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Category Archives: Problem Solving Tools

When it comes to successfully solving problems in the workplace, molten rock might offer a clue!

As leaders, our days are often about solving problems, usually one after the other.  For that reason, this topic of solving problems comes up often on the blog.  In fact, my last post on this subject was exactly month ago (Making risky decisions: a simplified approach).  Today’s post is on this very subject, but my insight on an approach to solving problems came from an unexpected source.

What an adventure!

Last month I had the opportunity to do something very few people are fortunate enough to do – I was able to hike out (six miles over some of our planet’s most punishing terrain, but that’s not the fortunate part!) to the edge of an active lava flow on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and stand less than 20 feet away watching the molten rock slink and slither its way across the blistering earth.  Eventually this hot rock makes its way to the ocean, creating new shoreline hour by hour, day by day.   I filmed about 45 seconds of this experience on my iPhone, and you can see the video with my brief audio commentary below:

It was exhilarating to watch the raw power of the earth, up close and personal, and I found that 90 fascinating minutes fled by in what seemed like seconds.  Once I got over the initial elation of the experience though, I noticed that the flow was continuously changing course.  Continue reading

Improve your coaching skills by asking this one simple question

coachingBack in 2012, I posed this question on the blog: When your employee comes to you with a problem, do you tell or do you ask?  My point was that so many leaders have the tendency to “solve” our employees’ issues rather than coaching our employees to resolve the problems themselves.  Over the years, I have discovered one very simple, yet powerful, phrase can make the difference.  Ask: What do you think?

A powerful coaching moment

When an employee comes to you with an issue, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to provide an answer.  Instead, use the opportunity to create a very powerful coaching moment.  The chances are high that your employee already has a very good idea as to what the solution should be, and only really wants to discuss it with you and get your concurrence.  When you ask “What do you think?”, you are opening the door for a dialogue that not only will lead to a solution, but will also build your employee’s self-confidence as well as enhance problem-solving skills.  Continue reading

Making risky decisions: a simplified approach

Making risky decisionsBy definition, there is always uncertainty in making risky decisions; after all, the old adage “no risk, no reward” holds true.  No doubt, leadership instinct and past experience play an important role in determining whether the possible reward is worth the perceived risk, but I am nevertheless often asked by leaders whether there is a more systematic approach to making risky decisions.  Decision-making theory abounds with a plethora of techniques and methods, but there is one relatively simple approach that I have found to repeatedly give positive results.  Ask yourself: does making the decision result in more options or fewer?  If the answer is more choices, then move forward.  If the answer is fewer options, then don’t take that action.

Here is one example

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this approach.  You are trying to decide whether to invest in a new piece of equipment for your manufacturing operation.  There are several risks involved with this purchase including Continue reading

An unexpected lesson from a sea otter

A couple of weeks ago, on my morning walk along Victoria’s Inner Harbour walkway, I was very fortunate to observe a sea otter dive down into the ocean to catch a crab and then swim up to the shore to eat it, approximately 15 feet away from where I was standing. I caught about 30 seconds of this amazing encounter on video which I’ve posted below.

This infrequent experience was exciting in itself, but what I found particularly interesting was that the sea otter took just a couple of bites of the crab, leaving the majority of the carcass behind on the rocks as he swam away. Why didn’t he finish this meal that he worked so hard to obtain? Was it because it didn’t taste very good? Or was there a more delicious morsel he spotted just on the other side of the rock? Maybe it was because he saw us watching quietly nearby. Or perhaps it was because the seagulls were already circling and he wanted to share his bounty (or couldn’t be bothered to fight them off). Continue reading

Determining what information you’re missing will improve your decision-making

MissingToday I want to finish up the short series on decision-making that I’ve been writing about over the past two weeks.  In previous blog posts, I’ve offered up proven techniques (most recently the impact of your decision one year from now), and this final tool I want to share with you today has also proven to be repeatedly successful.  The tip: determine the most important information you are missing.

When it comes to decision-making, it’s very easy to focus on what you know.  And in today’s data-driven world, it’s amazingly simple to get distracted by the deluge of information that’s often at your fingertips.  There is usually no shortage of reports that can provide all kinds of facts, figures, numbers and statistics.  Surrounded by so much information, one can easily ignore what is not there.  Continue reading

One thoughtful action to improve the quality of your decision-making

FutureFor the past week, I’ve been blogging about specific techniques you can use as a leader to improve the quality of your decision-making (three or more alternatives, brainstorming with 2-6 others), and today I’m continuing this short series with a third tool – take a few minutes to write down the impact your decision will have one year into the future.

Now don’t just think about this, put it in writing.  The act of writing is very powerful because it will force you to articulate the anticipated result of the decision, and it’s what happens next that will give you the enormous value.  Continue reading

Improve decision-making by brainstorming with 2-6 stakeholders

BrainstormingLast week I started a short series on specific proven techniques you can use to improve the quality of your decision-making in your role as a leader.  Last week’s technique was to develop at least three or more realistic alternatives for the situation you are facing.  Today’s tip is one that I actually referred to in passing in the last blog post; specifically to brainstorm with a team of at least two, but no more than six stakeholders.

While this tool comes directly from my many years of experience working with leaders in numerous organizations, you don’t just have to take my word for it; the empirical research into organizational decision-making fully supports and reinforces this as well.  Obtaining insights from more people adds value and also increases buy-in, both very important in organizational settings.  But there IS an ideal number of people to brainstorm and team up with when it comes to achieving the highest quality of decision-making.  Continue reading

Improve decision-making by developing alternatives

ThreeChoicesRecently, I’ve been thinking a lot about decision-making by leaders.  The reason isn’t terribly earth-shattering, it’s only because an association client has asked me to re-develop a program for their members on tools and skills for problem-solving and decision-making.  But since I often blog on this subject (most recently just at the end of June), I’d like to, for the next two weeks, focus on offering up a few definitive ideas on how to make more effective leadership decisions.  Today’s specific tool – develop at least three or more realistic alternatives.

Significant research into the psychology and process of decision-making shows that no other practice improves the quality of decisions more than expanding your choices.  So brainstorm with 2-6 colleagues (more on this number in an upcoming blog post) and put some energy and creativity into generating at least three, but ideally four or more, practical and reasonable options for the topic at hand.  Continue reading

Why you shouldn’t fall prey to “reverse delegation”

ReverseDelegationAbout a year ago, I wrote a column for Profit MagazineHow to Stop Doing Employees’ Work For Them – about how not to fall into the classic leadership trap known as “reverse delegation”, which is the natural tendency that many leaders have to “help” a struggling employee by taking back a task that’s been assigned to him/her.

Reverse delegation occurs far more often than you might realize (or that you are willing to admit), and usually strikes when you fall into the mindset of “It will be faster and easier to just do this myself.”  But it’s not good leadership … for two reasons.  First, reverse delegation doesn’t permit you to build skills and confidence in your people (a very important job for leaders), and two (and perhaps even more importantly), it simply causes your personal workload to escalate.  Continue reading

Don’t lose sight of your important role in making decisions

Making decisions is what leaders do.  Whether it’s hiring staff, evaluating vendor proposals, or resolving process bottlenecks, making decisions is our bread and butter.  It’s why we get paid the big bucks! J  Given that making decisions is such a critical part of our roles, the tendency can be to fall into a routine, and even lose sight of how important this responsibility can be.  And invariably, our decisions stack upon one another – the first decision leads to a second, which leads to a third, and so on.  So what would happen if you made a poor decision somewhere along that path?  Logic says that it could potentially take you down a road that could lead to a sub-optimal or even damaging outcome.

MongooseThe world of natural science has numerous examples of how one seemingly harmless decision has led to devastating unintended consequences.  Consider the introduction of the mongoose to the Hawai’ian islands.  In the 1880s, sugar cane farmers in the islands were seeking ways to control rat populations that were destroying their crops, and in 1883, with the best of intentions, they imported hundreds of mongoose and let them loose in their fields.  It proved to be a decision that was enormously uninformed.  Continue reading