Putting More Smart People On A Problem Might Not Be The Answer
by Idris Mootee
Early breakfast in a Boston hotel and I’m ready for an executive workshop. There are so many decision to be made in one day and just over breakfast we’re made several important decisions on some strategic issues. I realize 70% of my time on a day-to-day basis are spent on problem solving – organizational, strategic, customers, people and resources etc. It is pretty much the biggest part of any managerial job. Problem solving skills development is therefore critical for young managers.
If you’re a well educated, highly intelligent person and have a well-respected job in your chosen career, it usually means you are a good problem solver both in professional and personal settings. Professor Yiorgos Mylonadis at London Business School research is finding otherwise. His recent research shows that people can be extremely well educated with many years of experience, they may be successful managers who have accomplished great things, but frequently their ability to solve a problem is severely limited.
I think there is a lot of truth in that. The reason being how we look at (frame) the problem or how we structure to solve them. I’ve helping client to solve complex issues for decades, often individuals have a good idea of what the issues are, but they are not sharing that in a large group setting simply to avoid saying the wrong things (or not the right things), and ending up resulting in group-think. I see this all the time, one smart person can make a quick decision to solve a problem, two smart persons can frame an issue better and share perspectives and ten smart persons often have no idea of what problems they are trying to solve.
Professor Mylonadis suspects that the reason that our problem-solving ability in management is limited is because our models of problem-solving are devoid of people while actual problem-solving isn’t. As useful as a decision tree might be as an analytical abstraction, the issue is how do you actually define a problem with the help of others around you? Who should these people be? What kind of input should you be asking from them? Which part of that input should you disregard? Which part of that input should you take into account?
He says further, “If you look at engineering or architecture the ability of people to explain the problem they’re working on, and ask questions so they can get feedback is very high without their need to resort to either dogma or trivia. They are helped by reference to blueprints which are a highly codified way of communicating. Our equivalent in management is jargon. Like blueprints, jargon was invented to make our exchanges efficient (we all know what is meant by a “functional organization”.) But the analogy to the blueprint ends when jargon becomes meaningless. It is also a sure way of eradicating any arguments left standing from the onslaught of dogma or trivia.”
I think defining or framing the problem is the most important first step. Many experienced executives or senior creative folks who supposed to be professional problem solvers, are confused with the terminology of problem solving. They confuse problems with causes, and issues etc. What is the definition of problem? The driver of solving any particular problem needs to be fully understood. Problem solvers should start their problem solving projects from the definition of drivers and then look at the possible ways that we can go about solving it? Some other question to ask before starting to come up with solutions:
- Can you solve the whole problem? Or just part of the problem?
- What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?
- Can you make education decision based on limited information available at hand? How much of the unknowns are out there?
- Have you taken into account all essential notions in the problem?
- Do we want to solve the problem for good or just want to deal with the symptoms for now?
- Have other tried to solve this before and were they successful? Why others have failed to solve the problem?
- Is the problem shifting or changing over time? So time is the essence? What do you need to do at this time? Or will the problem go away naturally?
- Is it a problem at all?
- By solving this problem will we create more problems?
Idris Mootee is the CEO of idea couture, a strategic innovation and experience design firm. He is the author of four books, tens of published articles, and a frequent speaker at business conferences and executive retreats.