criteria, you provide room for excuses, lack of direction, and poor planning. Again, for the example problem, an action statement to mitigate your department’s subpar performance outcomes might be: “we set up weekly in-service trainings for all or create mentorship assignments so that one entry level employee is paired up with a seasoned employee for designated projects.”
“Problem solving is the greatest enabler for growth and opportunity. This is why they say failure serves as the greatest lesson in business and in life.”1
An effective leader recognizes that a problem is an opportunity to improve, a chance to utilize the strengths of their team, and to highlight what is also RIGHT with those you lead. When we bring our strengths to the table and facilitate the use of others’ strengths we can assure that the new plan of action leads to a sustainable solution1. Keep in mind that not all business problems may warrant this formal approach, but for those complex, difficult problems with a multitude of interrelated issues consider the above steps. Not only will you be a better problem solver, you will be better at what you do.
If you’re interested in learning more about effective problem solving feel free to reach out to HigherEchelon for more specific ideas.