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Tag Archives: problem-solving

Use Cunningham’s Law to get people involved and talking

When seeking to solve an issue or a problem, or charged with evaluating or implementing a new initiative, you’ve probably approached your employees and co-workers to elicit ideas and engage in discussion.  But often, it is difficult to get people involved in the dialogue.  Usually, it’s not because people don’t have anything useful to offer; more likely it’s because they have other priorities and the assumption is that “someone else will respond”.  But the ultimate outcome still is that you don’t get the participation levels that you’d like.

Cunningham's LawConsider a contrary approach

So consider a contrary approach.  It comes from an unusual source – Cunningham’s Law.  Rather than asking an open-ended question, seed your question with misinformation or an opposing viewpoint.

So instead of: How many staff members should we bring on shift for the Grand Opening? 

Ask: What do you think about having two people on shift at the Grand Opening? 

Because two people on shift for a Grand Opening is clearly not enough, your team members will be quick to speak up and contribute their input to the discussion. Continue reading

Boiling the ocean will not result in good decisions

good decisionsAs a leader, it is your responsibility to make good decisions.  In your department or organization, you are likely called on repeatedly to evaluate and implement a variety of projects.  And many of these initiatives will probably require investigation and research in order to determine alternatives and make recommendations.  But exactly how much research should one do to be able to make good decisions?  That is a conundrum that many leaders face.

There are certainly situations where leaders have been known to make decisions too quickly, without considering all available information.  But in my experience, it is the opposite that is much more likely; in their quest for more data or analysis, the job or project is made unnecessarily difficult, and decision-making is delayed.

Don’t try to boil the ocean!

The apt metaphor in this situation is that of boiling a pot of water versus boiling the ocean.  Continue reading

A decision-making insight from eating peanuts!

peanutsIf you’re a leader, then you’re responsible for decision-making.  Which is why it we have a whole section on Problem Solving tools on the blog.  Today’s insight comes from peanuts in the shell – a concession staple at just about any baseball game!

So think about the last time you purchased a bag of these tasty treats.  As you shelled the peanuts, did you put the empty shells back in the same bag?  Chances are you didn’t, likely for a couple of reasons.  One, because it instinctively doesn’t make sense to put the waste in with the good peanuts, and two (and perhaps more importantly), every time you put the unwanted shells back in the bag, you reduce your chances of getting a good peanut the next time you reach in.

How does this apply to decision-making in the workplace?

There is a workplace equivalent to this scenario, having to do with decision-making.  As a leader, you are charged with making a variety of decisions, often requiring you to select the best choice from a number of possible options.  Using this metaphor, it makes sense to discard choices as you evaluate them as unsuitable.  Why put them back in the bag where they’ll just continue to muddle and reduce the efficacy of your decision-making?  But that’s exactly what we often do.  Continue reading

The sorites paradox – a leadership dilemma

The sorites paradox: if individual grains of sand are removed one at a time from a hypothetical heap of sand, what is the point at which the heap can no longer be considered a heap?  At first glance, you may think that this is merely a philosophical question, but the metaphor has great applicability if you carry it into the workplace.  Consider this: if minor seemingly harmless problems or changes go unnoticed and do not individually attract attention, is there a possibility that eventually the sum total of these issues over time will result in a major setback?  And what if the significant outcome is one that, if it would have happened all at once, would have been regarded as negative, undesirable or objectionable?

In the workplace, the sorites paradox is often referred to by a variety of synonyms – creeping normality, the broken window theory, the boiling frog syndrome, and even death by a thousand cuts.  But no matter what you call the phenomenon, all versions lead to a Continue reading

Watch for the negative impact of self-serving bias in decision-making

positive_negativeThe self-serving bias is a concept that has been extensively studied in social psychology.  Essentially, it is people’s tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors. It’s a common type of cognitive bias that exists in all aspects of life, including in the workplace.

For example, a salesperson who attributes a significant sale to his own business insight and relationship-building skills, but attributes a loss of a sale to the customer’s lack of acumen or the competitor’s unfair advantage may be exhibiting the self-serving bias. Similarly, a leader’s inclination to take credit for the team’s success, but to blame individual team members for mistakes or missteps is another common example of self-serving bias.

The self-serving bias can negatively impact decision-making

The problem of course with the self-serving bias is that it can negatively affect organizational decision-making.  For example, Continue reading

Worrying won’t help you solve problems or make decisions

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short series on decision-making here on the blog, and I was reminded of that recently when I read the following quote about worrying:

rockingchair“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere”

― Erma Bombeck

These words were penned by Erma Bombeck, an American humorist, whose syndicated columns were read twice-weekly in the 1970s by 30 million readers of 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.  Even though Erma’s columns were written primarily from the perspective of a midwestern suburban housewife, this particular adage carries sage advice for leaders.

Leadership is a non-stop journey of dealing with issues, some everyday problems, others full-blown crises. This constant barrage of concerns, complications and quarrels can leave many a leader anxious, uneasy and constantly worried … about what went wrong, what is wrong, and what could go wrong.  And even worse is when these very same leaders fool themselves into thinking that worrying is actually doing “something” about the issues at hand.  It isn’t.

Stop worrying, do this instead

So instead of worrying, consider this two alternative (and more constructive) strategies. Continue reading

Waiting for all the facts … and making decisions

making decisions“We need to wait until we have all the facts …” is something I hear many managers and supervisors say.  It’s often in response to an issue that needs to be dealt with or an unexpected problem that has occurred.  Usually the situation is a difficult one and because the manager has no prior experience with making decisions in an identical or similar scenario, s/he is stalling for time.  The unfortunate reality of course is that if you wait for all the facts, you might be waiting for a really (really) long time; perhaps even an eternity.

When it comes to making decisions, you will never have all the facts

Leadership is about making decisions – it’s inherent in the role of a leader.  The reality is that there are very few instances in which leaders will have complete information … ever.  Whether it is predicting customer behaviour, forecasting sales volumes, expecting employees to act in certain ways, or anticipating your competitors’ activities, you will simply never have all the facts.  Which means that the real question is Continue reading

Don’t just seek advice, pay attention to what you hear

Last year, I wrote a short series of posts on specific techniques you can use as a leader to improve the quality of your decision-making.  This story about a Swedish warship from the early 1600’s emphasizes not only the importance of approaching your team and experts to seek advice, but to also pay heed to the advice once you’ve heard it.

The tale of the Vasa: one king’s folly

seek adviceIn 1626, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ordered the building of the Vasa, a new warship that was intended to become, for that era, the most powerful marine vessel in the Baltic Sea.  As was common in warships then, the Vasa was to have a rank of cannons on each side of the boat so that soldiers could easily fire at their attackers, no matter what direction the assault came from.

King Adolphus considered himself something of an expert boat designer so he took an immense interest in the actual design of the ship.  About mid-way during the ship’s two year construction, he learned that Poland, his greatest archenemy (and rival to take control of the Baltic Sea), had stepped up their naval firepower by building warships with ranks of cannons on two levels.  Well, Adolphus wasn’t going to be outdone!  Continue reading

Here’s what Google discovered about team effectiveness

Business SeminarIn my practice, I am routinely asked by leaders in organizations for the definitive factors that lead to team effectiveness.  After all, leaders in every organization want to know what it takes to create high-performing work groups that not only exceed objectives but also play well in the sandbox together.  Well Google wanted to know the answer to this question as well, so in 2012 it embarked on an ambitious two-year project to codify the secrets of team effectiveness.  Code-named Project Aristotle, this sizeable initiative, in true data-crunching Google style, set out to study and analyze over 180 of Google’s internal teams to figure out why some stumbled while others soared.

Google’s Project Aristotle

Julia Rozovsky is an analyst in Google People Operations, and here is what she had to say about Project Aristotle.

Over two years we conducted 200+ interviews with Googlers (our employees) and looked at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. We were pretty confident that we'd find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team -- take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks at AngularJS, and a PhD. Voila. Dream team assembled, right?  We were dead wrong!

Continue reading

Yea-sayer or nay-sayer – what’s your tendency?

Thumbs UpThere are some people who look for problems, and some who look for solutions.  I call the former nay-sayers, and the latter yea-sayers.  Which one are you?  Before you answer, let me explain.

In the workplace, each one of us routinely encounters problems – a product or process isn’t working quite the way it should, or no longer meets the stated need, a new initiative requires a different way of thinking or of doing things, or you’re trying to accomplish a stretch goal.  Whatever the situation, we often have to count on others for information, assistance or know-how.  So we pose the problem, often in the form of a question.  Some people immediately respond with “it can’t be done”, frequently followed by nothing … that’s right, end of discussion, no further conversation.  These are nay-sayers.  Yea-sayers on the other hand Continue reading