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Dave Conrad: Good solutions start with good questions

August 3, 2018 GMT

Dear Dave: My team has a big problem. Our team meetings are always filled with my fellow employees announcing they have quick fixes to some rather large problems. Needless to say, the solutions do not always work and they often make things worse. How can we make better decisions about the large and small problems that come up? I don’t want to act like a control freak, but I would like to have our team follow some process of decision making. — T

Dear T: First, let me say that you are not alone with this problem. I have been on teams and worked with fellow managers on projects and problems that were more complex than we thought they were. We seemed to want instant remedies that, often, did not fit the problems before us. Everyone agreed to agree at the speed of light and no one dared to ask any more questions about what was discussed — because they would be considered troublemakers who just made things more difficult.

Time is a precious commodity when people are trying to make decisions. Teams and individuals are required to come up with fixes that will solve some rather daunting problems in a very short period of time. People feel the pressure and the problem-solving meetings are composed of people grabbing things that “appear to be workable” and that are “good enough.” People race to closure on an item and then move on to the next item following the same inaccurate process of choosing solutions. In the end, decisions are made efficiently, but not effectively.

To be clear, I understand that people must jump through a laundry list of problems and opportunities at meetings. However, I think that we must consider all of the moving parts.

Often, there are people, process, plan, and action factors that must be considered. One part impacts another and you have both obvious and hidden issues that must be assessed.

In short, if you don’t consider all of the factors that compose the problem, you may just be coming up with “Band-Aid solutions” that will mend things for a week or two and then may surface again as an even bigger problem. People must then move into damage control and complete, systemic solutions are never considered or implemented.

Lead with better questions

The primary problem-solving goal is learning and I propose you do something that may ruffle the feathers of some of your fellow employees: Try to get your fellow employees to ask better questions upfront before jumping to solutions.

Ask them to consider and expose all of the factors and issues affecting and creating a problem. Get out a huge poster-sized piece of paper, gather around it, and jot down all of the elements, constraints, and forces that are related to the problem. Then, try to determine priority items and consider what pieces are affecting others.

You want everyone to get involved in contributing what they think is part and parcel to the problem — hand them a marker. Their participation should increase their levels of ownership of the problem.

There are usually people issues, such as employees not having appropriate knowledge and skills to do and complete their work.

There are often management problems, such as managers not supporting people and plans as prescribed, and then pouncing on people with a plethora of mini assignments to do when the poor employees are already swamped with the chaos of working plans that do not fit to fully solve nagging problems.

And, there are often process problems caused by a lack of resources, inaccurate assessments of progress and actions, and technology that just ain’t cutting it.

Finally, there are usually customer or end-user problems caused by shifts in their desires and needs and their possible migration toward competitive companies that can best take care of their needs. Ouch!

I believe it is usually the things you have not considered — or dare not consider, due to their complexity and “messiness” — that are often the things causing the problems. You will never know until everything is before your eyes.

This requires excellent and challenging questions that must be asked and considered. Good leaders want to hear from their employees and consider their views on what may be going right or wrong. The people “closest to the work” should be brought in and allowed an opportunity to speak about what they see and what they believe.

If you want solutions, you must fill the room with the right people who have upfront views of the realities of the situations. Only then, can you consider possible solutions, or measure the costs of not acting on a problem.

In summary, there will always be problems and there will always be individuals that believe they have an answer for everything. Only when you can see all of the parts of a problem and consider the reality of what may or may not be happening, will you have a chance of finding cures that can take care of the business at hand.