March 31, 2009

Be Sure the Solutions You Implement Solve the Right Problem

In these times of economic uncertainty, we are faced with tightening our belts and coming up with innovative solutions to new problems. And yet, we sometimes find ourselves with a sense of "spinning our wheels". We get that feeling that no matter what we do, things just seem to stay the same. We know we are implementing new solutions, but somehow the same old problems seem to be around. What is going on?
In my experience both as a manager in a large corporation and as a management consultant, I often found that our employees would use a great deal of creative zeal to solve a problem. The solutions were indeed "out of the box" and they were elegant in their intent and effort. But, more often than not, people jump to solutions too quickly. They have plenty of solutions to bring forward, often never knowing just what the problem is that needs to be solved. I will never forget a training program I did early on in my consulting life. It was a terrific program and the participants liked it just fine. Trouble was, I solved the wrong problem! What a lesson I learned from that experience!
Often times, our employees do the same thing because they don't necessarily know how to define the true problem at hand. Below is a model that I have used over the years with my own staff and with my clients. It is quick and eliminates what I call the "situational noise" that so many of our current problems hide behind. To help identify the real problem, consider these steps:
  1. Describe the situation. What is happening? What are the facts? Who is involved? When and how did something occur? In this step, do not try to analyze or solve, just focus on what you know or what you can investigate further in order to know.
  2. Determine what should be happening. What is the desired outcome or output? What would the "perfect world" look like? How would you know you were successful? In this step, you can push the envelope a bit and go for the "Cadillac". Later, you will apply the realistic test to it.
  3. Identify the consequences. What would happen if problem went unsolved for a period of time? What would happen if you do nothing? Who would be impacted? How would the business suffer, or would it? Will a time frame be important here?
  4. State the problem, in terms of "How". Only at this step are you ready to define the problem. And you must be able to state it in terms of a question beginning with "How", such as "how can we eliminate overhead in the back office support operation?" If you are unable to do this, you are not yet at the problem definition stage and need to go back to the situation, outcome, and consequence steps.
  5. Create your solution set. Now, that you have stated the problem clearly and succinctly, without the he said/she said "noise", you are ready to come up with your solutions. Get as creative and energetic here as you like. You have earned it! An odd (but wonderful) thing happens at this step. With the problem clearly defined, the solutions are almost easy to imagine. And, the decision on which solution to pick seems to also pop out quickly. In very complex problems, additional research may be needed to choose between one or more possible solutions, but more often than not, this easily identified and completed as well.
  6. Finalize your decision and set your implementation plan. At this last step, you are ready to move from planning to action. You may also find that moving into full project management is easier now too.
You can use a Problem Solving Model like this one in a variety of situations, from work processes to employee development.

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