When you’re in business, the most important thing to do is to make decisions, which means taking a risk. Sitting on the sideline will get you nowhere.
Here’s some things to consider: do you pride yourself on making instant decisions,and believe that sitting down and thinking a problem through is a total waste of time?
Making decisions this way, you believe, enables you to get on to the next problem – and there are always problems, you can never get away from them, they never stop.
Well, consider this: could it be that these incessant problems arise from the snap decisions on which you pride yourself?
John Arnold says that problem solving is a skill, a process with a beginning, where you identify and analyse the problem; a middle, where you consider a variety of solutions; and an end, where you implement your decision, and follow up and evaluate the results. To shoot-from-the-hip, tackling problems methodically and objectively may seem painful and a time-wasting exercise. However, in the long run, carefully defining and analysing problems actually saves time.
Isn’t nipping trouble in the bud the easiest way of resolving it?
Ideally your antenna should be tuned so you’re alert to potential problems. And you’re right to avoid the temptation of ignoring symptoms because they won’t go away and they’ll erupt, eventually.
A wise person does watch for those early-warning symptoms and heed their message. Arnold says that you should think of the time you lost a valued employee: when she handed in her notice, you were shocked to the core. Later, when you recovered from your hurt, your annoyance, your concern about whether you would find someone as good to replace her, little things started niggling your brain. Absenteeism marring her previously perfect attendance record; her recent penchant for cynicism; the way she had become slightly withdrawn. John Arnold says that if you had been alert to these symptoms, you may have been able to address the problem before losing this talented team member.
Experts like Arnold say that the data is always there, whether in employee problems, production problems, supplier problems, computer problems, customer problems. He advises people to read reports that a computer churns out and to look and listen to what is going on in your environment.
During the identification process, he advises that you monitor yourself to ensure you consider only relevant facts; inestimable amounts of time can be lost examining irrelevant facts. He says another time-wasting trap is seeking out additional facts when those that are already available paint a complete picture.
How do I work through to a decision?
After identifying the problem, you need to decide the end result you want: that is, the outcome you desire after you take appropriate action.
Arnold says to help you clearly establish your criteria, divide them into ‘musts’ and ‘wants.’ For example: your current computer system has to be either replaced or upgraded in order to install certain software essential for improving the efficiency of your business. Your ‘must’ list will include your absolute budget limit for the project and the essential features necessary for your computer to run the software. Your ‘want’ list will include all the features you would like to have in that computer system.
Once I’ve worked out a problem how do I solve it?
You can’t remedy a problem until you uncover what caused it, so you must now determine its cause. Remember: symptoms are the results of problems. Arnold says that focusing on symptoms won’t solve the real problem, all they do is alert you to the fact that a problem exists.
He says that analysis is the painstaking “sit down and think it through, examine it from every angle” aspect that many of us prefer to skip. Yet taking the time to assemble the facts and obtain input from everyone involved can save you a great deal of trial and error in formulating an effective solution.
Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions about the cause of the problem, or settling for the first remedial action that pops into your mind.
So Arnold advises that you:
1. Analyse the symptoms.
2. Work out the likely causes of the symptoms.
3. Examine those causes to ascertain if they are indeed the root cause of the problem.
Using the example of that key staff member you lost: for months, or years, she never took a sick day. The first day she calls in sick, everyone is in a state of shock. A month later, she is absent for two days – unheard of! Over the next six months, she has several more single days off.
You didn’t take a great deal of notice because, although you were surprised at her absences, the amount of time she was taking off wasn’t really out of hand. You assumed that she, like half the population of the country, was catching every cold and ‘flu doing the rounds that season.
20/20 hindsight tells you that you were wrong to jump to those conclusions.
Arnold says that if you had taken the time to analyse her absenteeism, you may have come up with several other causes:
- Impaired immune system. (Why? Stress, overwork?).
- Relationship or family problems, at home or work.
- Unhappy in job: lack of promotion prospects, no new challenges, boredom.
- Attending interviews for other jobs.
Taking into account those other symptoms – her new tendency to be cynical and withdrawn – the alarm bells should have jangled a warning in your brain, prompting you to investigate the cause of those symptoms, find the problem, and take remedial action. You may have been able to retain her services.
How do I find the right solution?
To find the solution that will best achieve your objectives, you need to come up with several possible solutions, even though only one may be effective in the long run.
Arnold says that generating ideas demands that you switch off your logical, left-brain thinking, and rev up your creative, right-brain thinking. He says that brainstorming does this: you can brainstorm alone, or involve others who may be able to offer valuable input.
Arnold identifies five rules for successful brainstorming:
1. Don’t judge any idea – either positively or negatively – because seemingly crazy ideas can spark practical ones through the process of cross-fertilisation.
2. Go for quantity rather than quality of ideas. Just let them flow – it doesn’t matter how wild or unworkable they appear.
3. Don’t constrain your thinking. Allow your thoughts to freewheel, to travel in all different directions.
4. Write the ideas down because they can dissipate if not captured immediately. If you are in a group, use a board or flip chart so that everyone can see them; if you are alone, a notebook is fine.
5. Don’t give up the moment you hit a block and the ideas stop coming; hang in there for a couple of minutes until they start again. Only when you experience the third dry spell should you stop.
Now you can pass judgment on those ideas, weeding out those that are unsuitable. Problem solving now metamorphoses into decision-making. Keep in mind that a solution is rarely perfect: inevitably, there will be some negatives. However, Arnold says that asking these six questions will help evaluate each idea, eliminate the ones that are unworkable, and arrive at the solution that will have minimal negative consequences.
1. Will it achieve the desired outcome?
Strike out any ideas that don’t meet the criteria set out in your ‘must’ list.
2. What are the financial and resource costs of implementing this idea?
Delete any ideas that would demand more than your budget or that staffing would allow.
3. If you choose this idea, will it impact on other employees or departments?
Make sure you have covered all contingencies, and that your decision won’t create a precedent that may have undesirable repercussions later on.
4. Will implementing this idea create other problems?
Be sure that by solving one problem, you are not setting off a domino effect of others.
5. What could go wrong if I went with this idea?
Decide how serious it would be, and what steps you could take to lessen the effects.
6. Will this solution be readily accepted by employees/customers/suppliers/financiers?
Consider their objections and how you can sell the idea to overcome their reluctance.
When you have chosen the most suitable solution, commit yourself to working with it until it succeeds.
Once I’ve made a decision how do I put it in place?
A little more time is needed to plan the implementation of your decision. You must first decide how, what, when, and who does it. What you need to do is to assume the role of devil’s advocate and think about what can go wrong, how you’d recognise potential problems, what damage-control actions you can take, and how you’d recover if the worst-case scenario did occur.
Few decisions are made in isolation. If your decisions affect others, make sure that you talk to them regularly. Keep the lines of communication open throughout the decision-making and implementation process. Answer any questions that they might have truthfully and thoughtfully. This is particularly important when dealing with employees: by seeking their input, communicating with them each step of the way, you have a much greater chance of gaining their co-operation and making the solution work. When you regularly talk with your staff you can also help them overcome any resistance they might have to change. It’s best to remember that most decisions mean disruption of familiar routines. You’ll also need to engage your motivational skills to sell your decision to employees, to inspire them to accept it and make it work.
Anything to do after it’s implemented?
Never just implement a solution and leave its success in the lap of the gods! Things will probably go wrong: that’s not being negative, just practical. And the more people involved, the more chance of hiccups.
Regularly check in to see that things are running smoothly, according to your plan. Doing this will highlight errors or problems before they get out of hand. Talk to everyone involved to find out how the new procedure is working, whether it has improved efficiency, if more training is needed, if they are aware of any potential problems.
After you have allowed sufficient time for your decision to bed down, evaluate the results. Has the solution achieved the desired outcome – the objectives you set at the very beginning of the problem-solving process?
If your plan did not achieve those objectives, find out why. Decide what corrective action you should take. The important thing is to look closely at any failures, highlight where you went wrong, what errors you or others made that can be avoided in the future. Seek input from others about what went wrong, why it did not work. Solicit their advice about how things can be improved.
Arnold says to review the seven-step problem-solving process you used to see if you made errors of judgment. Perhaps you did not spend enough time on one of the steps – or even omitted it completely?
If your plan was successful – congratulate yourself! However, do take the time to look at precisely why it was successful so that you can use those ideas or methods in the future.