Effective Business Problem Solving Part One
By: Bob De Contreras
Do you ever stop, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you can
make better business decisions? If you’re like other CEOs and top executives
(like the clients we asked) the answer is, “probably not.” You’ve read about
decision making and problem solving strategies, just like we have. So, why is
it we continue to be able to help our clients solve business problems that they
have not been able to resolve themselves? The conclusions we came to are the
basis of this two part series. The first answer is that good decision making
alone is not sufficient to solve business problems. Capable management with
analysis skills, change initiation capabilities and solid change control that
directly addresses the right problem and supports the decision are also
required. In this part one we will discuss the decision-making component of
business problem solving.
Think about the last time you had one of those “aha” moments when
you made a decision and later discovered that the solution didn’t work, and with
further analysis discover that your solution had little to do with the real
problem? To get to a good decision, it is necessary to be focused on the right
problem which consequently becomes the foundation to good decision making. This
process starts with a critical analysis through probing questions. By
objectively asking and answering critical, focused, probing questions you will
often discover that what you thought was the problem is not the problem at all.
Sometimes it’s like acting as a five year old kid, asking why, why, why until
you really get to the core issue. You may discover that there is some underlying
problem or set of problems that are causing what you thought was the issue.
Look at this as a goal of simplifying complex issues. Don’t allow yourself to go
any further until you clearly understand the problem, else you will be suffering
wasted time and effort on solutions that won’t work.
Whatever the result of this critical analysis, it will most
assuredly result in a more complete and precise definition of the problem which
will lead to much more focused solutions when you get to the solution
Your critical analysis will often find that there are multiple
problems. It is important to discover how they are related, if at all, and then
to prioritize them. At this point, you will have more information about the
problems that will change their importance and scope and therefore their
You will need to establish criteria for prioritization, but more
often than not, it will be based on which problem is most painful and has the
most impact on the success of the business. CEOs often focus on the issue that
is causing them the most grief when they should be prioritizing based on what is
best for the business.
Throughout the process discussed above, force yourself to “think
outside the box.” You’ve heard that, but what does it mean?
When you think you have asked the last critical question be
sure that you really are at the root cause of the problem by forcing
yourself to ask two more questions.
When the answer to a question is “I don’t know,” ask yourself
what the answer would be IF you did know (i.e., you may really know
but may not want to admit it). In other words, keep digging and bring more
people into the process that might know the answer.
It is often a great idea to bring people into the critical
analysis process who are simply good problem solvers and who are not
involved in the problem being analyzed. You will get greater objectivity in
Sometimes younger or newer members of your team can come up
with better questions or alternatives because they are not burdened with
history, baggage, or ”we always do it this way” thinking.
In this critical analysis, don’t allow any discussion about a
solution. Not only is it a waste of time, but it undermines the objectivity
that is needed to really get at the root causes of the problem.
At this point it’s time to question your answers. This is
something that the Paladin and Associates partners have perfected. A couple of
psychologists have told us that this is what makes us different and allows us to
be so helpful to our clients. Therefore you need someone special to help you
with this step. You need someone who can bring more insight to the problem(s),
be able to see the forest for the trees and be able to differentiate all aspects
of the problem with all aspects of your business. The person can be a partner,
executive coach or an insightful executive on your team. The process to
question your answers is to:
Tell your executive coach about the problem, the questions
you asked about it, the answers you came up with and how you prioritized
Your coach gives you feedback by telling you what he or she
heard and adding other questions and/or answers to what you came up with.
This is an iterative technique of looping through all the
aspects of the problem, the questions that were asked and the answers that
Now you’re ready to circle the wagons and convert the answer or
those answers into a solution or solutions. If you have been insightful you
discovered in the “question your answers” phase that there are some common
answers that solve multiple problems. Those are the answers that form the
solution. By deciding on the solution you have completed making the decision on
how to solve the business problem.
Believe it or not you’ve just completed the easy part of solving
a business problem. The work starts when you have to initiate the change(s)
that is the solution. To this point you may have only had two or three people
involved in the decision. Now you must overcome fear of the unknown and
initiate the change. To solve the problem may involve the entire company and a
lot of resistance to the change. This situation and these issues will be the
subject of next month’s news letter.
In summary, form a clear and concise statement of the problem as
you understand it, including the rationale for its root cause. Get confirmation
from the other participants in the process that they now see the problem as it
is currently defined. This assures that everyone accepts and understands a
single definition of the problem.
Effective Business Problem Solving – Decision Making Case Study
By: Bob De Contreras
Over a beer one night, my neighbor asked for some help writing a
job description. I asked him why he needed to hire for a new position. The
answer I got was that each of the five people in his department were taking a
stab at writing the job description and that the next day they were going to put
their thoughts together and come up with the best description. Again, I asked
why they needed to hire for a new position. The response I got was, “That is
just like you, I’m asking for help on a job description and you are asking me
why we are hiring someone?” My response was that my questions were my way of
gaining understanding of the problem so I can do my best in describing the job.
So, he took me through an explanation of how the software
application they had purchased was not able to produce all the reports they
needed. Now they had gotten to the point that the staff didn’t have enough time
to build all the required reports manually. I had to repeat it because I
couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You are telling me that you are going to
hire a new staff member to generate the reports you need, because the
application you purchased does not give you the reports you need? He said,
I asked him how much they were willing to pay in salary for this
new position. He said they had not decided. I asked him for some more
information on what this new hire was going to be doing. He said that they
would update and maintain a new database that could be used to generate the
required reports. He said that this person would be partly a database
maintenance person and partially a report generating person.
I asked him if they had asked the company where they purchased
the application if they could modify it to provide the reports that they
needed. “No we have not,” was my neighbor’s answer. I asked, “If the company
where you bought your application would modify it to provide you the reports you
need and if the cost to do this was less than the cost of a new employee, would
you pay for the modifications?” He said, “Yes”.
At this point I think the smile on his face meant the lights
just came on. He said, “Oh! I get it. You think we should ask the application
company to modify the application to give us our reports and not hire a new
person or build a new database. Is that right?” I told him I thought that was
an option to consider. Checking if it was possible and what the cost would be
could save them a lot of money and pain that could be avoided if they did not go
for the new hire. He said that he would suggest that to the others on his team
at the office in the morning.
At home the next evening, I saw my neighbor working in the yard
and I asked him what had happened at the office when he talked to his other team
mates about the application modification idea. He said, “I explained it to them
and they all listened politely. When I was done explaining they all just said,
‘OK let’s get back to this job description.’” I said, “They didn’t understand
did they?” My Neighbor said, “I guess I just can’t explain it as well as you
What was the difference between the conversation between my
neighbor and me and the conversation between my neighbor and his team mates at
the office? I don’t know, but I bet it had something to do with the fact that I
asked my neighbor questions and he came up with the new alternative. When my
neighbor talked to his team mates he probably simply told them the alternative
answer. Unfortunately, they already had an answer, so why should they consider
another one. Without thinking through the alternatives – without questioning
their answer, there was no reason to consider the alternative. If they had
asked themselves more questions they would probably have found a better problem
description and then probably a better set of solutions.
I think that this example shows how my interaction with my
neighbor on this situation was about analyzing the problem to find the root
cause (the right problem) by asking a lot of questions. Then honing in on the
best solution for that root cause.
Brought to you by:
Bob De Contreras
RTBA | Cary | Greensboro | Raleigh | Research Triangle Park | North Caroliina
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