If I have to inform you of a problem and I know you will ask me a series of questions about why it happened, I will prepare by coming up with a series of explanations and rationalizations to justify the problem.
If I have to inform you of a problem and I know you will ask me a series of questions about how to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again, I will prepare by coming up with a list of possible solutions.
Are you asking the right questions?
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Think about a time when you needed to solve a critical problem and time was of the essence. Did you care whose fault the problem was? Nope. All you cared about was what information you needed to get a solution, and who and what you needed to implement it. In a crisis we filter out irrelevant concerns and focus on the task at hand.
Finger pointers don’t want to focus on solving the problem. Finger pointers rationalize that there is no need to change anything because they NEVER would have made the mistake that caused the problem.
Everyone makes mistakes.
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Do people in your business, or personal life expend mental energy finding who to blame for problems, instead of solving the problems and finding ways to prevent them? If so, why would anyone in that environment try a creative new idea that might take a few tries before working properly? If people are afraid to make mistakes, forget about them coming up with a creative solution to a problem. (oh, and financial incentives don’t help either, watch Dan Pink’s TED talk for more on that)
If we want to build a problem solving culture, in which deep thinking on elegant solutions is highly valued, our focus won’t be on who caused the problem. Our focus will be on what needs to change. And critically, what help is needed to change it.
The next time someone tells you about a problem that has occurred and your first instinct is to ask, “who’s responsible?”, catch yourself. Instead, ask, “What do we need to do to fix it?”
Don’t point the finger. Solve the problem.
A wise man once said, “A rut is just a grave with the ends kicked out.”
How to tell your organization is stuck in a rut?
- You’re excited about an idea and everyone you talk to tells you all the reasons it won’t work.
- In a Management meeting, results are presented which are tracking well below target and no one in the room questions it, shows any surprise or any particular desire to change it.
- When asked about sub-par results, people defend and rationalize those results instead of discussing what options they have to improve them.
- Staff check with their manager for every little decision because they have no idea what the company objectives or values are.
- An emergency arises and instead of asking how they can help, people’s first concern seems to be to establish that it wasn’t their fault.
When in a rut, mediocrity inevitably follows. Nothing great occurs in organizations where an acceptance of mediocrity is the norm. The way out of the rut is never quick, and sometimes very difficult, but here are some guidelines to help you on your way.
- Come up with some simple, clear, attainable goals. Document the heck out of them and let everyone in your company know what you’re trying to accomplish and why. Post results for ALL to see.
- Update your progress regularly and give those who will be affected by your success or failure the opportunity to inspect your results – include managers, direct reports and front-line workers. Welcome their questions, and when they ask about your results be prepared to tell them what you’re doing next. This shows you know your results and have a plan to improve them.
- When someone says there’s a problem, come up with countermeasures that can be executed right away. If the ultimate solution can’t be implemented immediately, ensure the first countermeasure is. This urgency to act on even the simplest of issues, creates a culture of action, which is critical.
- Be transparent. If something didn’t work, tell people and come up with another plan. This is all about credibility. If people know you’re trying, for the right reasons, they’ll stay on board. If they think you’re going through the motions, and making excuses for poor results, they’ll quickly lose interest in helping you. Without the team’s help, the rut will just get deeper.
It’s very easy to slide into a rut and very hard to get back out. Assess where you’re at. Decide where you want to be. Make a plan to get there. Act. Repeat.
Erica Jong said, “Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” I sometimes feel that “Advice is what people ask for when they don’t know the answer and haven’t even thought about it.”
Few things can frustrate managers more than staff interrupting them to ask “What should I do about XYZ?” when the answer is either very simple, or the manager has no more information nor had any more time to think about it than the staff member.
Why does this happen? A big factor is that the environments we ask people to work in these days are rarely conducive to any level of thinking beyond basic, first-level stuff. How can we expect people to come up with creative solutions to problems, or conduct detailed analyses when they are in an open-office environment and can count on being interrupted constantly throughout the day?
Train of thought? In most offices you are lucky to get to the platform, let alone on the train!
My ideas for finding ways to think deeply at work – even on the cube farm.
1. Eliminate distractions – fwd your desk phone, turn of your computer, silence your smartphone, clear your desk. If you’re in an open concept office and you know you’ll be interrupted, book a conference room or see if you can find a quiet place. Get creative. Maybe if you can show the results, your manager will let you experiment with spending some time each day in a home office.
2. Write out your thoughts. Writing helps crystallize your thinking. This is why so many people write journals or keep extensive notes. It’s not so others can read them later and understand the writer. It’s so the writer can understand him or herself.
3. Book appointments with yourself to plan / think every day. Book slots of an hour or two throughout the week and use them to think about current projects and long term planning. Put them in your calendar and treat them like the most important appointments you have each day – they are.
4. Be clear on your objective when you sit down to think. This makes decisions easier and acts as a filter to eliminate irrelevant concerns.
5. When you have a good idea, but can’t spend time deliberating on it, write it in a specific spot in your planner, make a voice memo on your phone or send yourself an email with the idea so you can come back to it later.
Good, clear thinking is critical to your success. Your success is important, so give yourself the opportunity to achieve it by finding ways to let yourself THINK!