Don’t let the pricey management consultants know it, but there’s a four-step recipe that will help you solve almost any complicated problem.
This process isn’t for everyone. But it’s extremely helpful for managers who can listen to the person with the problem as a neutral observer, ask the following questions, then hold up a mirror so he can see you’re only organizing or re-casting his thoughts.
This common-sense problem-solving strategy is unforgettable because it’s so straightforward and simple. As a manager, you can help your team with this DIY approach—and you won’t even have to call HR.
The four questions:
- What is the problem?
- What have you done to solve the problem?
- In trying to solve the problem, what have you learned about it?
- What’s your action list?
As you’ll see, your most complicated step is defining the problem, which after discussing with your management and your team, you realize the definition differs from person to person—as does the solution.
How does that look in practice? Here are a couple of real-world examples.
Pro tip: Sometimes a box of tissues and a cup of tea are useful.
B., a highly respected middle manager, came into the office in tears. “This company is not family-friendly!” she said. “I’m going to have to get a divorce, and it’s all because of this place!”
Step 1. To define the problem, we talked. On Saturdays, both B. and her partner worked on site to close out the week’s business, while their babysitter watched their children. Lately, though, her department was closing the week just a little bit later. Meanwhile, her partner’s responsibilities at work had grown, and she was staying later, too. But the babysitter needed to leave on time. Ultimately, we determined that job and child-care stress was negatively impacting their relationship.
Step 2. What had they done to solve the problem? Both were staying later at work, and the babysitter had to leave at the usual time. Both had tried to leave their workplaces earlier, but neither office was enthusiastic about that. They tried to switch off weeks with each other,but negotiating the switch caused fights.
Step 3. In trying to solve the problem, what did we learn? We found that changes in both partners’ jobs created stress. B.’s partner’s job seemed to be growing, perhaps surpassing her responsibilities and earning power. We also learned the couple’s stress was contagious – to the babysitter, to each other, and to their children.
Step 4. We put several potential solutions on B.’s action list. First, maybe B. needed to try to leave on time – or pass off duties to her deputy. Second, her partner could do the same. Third, the babysitter could be asked to stay an hour later regularly, or perhaps they could find a sitter who could work later. Fourth, they both might need to consider switching jobs. Fifth, either or both of them might work all or part of a shift from home on Saturdays.
Takeaway: More than one solution might technically solve the problem, but which of them will work best depends a great deal on the people involved. Keep an open mind and, if possible, try more than one to see which works out best.
S., a top professional and a linchpin of his department, stopped me in the hall. “I’ve just been to employee relations. I’m filing a complaint against the company about religious discrimination.”
Step 1. As an Orthodox Jew, S. needs to be home to light candles every Friday before sunset, and with winter’s onset, the days were shorter, so he needed to leave earlier. His previous manager, who was also Orthodox, had been promoted, and his new manager criticized him for leaving early. The department had taken on new responsibilities just as business was turning down, and his colleagues felt their jobs were at risk. When he left early, he said, they whispered about him.
Step 2. Trying to work out the problem, he told several co-workers quietly that he didn’t feel comfortable with the new boss, which didn’t sit well with them. He explained that they could leave early to pick up kids from school occasionally, and he felt his religion was at least as important as their kids. He felt his job was especially at risk.
Step 3. What did he learn? Complaining to co-workers was not a winning solution. Co-workers were sympathetic, but the business downturn made everyone twitchy.
Step 4. His action list: First, he made an appointment with his old boss to ask for her advice. Second, we agreed that he needed to talk directly to his current boss and explain the scheduling issue. Third, he would offer to “make up” the time by staying late or arriving early. Fourth, if it seemed appropriate, he would emphasize that he was meeting and even exceeding his goals: He would be clear that his performance was excellent, and that performance is measured not by time in the chair, but rather by achievement of mutually agreed-upon goals.
Takeaway: Some problems aren’t always solved by one big fix, but by lots of little ones. Any or all of the action list items might help, but all of them are worth pursuing. In this specific issue, managers should be alert to the laws concerning religious discrimination; make sure your company doesn’t run afoul of them.
Z., a boutique content marketing consultant, called in a panic to say her business checking account balance was down to $218.31. She told me, “I am going to have to fold my startup and go back to the office job I hate.”
Step 1: The problem is money. Z. has one big client and several small ones. The big client slow-paid every time, and this time she didn’t have enough cash on hand to cover basic expenses. This financial insecurity made her yearn for stability at work, even work she hated. She also found it hard to think when she was in a no-money panic.
Step 2: Z. needed cash to pay for hosting her website, her credit card bill, and her part-time assistant, plus recurring business software subscription. She had called the big client to collect, but the client was out of the country. She tried to gin up some other business quickly but wasn’t having much success.
Step 3: Emergencies happen, Z. learned, but if every month is an emergency, there’s a systemic problem. Businesses need budgets and cash flow. Z. had run much of her business without a strict financial plan for three-and-a-half years, with only one or two hair-raising events like this one. But it was clear that she needed more than one big-money client.
Step 4: First, she asked her husband for a $5,000 loan to get some breathing space. Second, she committed to use part of the loan to hire a bookkeeper and make a strict budget. Third, she went to sell her second-biggest client up to a bigger line of business. Fourth, she conducted a long-overdue exercise to create her goals and a five-year plan.
Takeaway: Sometimes to solve a problem you first need to mitigate it: Give yourself some much-needed breathing space so you can tackle it properly. But having bought yourself time, do not waste it by dithering—get a solid action plan together and execute it.