It’s understandable that we leap to solutions. Crossing items of one’s to-do list and fixing problems provides a dopamine surge that is comforting, especially when the world around us feels more volatile and threatening.
Nevertheless, an ineffective Band-Aid solution can make things worse, and can be just as damaging in the long run as the problem it’s trying to solve. In my work as a leadership consultant, I’ve devised a simple, four-step process that can help you get past the urge to rush to solutions.
1. Go and See
It’s easy to jump to lousy solutions when you don’t have a strong grasp of the facts — and you can’t get that if you don’t leave your desk, your office, or your conference room. Gathering facts comes from close observation.
Spreadsheets and reports, which we often rely on are just data, two-dimensional representations of reality. Data tells you how often a machine breaks down on an assembly line. Facts — meaning direct observations — show you that the machine is dirty, covered in oil, and hasn’t been cleaned or maintained in a long time.
2. Frame Your Problem Properly
Problem statements are deceptively difficult to get right for several reasons. For one, it’s easy to mistake the symptoms for the underlying problem. For example, you might assume that to help a child in Flint, Michigan who has behavioral issues in school and struggle with reading comprehension, you need to focus on those problems. But those are only symptoms. The real problem is lead in the municipal water system.
A well-framed problem statement opens up avenues of discussion and options. A bad problem statement closes down alternatives and quickly sends you into a cul-de-sac of facile thinking.
3. Think Backwards
If your firm is struggling with lower morale and employee engagement during the pandemic, you might group contributing factors into the following categories: Work Environment, Technology, Psychology, Communication, and Norms. These prompts will lead you to examine how challenging it is for people to work from home; how well your collaboration software (and people’s computer equipment) supports group work; how effectively the company creates opportunities for people to connect with coworkers; how well leadership’s messages reach employees; and what cultural norms and expectations are applicable to a work from home reality.
4. Ask Why
Asking “why” repeatedly before you settle on an answer is a powerful way to avoid jumping to conclusions or implementing weak solutions. Whether you ask five times, or three, or as many as 11, eventually you’ll get to the root cause, as each question pushes you to a deeper understanding of the real problem. Finding the root cause ensures that you have a durable solution, not a Band-Aid that treats the symptoms. For example, asking, “Why aren’t our employees wearing the mandated PPE all the time?” might reveal that you don’t have enough PPE in stock, because of a holdup in purchasing. The obvious — and ineffective — solution would be to send a stern memo to the purchasing department instructing them to expedite shipments.
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For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong. These four steps don’t actually guarantee a solution. But they will provide you with a more clearly defined problem. And although that’s less immediately gratifying, it’s a necessary step to finding something that really works.