The process for solving a problem in the workplace often involves diffusing the situation, correctly defining the problem, and controlling any variables that might impact the outcome.
By Risa Fogel
One of the most stressful times in a person’s career is when they have to tell someone above them in the corporate hierarchy, “We have a problem.” As someone who has both delivered and received this message, I know the problem can be anything from a fairly insignificant miscommunication to a major outage in a mission-critical system. At times, the problem takes on a life of its own, causing much angst and speculation about who is going to take the blame or who is going to deliver the bad news. People get very caught up in the emotion of the situation, revisiting the problem without actually identifying a solution.
While the size of the problem dictates the amount of time and attention needed to solve it, the process for solving it remains fairly consistent. Diffusing the situation, defining the problem and controlling variables that are impacting the outcome will generally lead to a positive outcome. Outlined below are more details on these tried-and-true steps to problem solving.
Focus on the Problem, Not Finding Fault
A key leadership lesson is learning to control your emotions so you can focus on the facts of running your business. When confronted with a problem, it is equally important to control emotional reactions in order to diffuse the situation and identify a solution. This is not the time to find fault or to place blame. However, I have been in situations where it was impossible for the project team to move forward without having someone to blame. In these instances, I have offered myself as the person at fault, giving the team someone to blame so that they can stop arguing and begin focusing on the solution. Getting the participants to leave their egos at the door to create a common goal goes a long way toward moving forward. As Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." Equally important is not caring who gets the blame.
Solving a problem is dependent upon correctly identifying the problem. This sounds obvious, but I have often faced situations where I am approached with a problem but instead of hearing about the issue, I am barraged with a lot of extraneous details. I find that it takes some good detective work, and lots of questions, to drill down to the actual problem. In some cases, the details I am provided with have little or no bearing on the cause of the problem or, more importantly, a potential solution. The details tell a good story but do little for the situation other than expending needless energy by the storyteller. Defining the problem and identifying the desired end result puts you on the path to recognizing the necessary steps for developing a solution. This is the time to look forward, not backward.
Once the problem is defined, you may need to break it down into pieces. Depending on the size of the issue it may have interdependencies with other projects or departments. You also need to identify and control variables. For instance, what is fixed with the situation and what can change? Just as projects are controlled by time, scope and resources, so are problems. Is there a time limitation on identifying the solution? How complex is the issue and the solution? Lastly, do you have the appropriate resources to solve the problem?
You should also explore if you have encountered a similar issue in the past. Is there a common thread that needs to be addressed either now or after the immediate crisis is solved? Many organizations conduct a root cause analysis for major incidents as investigating patterns of problems and solutions can be beneficial in preventing operational issues that cause less impactful but equally distracting problems.
A Puzzle That Needs to be Solved
Problems are an inevitable part of the workplace. Although some people find problems daunting, experienced leaders know that facing each problem as a puzzle that needs to be solved and breaking it into pieces helps to demystify the situation. Removing emotion and ego to diffuse the situation allows you and your team to focus on the relevant facts. Identifying the problem and the desired solution gives everyone a shared goal, while looking for commonalities or trends gives you the opportunity to not only solve the current issue but can help prevent future challenges. Defining and modeling this behavior gives you a chance to develop necessary skills among your team, enabling everyone to better handle those "We have a problem" moments.
About the Author
Risa Fogel is a senior managing director at Cushman & Wakefield where she is responsible for global business solutions. She has led global transformation efforts and is experienced in working with public, private and governmental organizations. Fogel is a former president and trustee for the New Jersey Chapter of the Society for Information Management. You can follow Fogel on Twitter via @RisaFogel.
To read her previous CIO Insight article, "Three Tips About Managing Expectations," click here.