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Face The Challenge - Sample Section, Chapter 19

Chapter Nineteen - Problem Solving

"Problem Solving" sifts through the many leadership behaviors, attitudes, and common misconceptions that inappropriately interfere with the problem solving process. It also provides greater leadership insight as to why so many problem solving techniques turn out to be ineffective and what can be done to improve the Leader's problem solving techniques so as to increase his or her operational batting average.


19.1 Why Solutions Fail.  The fundamental reason why a solution fails to resolve the problem that it was designed to correct is that it did not comprehensively address all the critical factors contributing to the unsatisfactory condition or essentially failed get to the root of the matter.  With some of the sub-elements that are overlooked simply being considered unimportant or going beyond the combined ability of both the Leader and his or her Subordinates to deal with effectively.  However, despite their possible misgivings or the relatively ominous flaws in their game plan, a significant number of Leaders heedlessly forge ahead ignoring the unacceptably long odds against them; making the best decisions that they can as they go along, and directing their Subordinates accordingly.  And somewhere between feeling mildly uncomfortable with the course of action being undertaken or dreading the worst, these Leaders basically cast their fate to the wind and hope for the best, often despite the emphatic advice of their Subordinates or close associates to the contrary.  As unhealthy decision making "habits take us to yesterday's answers and [a close-minded] attitude keeps us there" (Ridge, FM p45).  The many factors that contribute to the development and approval of such deficient or misguided adventures include:


(A) Standing Committees.  The same group of individuals who have caused the problem or have allowed a negative situation to persist rarely possess the technical knowledge, skill level, mental attitude, or analytical ability necessary to resolve their current predicament.  Consequently, additional resources, knowledge, determination, or improved leadership talent must be added to the committee cauldron in order for it to have a sporting chance of improving the organization's circumstances.  For quite prophetically, a brainstorming panel does little good if its members cannot collectively generate sufficient intellectual air turbulence to fly a kite.  The output value of a committee is also directly proportional to the creativity of its individual members; as conceptually dull individuals are not magically transposed into imaginative problem-solving wizards through the marvel of group synergy; though collectively they may generate marginally better work product than if each member were left to act on his or her own.  But even under the best of circumstances, committee compromises can seriously marginalize a creative idea and its prospective benefits.  As unfortunately, too many officiating chairpersons see themselves as merely sitting at the head of the table trying to move on to the next pesky agenda item before the lunch break, rather than steering the vision.  Thus stagnant committees comprised of the same lackluster talent-strain, time and again produce a revamped version of a proven mediocrity by cosmetically sprucing up the original production.  They also tend to stifle initiative by failing to properly recognize or reward individual members for their more clever contributions.  And if considered a major waste of time by most of its attendees, serving on a standing committee can be regarded as penance for past organizational transgressions; with such forced servitude rarely producing the vital innovative spark associated with inspired outcomes.


(B) Outside Consultants.  Though outside consultants can provide useful assistance in solving organizational problems, Leaders are cautioned not to rely exclusively upon their input due to the fundamental nature of the relationship.  For rarely do consultants take full ownership of their recommendations or underwrite the projected results; but collect their fees up front and are long gone before the final outcome of their advice is known, and with good reason.  As consultants are not normally engaged for a long enough time span or given sufficient authority to guarantee that their success formula will actually work, nor can they accurately predict whether the company's leadership team will prove capable of implementing their recommendations even if their counsel is totally pertinent or right on target.  However, many consultants have formulated their basic recommendations to certain problems long before they ever meet with their clients; and to the greatest extent possible attempt to match their client's circumstances with an "off-the-shelf" program or management theory that has performed so wonderfully in similar situations.  Most typically, the consulting firm's "letterhead" founders make extensive use of intermediaries (who are, of course, seeking to please their own bosses) to provide them with the facts and information regarding the client organization's operational issues rather than acquiring this knowledge firsthand.  As a result, the consulting firm's critical examination and recommendations may rely totally upon an inexperienced data collector who joined the firm just six months ago or who has only been out of business school for less than a year.  And though theoretically possible, it is rather doubtful that such an analyst will discover a cure-all for the client organization's ills in two or three weeks that has escaped its current management team; or will for that matter be able to offer much profound insight.  For more often than not the junior analyst will recommend the tried-and-true, founder-blessed, canned solution rather than opting for a substantially more creative prescription to treat the client firm's maladies.  Unfortunately under such circumstances, the business wag's definition of consultants as being: "people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is and then walk off with it" (Townsend) is quite apropos.  And though a consultant's analysis or insight might prove to be quite valuable, his or her "open-minded" recommendations most commonly result from performing primary leadership functions such as: (i) listening to Subordinates, (ii) critically reviewing statistical and financial information, (iii) evaluating product quality and service, (iv) analyzing the marketplace, (v) studying the competition and corporate culture, or  (vi) actually visiting the "front" to find out what is going on.  Activities which all red-blooded, able-bodied, dyed-in-the-wool Leaders should be capable of performing personally on their own initiative.  But regardless of the supervisory circumstances, consultants are compelled to make recommendations that require changes to the existing methodology, even if the problems are beyond their creative talent or some segments of the client organization are essentially sound.  As few clients feel comfortable paying exorbitant fees to find out that the unsatisfactory results are in fact as good as it is going to get, or that the consultant can offer little or nothing in the way of improvement.  These recommendations can also be somewhat politically tainted; as it serves the consultant's best interests for him or her to cater to client-Leader sensitivities so as to ensure a favorable reference.  In addition, spineless, two-faced Leaders often use consultants as clandestine proxies to justify or blame for unpopular decisions; thus their very presence can be expected to raise Subordinate apprehensions, increase anxiety, and negatively impact morale, if only temporarily.  And most bluntly, "if you need a consultant to tell you what to do or how to find out [what to do], then you're the problem" (Townsend, FUTO p40).


(C) Is Any Action Preferable to Inaction?  Doing something is not necessarily better than inaction when the course being considered is unsupported by the facts, poorly planned, or the time and resources expended or placed at risk are in short supply or irreplaceable.  As new projects or procedural changes that are rushed through the implementation phase by scurrying sycophants trying to meet unrealistic deadlines set by overbearing Leaders are often critically underdeveloped and persistently fail to achieve the desired outcome.  And the resulting demoralization of Subordinates after several such misadventures can critically downgrade their ability or enthusiasm to eventually resolve chronic problems.  Thus the desire for immediate action or the "we've got to do something now" state of mind must be coupled with a viable plan that has a credible chance of success and which supports the organization's core objectives.  For an all-out, "Pickett's Charge" (Gettysburg, July 3, 1863) against the middle may just toll the beginning of the end; regardless of any "high water" marks that are temporarily set.  Consequently, the Leader's compulsive reflex or natural urgency to try something must always be tempered with prudence and patience; though "the value of remaining without an answer until a satisfactory one can be found…is a [very] difficult lesson" (Skinner, SHB p13) and requires superior personal discipline.


(D) The Management Theory Trap.  New management theories typically embrace a simple, almost spellbinding solution to all the organization's problems; with both its protagonists and abundant trade journal literature citing numerous cases where the proposed interactive marvel has worked near miracles under certain operating conditions.  However, what these garrulous advocates do not normally point out is that the extenuating circumstances surrounding each case study may not have so neatly fitted the theory as reported, or that the solution used also benefited from some unique or less clearly quantifiable factors.  Or that the chances of another situation closely matching the problems from which the theory was derived are quite remote; or that even under very similar conditions the best theoretical solutions can often fall victim to poor implementation.  For almost inevitably, management theories require that the organization's Leaders adopt a different leadership style or otherwise change their behavior to improve their effectiveness.  This is clearly appropriate because it is impossible to achieve improved operational results without Leaders themselves actually doing something differently.  Of course, in many Leaders' minds the ideal solution would achieve the desired operational improvement without requiring them to change a thing; an absolutely lamebrained, cockeyed expectation.  As it is most frequently the Leader's inability to adapt to changing circumstances or to expand to meet the present challenge that has caused the organization to need a new theory in the first place.  It is also highly improbable that the average leadership derelict who helped create the problem will prove capable of adapting to its greater demands without extensive further development.  So if the organization's senior leadership team is not fully converted or committed to the new leadership format or process, its impact will prove far less satisfactory, regardless of the amount of vigor with which it is embraced by their junior supervisors.  But typically, Leaders who meander from one management theory to another are searching for some painless "magic wand" solution to all their operational problems; something that no "fairy godmother" leadership theory can ever provide.


(E) The Implementation Trap.  An organization often falls into the implementation trap when its operational problems emanate from the Leader's lack of vision or poor organizational skills.  For assuming that the right consultant has been selected, that the proposed solutions can resolve the organization's problems, or that said solutions will eventually be approved; the most critical element of the turnaround strategy still remains as to who is going to lead the charge?  Since it is highly doubtful that the same leadership team that brought the organization to the brink of disaster can be deemed competent enough to implement the turnaround plan, no matter how comprehensive or on point it may be.  As Leaders who have failed to achieve their primary objectives normally prove incapable of recovering a more tenuous situation that invariably represents an even greater leadership challenge, without a major infusion of advanced supervisory talent or additional technical expertise.  The exception to this "failure begets failure" premise being when outside consultants are used to recommend or implement solutions in specific fields that are not directly related to the organization's core business (e.g., installing a new computer system, designing robots, accounting software, insurance programs, or financing).


(F) The Management Ego Trap.  "I started this company on a shoestring, I lead the industry for three decades, and now my productivity is beginning to wane.  Therefore, I am ready to step down and hand over the reins to someone more qualified than myself to save the company and my descendant's inheritance" (Imaginary Entrepreneur).  Their kinfolk or the organization's stockholders should only be so lucky; for rarely does the temperament of the average entrepreneurial founder ever permit a smooth transition to occur.  As the very tenacity that brought them great success also causes them to hold on too long.  And not surprisingly, the existing management team or majority shareholder chairperson is often the major barrier to a consultant's or newly hired CEO's (basically an internal consultant) effectiveness; for the changes normally required to improve results characteristically exceed their capabilities or understanding.  Their inability to accept the need for change, evaluate new ideas, or to endure the emotional discomfort associated with doing things differently; also rapidly accelerates their managerial obsolescence and greatly undermines the success of any improvement program.  In addition, the old management team may begin to harbor increasingly greater resentment toward an outsider (ordinarily in direct proportion to the outsider's success in solving the company's problems) and work subtly to sabotage his or her best efforts or to disparage his or her accomplishments.


(G) Power and Control.  The struggle for power and control can supplant the organization's primary objectives as Leaders become increasingly more focused on remaining in position or having things done their way than on the bottom line.  Such goals occasionally being incongruent with the organization's long-term goals, as what is good for the Leader may not unequivocally be good for the organization.  And the more politically oriented the organization, the more the personal goals of those involved take precedence over its stated mission.  Characteristically, political players do not usually understand or trust nonpolitical players, as political players can be counted upon to keep their mouths shut and support the political goals of their superiors in an effort to fulfill their own ambitions.  Consequently, Subordinates who unselfishly seek to advance the organization's best interests or who are basically candid or apolitical are usually viewed with great suspicion by a politically biased superior nor are they well accepted by their politically tainted, backslapping peer group.


(H) Speculative Thinking.  Leaders of above average intelligence can fall into the trap of believing that they can think a problem away without bothering to collect the relevant data or making a proper assessment of the situation.  As a result they come to an ostensibly logical conclusion (often supported by reams of computer printouts) based upon a shaky hypothesis; and believing so much in their raw deductive powers, they often present their conclusions as being absolute or unequivocal.  Thus dependent upon the Leader's rung position, reputation, or influence in the organization; such misdirected thinking can seriously skew the whole decision making matrix as it works its way through (up or down) the hierarchy.  More productively, if Leaders want to know how many teeth horses or women have (questions allegedly pondered by Aristotle), they should conduct the appropriate field survey as opposed to sitting around for hours and only coming up with some well reasoned conjecture; as all "thought is a prelude and not an alternative to action" (Jay).  And super productively, senior Leaders should never assume that everyone has done their homework (e.g., collected all the facts, made a thorough investigation, checked their sources, asked probing questions, or cross examined witnesses); and must personally review their Subordinates plans or recommendations in detail and spot check their calculations, sources, or factual information.  Thus if an element of the analysis, study, or recommendation really stretches a Leader's imagination, he or she should trust such judgments and continue digging deeper; rather than letting the issue slide for the sake of convenience, or not wishing to abrade other people's sensitivities or causing a greater furor.


(I) Skewed Mind-Sets.  "The mind sets of managers often reflect the background specialties from which they achieved promotion into management" (Irwin Gray).  As a result, a Leader's personal perspective is commonly fixated on the elements of the problem that involve his or her individual specialty or expertise, as it is this area in which he or she feels the most at ease or confident.  Consequently, "to a person with a hammer, all problems appear to be nails" (attributed to Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, Austrian Philosopher, 1889-1951).  While, such self-imposed, conscious or sub-conscious "blinders" imprudently distort the Leader's point of view and can often cause him or her to downplay, trivialize, or to otherwise ignore the importance of other areas of expertise or to disregard perspicacious advice.  A large percentage of intellectually arrogant leadership pooh-bahs also believe that they are supernaturally endowed with the ability to assimilate the essence of any problem and instantaneously formulate a nimble-witted, mind-boggling solution.  And they therefore spend the bulk of their time, not in analyzing the problem based upon the information available, but in convincing themselves that their academically charged, cocktail style solutions will work without giving proper consideration to the validity of their assumptions or making a thorough examination of the facts or circumstances.  Thus Leaders who are either emotionally or intellectually unable to examine the full breath of a problem or acquire the additional counsel necessary to sculpt a well-founded, comprehensive solution will incur a disproportionate number of rude awakenings.  But unfortunately, "most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so" (Bertrand Arthur William Russell, English Scholar & Philosopher, 1872-1970).  Though exceptionally sad commentary on the status of human cognitive analysis considering the source; a pervasive supervisory issue that no future leadership titan can afford to ignore at any level.

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Copyright 2006 by H. Garrett Hayward from Face the Challenge: The Leader's Success Handbook