Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Sky Is Falling!

“The sky is falling! If we don’t fix this problem immediately we’re doomed! Drop everything else you’re doing now! There’s simply no time to think, just to act!” Have you encountered people who find and react to problems in this way? Do they have credibility that causes people to respond quickly, or are they the company cranks who see every problem as a crisis?

We all encounter problems every day in our work lives (and for that matter in our personal lives). Some problems are simple. Some are complex. Some problems seem simple but are, in reality, quite complex. Some seem complex but are, in reality, quite simple. Some problems are emergencies and must be addressed immediately with whatever resources are required (the sky really is falling!). Some only seem that way or are made to seem that way (advertently or inadvertently). What matters is determining what the case is really, and then determining the best ways for such problems to be addressed and resolved.

First, what really is the case? Is the sky really falling? Are people overreacting? Is a fast, but possibly wrong, solution an approach to even consider, or is there time to think and do things right? I’d argue that there is always time to do things right (and if not, time to do things over) (see also Doing Things Right vs. Doing Things Over). And acting without thinking is not only dangerous; in some situations it can be fatal (to a problem or project, if not to people). How do you best respond to problems?

Whenever people encounter a problem and look for solutions, they bring their own experience and perspectives to bear. A marketing person will initially examine the market impact of the problem and how potential marketing solutions can help to alleviate or eliminate the problem. A financial person will similarly examine the financial impact and potential financial solutions. An engineer will examine the technological or design impact and potential engineering solutions. A process expert will examine the process that led to the problem and potential process solutions. And so on. There are cases where a single approach from a single perspective may quickly and significantly alleviate or eliminate a problem, but it is more often the case that a balanced examination of a problem from a variety of perspectives to identify the true root cause(s) and the best combination of potential solutions will yield the best result.

Getting started can often become a stumbling block. You need to act quickly but deliberately, with careful but rapid examination. What organizations should be involved? Who from those organizations should be involved? Which organization should lead? Who should lead? What should be the roles and responsibilities of the members of the team? Who lays this out and assigns specific duties? How do you keep lines of communications open? When do you pull in the reins when things start to go off track? How do you keep things focused? How do you avoid looking too narrowly? How do you avoid looking too broadly? How do you deal with different personality types? How do you build consensus? How do you avoid group think? 

Let’s take these briefly one by one:
  • What organizations should be involved? The organization that is most likely the cause and the one that is most feeling the effect are the most critical to be involved. They’re the real stakeholders in solving the problem. Other organizations who can contribute to effective solutions or who can provide insights to the cause(s) and possible solutions can also be involved. Parties who don’t fit these descriptions should stay out of the fray.
  • Which organization should lead? The organization with the strongest vested interest in an effective solution should lead. It must be understood up front that the goal is solving the problem, not casting blame.
  • Who from those organizations should be involved? The people closest to the problem (either cause or effect) should be involved. The intent is to add light but not heat to the situation. The goal is solutions, not warfare.
  • Who should lead? This should be the person from the lead organization who can most effectively marshal the team toward rapid but thorough assessment and toward finding the most rapid and effective solutions. This must be a person who is respected, inclusive, and non-divisive.
  • What should be the roles and responsibilities of the members of the team? The team members should be only those who can meaningfully and quickly contribute, all recognizing that the goal is a solution, and who can work effectively in a team role. The leader should assign clear roles and responsibilities to each person on the team, and clear deliverables and timeframes, and an overall plan for reaching an effective solution.
  • Who lays this out and assigns specific duties? The team leader.
  • How do you keep lines of communications open? Frequent and ongoing communication between team members that is fostered and encouraged by the team leader is essential, as are frequent brief meetings to gather status, get everyone on the same page, and modify directions as appropriate.
  • When do you pull in the reins when things start to go off track? When group or individual efforts are not directly addressing meaningful solutions to the specific problem, it is time to pull back, reassess, and redirect. This should be done frequently to avoid false starts and ineffective actions.
  • How do you keep things focused? Clear definition of the goals and frequent assessment of progress toward the goals, frequent communications, and rapid redirection when things start to go off track will keep things focused and on track.
  • How do you avoid looking too narrowly? How do you avoid looking too broadly? If the initial assessment of the problem is done properly, the scope of the problem will be understood by all. Ongoing communications and frequent brief meetings will help keep the scope properly focused.
  • How do you deal with different personality types? This can always be a challenge. The following articles can help provide some insight on how to handle a variety of personality types. See Are You Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?, the “Herding Cats” series of articles: Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly, Herding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima Donna, Herding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, Herding Cats 6: The Complainer/Whiner, The Eternal Optimist, The Gossip, The Cheshire Cat, The Loner, The Credit Taker/Thief & The A$$hole, the "Mis-Manager" series of articles: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well,  Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old YellerMis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder and Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole, and Can You Pass The Red Face Test?.
  • How do you build consensus? By being open and welcoming of the opinions of others, but laying out the logic and rationale behind decisions that are being made, members of the team will feel heard and understood, yet will understand why particular decisions have been made and can accept those decisions even though they may have some questions about them.
  • How do you avoid groupthink? Having one or two people dominate the group without challenge can lead to the danger that a single approach will be adopted without proper consideration of other approaches. By challenging decisions thoughtfully and rationally and seeking and getting responses to those challenges, groupthink can be avoided. 

The key to effectively solving the problem is first reaching consensus on what the problem really is, and then reaching agreement on an appropriate response to effectively solve it. The difficulty is often getting the various people who are involved to take off their blinders and understand and appreciate the perspectives and ideas of others (see also Walk a Mile in Your Boss’ Shoes!). Get opinions from people you wouldn’t even think of. You’ll be amazed at the value of getting other perspectives. Those involved need to be prepared to step outside their comfort zones, and shouldn’t assume their view and proposed solution is the only one or even the best. A respected leader to direct and guide this effort can get things on track to a rapid and meaningful solution. The problem may be very real and serious, but addressed in the right way, you will find that the sky is not falling.

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