One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from years spent in corporate roles is the role of humility in problem solving. Sure, it’s true that most spend too little time in the definition of the problem also, but it is the lack of humility and involvement in the process that holds at bay some of the most obvious and effective solutions.
Many have an aversion to negative words, drummed in over years of personal development, and ‘problem’ sounds like one. When you have a boss, or a boss’s boss, that thinks you have a problem, it sends a red alert straight to your brain and, generally, throws the best of us into our flight and fight response. Not the optimal starting point.
Before you respond, relax. Seriously, do whatever it takes to relax first, it will open you up to new ideas. Remember, the problem is just pointing to a space to create a solution, likely to lead to something better. It’s not in anyone’s best interests for you to simply spew out a solution then and there; in fact it’s not in anyone’s best interests for you alone to even define the problem.
For those who have been on any self respecting management development, project or process improvement training, you will know the steps in a good problem solving process. It’s fairly simple: first you identify all the facts and assumptions, then you define the problem (making sure you’re defining the real problem and not just part of the problem or symptoms of the problem), from there you flip to the positive and define the objective, before generating alternative solutions, evaluating them, deciding which to go with implementing, followed lastly by evaluation and follow up.
Where we run into trouble is this, ego. The secret to great solutions is humility. Why?
Think about it, most organizations are constructed as a hierarchy. In that hierarchy you are given certain powers. The further up the hierarchy the more humility is required, yet it is a rare quality witnessed. More often the status quo is that the decision makers are far removed from the problem but either worry that they should know the answer or think that they already do.
This is true from the perspective that they have a more strategic view. But that is only because those further down the chain don’t have the delegated authority to access the information and communications that would give them the strategic view.
For many years I spent my career climbing the corporate ladder, but when I hit the level of head of the function I was interested in, that was the limit of my ambition. While I am wired strategically and found it relatively easy to look at companywide issues from broader perspective, sitting endlessly in decision making forums discussing subjects of very little interest just didn’t float my boat.
When one of the team asked what it was that had motivated me to the level I was at, it made me realise it was control. Pure and simple, I wanted enough control to make a difference. As it turned out, that was based on the flawed premise that positions hold power.
Organisational construct is always evolving, although this idea of hierarchies has been around a long time in human history but it’s no longer serving us. Sure, everyone has a role to play, and not everyone can do everything, but allowing people the bandwidth to contribute and create around the thing they do well is where most companies are missing the boat.
Last year I wrote a few articles about this in more detail, questioning the need for managers in today’s world and pointing towards a more self managing construct that some companies have adopted, where profit, purpose and personal fulfillment can thrive together.
At the crux of all of it lies humility, the recognition that others have skills, ways of looking at issues, ideas about solutions that we don’t have.
Even in the traditional hierarchy, rarely do companies train their managers, hone job descriptions and performance management matrix’s to be explicit about what each level of management needs to focus on and let go of, as you climb a hierarchy. Consequently many are doing the jobs of many of their teams, and too few are really focused strategically enough in their roles.
It is common to see a chain reaction from above based on an innocent comment from the chief executive or one of the directors. In essence, people all throughout the hierarchy scrambling to save someone higher up’s ego, someone who thinks they should have known the answer to that question straight off the bat.
Huge swathes of activity get focused on what was deemed urgent rather than important. Executives everywhere are often horrified if they get visibility of the useless activity spurred by an innoxious comment or question. In fact, the bigger the company, the more of this kind of activity is often seen.
At home each member of the team is a fully functioning, powerful, free individual. They look after their own finances, make investment decisions, run households, bring up children, deal with crisis, sickness and death, many are even leaders in their communities or in clubs, sports or other activities. In other words they are both free and whole.
Yet in the workplace, the job description, the hierarchy, treats individuals as far less than whole. It is a rare thing to see those involved in downstream delivery involved in upstream design; it is a rare thing for those closest to the problems to be involved in the definition or creation of a solution to the problem. It is a rare thing for all employees to be entrusted with all the information that is relevant to the allow them to perform to their highest potential in their role.
Instead, feeling a lack of power, our human instinct is to take it back. In organisations activity based on this instinct is rife, activity that serves only to undermine the vision and goals of the company, knowingly or not. Whether it’s unproductive conversations or out and out sabotage, much of the power in the organisation really lies there, because it can either support or diminish what those who hold the positional power are trying to achieve.
At our heart we are creators, let your people create. Great problem solving involves getting the biggest perspective you can on an issue; from that perspective you can get real clarity on what your real problem is. You will often not only be amazed at the real problem, but also the solutions that come forth in answer to it. Even better, given the wider involvement in the issue, the more commitment you have to its solution, and the process of change become seamless. Be humble and you will shine.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/17423713@N03/17426879444">Problem Solving</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(license)</a>
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