Reacting to Problems

IN MOST ORGANISATIONS, when a new or unexpected problem comes to light, the reflex action is to call a meeting. On the assumption that communication will spark ideas and diverse input will lead to results, a varied selection of the company’s great and good will gather in the boardroom, hunker down around a conference table, or drag a few extra chairs into the manager’s corner office.

All too often, what then follows is a performance that could have been scripted days or weeks in advance. The topic, the timescales and the experience of the people involved will obviously differ, but the “characters”, their approaches and methods of acting tend to be remarkably similar wherever you go.

In fact, if you get any group of business people together and mention the word “problem”, the response is almost Pavlovian. Looking around the table, you will see the tell-tale signs and perhaps even some shifts of expression as the various individuals slip into character and prepare to play the problem-solving role that a combination of seniority, circumstance, personality, and background has dictated for them.

The first of these common types is the problem avoider. You find such people at all levels of an organisation, from entry-level sales executive to division manager, country head and even higher. Their expertise lies not in fixing problems, but in making them go away. This involves a range of skills that require quick thinking and fast footwork. They include passing the buck to another colleague or department, engineering a quick short-term fix to patch things over, creating a storm of activity as a diversion, or dismissing the mere notion that any problem exists.

For a while, this approach can win plaudits. It can easily give the impression someone is decisive, efficient and proactive. However, dodging problems rather than dealing with them is no way to run a business and is almost certain to catch up with you in the end. It may not be tomorrow or even next year, but eventually, something will come back to bite the individual or the company, often in fairly spectacular fashion.

Fudging the sales figures, downplaying risks, deferring tax liabilities, or carrying difficult items on the docket may seem like a good idea at the time, but someone will ultimately spot the warning signs and interpret them for what they are – avoidance.

The second type of character you can always expect to come across is the problem finder. The role they naturally assume is that of a worrier, instigator and perfectionist. Essentially, they believe the best way to improve a business is by conducting a constant search for challenges and new problems to solve. This, of course, can be the sign of the inspirational manager, pushing innovation and raising standards, or of the mildly obsessive who is capable of driving people to distraction.

A somewhat typical example is the regional manager who flies in for a few days, does the rounds with some customer visits and a budget review, and subsequently sends in a laundry list of “improvements” that are now seen as vital. These could be anything from reassigning clients among the sales team to opening a sub-office, demanding a revised list of target accounts, or requiring a different format for the monthly reports. Superficially, each might make sense. On closer examination, it often turns out that the ideas of the problem finder can be shortsighted, impractical in the local context, or simply creating work for the sake of it. While no one would argue with the concept of continuous improvement, there is also much to be said for the view that if something is not obviously broken, there may be no need to fix it.

Even so, when managing, reporting to, or otherwise encountering a problem finder, it pays to be careful. Making the point to a senior executive that they are seeing a problem where none really exists – without appearing recalcitrant or uncommitted – can take considerable skill. And a manager dealing with a subordinate bursting with suggestions for change should always remember that, while some of the ideas may be ill-formed or unworkable at the time, the future of every business depends on people who want to make it better and have the ability to identify potential problems and see a way past them.

Therefore, the key is to strike a balance. Sometimes, “good enough” has to be acceptable when lack of time, money or other resources make it impossible to dig deeper or chase after the ideal. But there is always a value in considering options, examining alternatives and being self-critical, even if the solution to certain problems is clearly out of range or offers no immediate return.

The third type is the actual problem solver. On this particular scale, they can be said to take the middle ground, in the sense that they may not proactively seek out problems to fix but, when faced with one, will tackle it head-on and effectively. In a meeting, they are unlikely to dominate proceedings or rush to conclusions.

Instead, they will typically listen far more than they talk, press assiduously for relevant information, and note each individual’s area of experience or expertise. Once a meeting is adjourned, they will, if necessary, spend additional time exploring the problem from different angles and think through the effects and likely repercussions of each putative course of action. By doing so, they will have a full picture of costs, conditions, constraints and expected longer-term outcomes, thus putting the company in a position to solve the problem, not bungle it or put it back after a suitable interval in the “too difficult” file. It is people like that who get the job done.

In meetings called to solve problems, it is also useful to keep an eye out for a few lesser types who also have a habit of turning up everywhere. For instance, there is the “motivator” who sees every gathering as a great opportunity to proclaim the benefits of closer teamwork and state the importance of all pulling together. Almost inevitably, whatever the style of gathering, there will be a “general” who feels obliged to step forward and run the show. This can help in giving shape to the discussion and keeping things on track. The risk, though, is that this general is, at heart, a problem “avoider” or “finder”, not someone with the skill or understanding to effect a genuine solution.

Watch out, too, for the person who gets stuck in “analysis paralysis” mode. He or she may appear to be all action and ideas with laptop at the ready, printouts within reach, and figures for the past five years, but all of this may mean nothing if it leads only to summaries of what has gone before, without any suggestions about how to resolve the current dilemma. Indeed, there may even be a need to remind them that proposing another meeting does not really count as progress.

Finally, there is the “seat filler” and the “pessimist”. The former is present for reasons of protocol, misplaced politeness, or to fill in for a boss or departmental colleague who could actually have contributed something useful. The latter comes armed with a negative attitude. What has caused this and where it is directed make little difference overall? The point is that efforts made by this type towards solving the problem may be no more than half-hearted and ultimately lead nowhere.

To develop strong business acumen, one essential is to have the experience and inventiveness to devise practical solutions for business problems. As important, though, is the ability to see who else is or is not equipped to help in this endeavour.


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