“What’s the problem?”

THAT IS the problem! Most leaders never ask the question, “What’s the problem?”

With that tongue twister of a leadership challenge as a starting point, let’s look at a few basic realities…

• It is estimated that when organizations try to make improvements in their performance, the results are positive only about 20% of the time. In other words, most “improvement initiatives” are a waste of time.
• The failure rate of corporate M&A Activity (mergers and acquisitions) is often reported to be between 70% and 90%.
• Less than half of small business start-ups survive to their fifth anniversary.
• Most observers – and citizens – would agree that political systems around the world are becoming more and more paralyzed in their ability to “get things done”.
• Estimates indicated that “disengaged employees” cost companies in the United States as much as $550 billion a year in lost profits.
• And the list goes on…

In short, the majority of work and effort that leaders apply in their jobs does not result in success. Failure is more common than positive results! Let’s assume that the statistics are correct — that about 25% of the time leaders are successful and 75% of the time they fail. If a leader could eliminate the 75% failure rate, the leader could…

• Work 75% less and get the same results;
• Work the same amount and improve results 300%;
• Avoid the frustration and demoralization that failure generates;
• And this list goes on as well…

Which raises the critical question… why do leaders fail so often?

As a side note, most leaders will answer that their failure was not their fault – that circumstances, opponents, stakeholder resistance, finances, and other factors were to blame and they, as leaders, “did the best they could”! This “blame something else” mentality is the result of a “cognitive bias” and/or an “experiential bias” – natural human thought processes that enable us to function efficiently in everyday life, but which often undermine our success as leaders of organizations facing complex challenges.

• For example, an obvious “experiential bias” in everyday life is the caution we display when approaching a burner on a stove – our experience tells us it might be hot and, therefore, we are careful to avoid touching the surface, even though most of the time a burner is not actually hot to the touch.
• In a business situation, a “cognitive bias” is created when we feel overworked. We assume that our boss needs to make fewer demands of our time or that we need to hire more help. We tend to overlook the possibility that we are working inefficiently or that we are making too many mistakes that require us to fix our own errors.
• In a personal situation if you see two people arguing – one who is known to be a really nice person, and the other who has often been grouchy or difficult with which to work – we are quick to assume that the argument is 100% the fault of the person we see in a more negative light.

We could talk about cognitive biases in much greater depth, but we’ll leave that for future discussions.

Which takes us back to the original critical question – why do leaders fail so often? One of the key answers is that leaders act on their BIASES and fail to THINK. Leaders fail to practice a very basic critical thinking skill – asking the unbiased question, “What IS the problem…I need to fix?”

Although data collection, research, analysis, query, and a variety of other efforts can help leaders make better decisions, the critical thinking process can be narrowed down to three simple steps / questions that effective leaders routinely follow…

Step #1)
Articulate an unbiased answer to the question, “What is the problem that requires my attention?”

Step #2)
Identify the many – not just the obvious – answers to the question, “What are the possible causes of my problem?

Step #3)
Develop numerous possible ideas and answers to the question, “What solutions could be effective in addressing the different causes of my problem?”

Problem – Causes – Solutions!

It is a logical and sequential process that results in good critical thinking.

Unfortunately, most individuals try to circumvent this thought process by jumping immediately to the end point – “HERE is the SOLUTION that we will implement!” When people jump to the end point, they often risk getting it wrong – spending time and money implementing solutions that address non-causes of our real problems! Thus, the 75% failure rate.

Leaders often fall into this non-thinking pitfall the moment they articulate their so-called “problem” in the first place by embedding either an assumed cause of a problem or a proposed solution in their initial problem statement. Some examples…

• A department manager exclaims that “We need to hire more staff!” Hiring more people is a potential solution, not a problem. Is the manager trying to fix a backlog of work? If yes, the manager should also question whether the backlog is caused by inefficiency, or bad planning, or machine breakdowns. Is the manager trying to reduce stress for current staff? If yes, the manager should also question whether stress is caused by poor supervisor relations, a lack of positive feedback, or even non-work related issues. Is the manager trying to improve customer satisfaction? If yes, customers might be disgruntled not by slow delivery, but by poor communication, or by poor quality, or by mistakes in shipping. In other words, a manager could hire more people, but more people will simply add costs to an organization if the real problems are related to something other than workload.

• A politician might announce that “We need to cut taxes!” It’s hard to argue with a tax cut, but this is also a solution, not necessarily a problem. Is the politician trying to starve inefficient departments of government? If yes, then careful audits and department-specific interventions would be more effective. Is the politician trying to spur economic activity? If yes, then more targeted programs such as infrastructure projects or specific financial incentives might be more effective – similar to the “Cash for Clunkers” program initiated by the federal government in 2009. Is the politician trying to reduce the overall burden of taxes on the public? If yes, keeping taxes steady, paying down debt, and avoiding future tax increases might be more beneficial in the long run. As said, a solution might be attractive to stakeholders, but that same solution might actually make results worse in the long run, depending once again on what the real problem is that a government leader is trying to solve.

• A parent might dictate that “The TV will not be turned on during weekday nights in our house!” This is also an action that is more solution than problem, and may fail to address the real issues that a family is facing. Is the parent trying to improve communication with an adolescent or understand better what matters most to the child? Watching a TV show chosen by the teenager, followed by a bit of discussion might go much further to improve communication. Is the parent trying to help a child improve their grades at school? A sincere study of the causes for school failure would be in order as a child might need a tutor, support in confronting a bully, medical support for a cognitive disorder and more! Is the parent trying to make time for household work to get done – from laundry to housekeeping to personal hygiene! If yes, then stopping one activity – TV watching – does not guarantee that anything else productive will fill the space. Good planning, a schedule, personal assignments, and other simple time management techniques might be far more useful.

In all of these examples, jumping to solution runs the risk of derailing success. The business manager, the politician, and the parent are likely to spend significant effort, cause friction with some participants, and implement solutions that do not deliver the results needed.

The leadership skill to counteract this natural tendency is simple, even though it runs contrary to the human norms of cognitive bias! Leaders need to simply purge their “problem statements” from both an assumption of cause and a proposal for solution. To do this, leaders should test the problems they are contemplating in two ways…

• TEST #1
When you or other stakeholders are talking about the problem, are you also talking about what you believe to be the causes of that problem? If YES, reframe your thinking to eliminate any assumptions that you know WHY the problem exists.

• TEST #2
When you or other stakeholders are talking about the problem, are you also describing a preferred solution to fix that problem? If YES, reframe your thinking to eliminate any proposals or suggestions as to HOW the problem should be fixed.

Some examples…

• PROBLEM ARTICULATED: We need to hire more staff!
Hiring more staff is a solution, assuming that the cause of a problem is a insufficient staff-to-work ratio. If the real problem is that deadlines are being missed, the cause might be poor processes, errors that take time to correct, ineffective work schedules, poor training of staff, and so on. Thus, an accurate description of the problem would be, “Completion deadlines are being missed!” A leader who identifies the real problem can then explore the WHY (cause) and develop a HOW (solution) that will effectively address the problem of late orders.

• PROBLEM ARTICULATED: We must cut taxes!
Cutting taxes is a solution that fails to identify both a problem and a cause. If the real concern is that government is wasting money, the cause might be fraud, poor processes, outdated computer systems, ineffective procurement policies, or a host of other issues. An accurate description of the problem would be, “Government funds are being wasted!” or “Government is getting less value for the money being spent than we should!” If wasted government money is the problem, leaders could then identify individual causes of waste (WHY), followed by identifying appropriate and effective solutions (HOW) that will directly eliminate the waste or increase the value for money spent.

• PROBLEM ARTICULATED: We need to turn off the TV during the week!
Banning television on certain days or for certain times is a solution, assuming that “too much TV” is the cause of an unidentified problem. If the real problem is that a child is failing in school, a parent should identify the problem as such… “My child is failing in school!” The parent can then search for the causes (WHY) which might be many. Once the causes are uncovered, the parent could then identify HOW to help the child overcome the barriers to success in school (solutions).

So, the next time you think about a situation that is vexing to you…or the next time a friend, colleague, or leader proclaims they want to solve a “problem,” take the time to pause and to think. Ask the simple question, “What IS the PROBLEM anyway?”

Good critical thinking becomes a gift! We spend less time achieving poor results. We have more time to be successful. We experience fewer failures in life. We can be more confident in all that we do. We can help others to achieve success in their lives and in their vocations as well. If we can truly ask – and answer – the question, “What IS the PROBLEM anyway?”, we will have fewer problems to address in the long term!