Is It Better to “Think” or “Act” When Problems Arise?


Adrian and Stephanie approach problems differently.

“First, I like to determine the root cause of the problem,” Adrian said.  “Then, I like to brainstorm alternatives, evaluate them and make a plan. During execution, I may adjust the plan.”

Stephanie said, “When a process erupts, I quickly put a patch on it.  If my first impulse fails, I try something else.  I just continue experimenting until a solution finds me.”

Adrian, by moving logically from one stage to the next, exercises linear thinking.   Stephanie’s approach is less logical and more iterative.  Which is better?

Tom Wujec gave many groups an assignment to build a tower out of spaghetti and tape to support a marshmallow.

Not surprisingly, the best performing teams in Wujec’s experiments were architects and engineers.  However, kindergartners consistently outperformed business school students.

Business students, relying on linear thinking, spent a lot of time methodically planning and assigning team member responsibilities.  When the plan failed during execution, they went back to the drawing board to regroup and revise.

Kindergartners simply began trying different actions without planning (an iterative approach). When an action failed, they quickly tried another.  Their “try it and fix it” approach produced a better product in less time.

 

Are You Teaching Your Employees to Fad Surf?


Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”

“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”

Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.

Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical.  But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.

“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon.    And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.”  That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.

Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.

When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle.  A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.

 

Do “Solved” Problems Actually Generate More Problems?


Campbell and his team had just completed their assignment of selecting and installing a new software system.

“Great job and problem solved,” said the president.  “We can disband the project team and all can return full-time to your regular jobs.”

“Not so fast,” Campbell argued.  “The system supports newer, more robust analytical tools.  If we fail to make these tools available, we will be at a competitive disadvantage. Upgrades are already on the horizon. We’ve identified the need for more training.  We actually need to add a couple of staff.”

Studies by Harvard researcher, Daniel Gilbert and his team suggest that as problems become smaller, our conception of the problems expand.  Or, “When problems become rare, we see more things as problems.”

President Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes in 1938 to combat polo.   Thankfully, Jonas Salk’s vaccine to prevent polo became commercially available in 1962.  Rather than disbanding, the March of Dimes refocused its mission to address the issues of premature births.

During growth, many organizations add support personnel at a faster rate than production employees.  The opposite occurs during declines.

I understand that the proper use of support personnel adds value.  However, many leaders, I suggest, would be better off by erring on the side of caution when adding support staff.

Increase Your Influence via Reciprocity


(Part 1 of 5 on Increasing Influence)

“I have a dilemma,” Braylon confided to a friend.

“How so?”

“Araceli asked me to analyze three software programs for her department.”

“You are an expert on software.  What’s the dilemma?”

“Jaxson wants me to upgrade materials for his new-employee orientation program. I don’t have time to do a good job on both.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I think I’ll respond to Araceli’s request.  I’ll tell Jaxson my schedule is full.  He has something on file that he can use.”

“Are you sure that is the right priority?”

“I’m not sure but I can’t refuse Araceli’s request.  She saved my bacon last month.  She created very clever brochures that boosted attendance at our recognition dinner.”

Braylon is responding to the concept of reciprocity—responding to a positive action of another by repaying the person with a positive action.

Reciprocity is a powerful motivator.  To increase your influence, look for ways to help others.  Extend yourself to welcome new employees.  Be quick to share your skills with struggling team members.  Do not wait to be asked.  Anticipate and volunteer.

By adding value for others, you build a reservoir of goodwill.  When, in the future, you need to exert your influence, you are more likely to get “yes’s.”

 

The Five Toughest Personnel Decisions


Part 1 of 5

A manager said to me, “I’m concerned about Jacob.  He has really struggled during the last few months.”

“How long has Jacob been with you?” I asked.

“Almost fifteen years.”

“What is Jacob’s performance history?”

“He’s been a pretty good performer, not great but reliable.  The volume in Jacob’s job has increased dramatically and we have become very dependent on technology.”

“Have you trained Jacob sufficiently?”

“Yes, we’ve offered extensive training.  In reality, the job has probably outgrown Jacob’s abilities.”

“Do you have other tasks that you could assign to Jacob?”

“Not really.  We are fully staffed and I’ve shifted tasks as much as I can.”

When a job outgrows an employee’s abilities, I think the company should try to reassign the employee to other tasks.  However, as in this example, reassignment is not always practical.

Another option is to continue coaching and training and hope to get the employee up to speed.  However, this usually does not work.

As tough as it sounds, the better option for both the organization and the employee is to compassionately remove the person from the organization and assist him/her in finding a better fit with another company.

 

This May Not Work for You, but . . .


Felix said to his manager, “I have an upset customer who claims we should be responsible for repairing a product still under warranty.  However, I think the customer caused the damage by improperly servicing the equipment.”

After listening further, Felix’s manager gave him a specific checklist of actions to take with the customer.

Felix approached the customer and began working through his manager’s suggestions.  The customer remained disappointed and later wrote a nasty complaint on social media.

Later, the manager asked Felix, “Why didn’t you get that issue resolved the way that I told you to?”

Felix responded, “I did exactly what you said. He just wouldn’t listen.”

I recall asking a friend how to get a stubborn horse to take the bit.  My friend said, “Now, this may not work for you but this is how I do it.”  Then he successfully performed the feat while I watched.

Of course, the next day as I tried to execute my friend’s methods, the horse resumed his bad behaviors.  However, I knew that I still owned the issue and did not consider my friend accountable.

Felix’s manager, I believe, should have put qualifiers on his suggestions.  Felix would know that, although the manager offered advice, the customer issue was still his to resolve.

Eat the Live Frog First


Ascham admitted, “As I was driving to work, I knew I needed to talk to Reginald.  He has an ego as big as the parking lot.”

Reginald, an employee with excellent work skills, sometimes produced excellent work– sometimes not.   Last week, Reginald disappointed his team with a sloppy analysis on a critical issue.  When questioned, Reginald became defensive, blamed others and stated, “I don’t think this is important anyway.”

Ascham said, “When I arrived at work, Reginald was on my mind; but I decided to respond to a couple of emails.  It took longer than I intended.  Then I got a call from the vice-president asking for a status update.”

Mid-day approached and Ascham had still not contacted Reginald.  “I intended to stop by after lunch but decided to go back to my office and update a couple of proposals,” Ascham said.

Just prior to leaving work, Ascham finally stopped by and had the awkward conversation with Reginald.  “If I had taken care of this first,” Ascham said, “I would not have worried about it all day.”

Mark Twain said that if the first thing you do each day is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen to you.