Don’t Be an Ostrich
Every customer-facing support organization faces problems, but not every organization has properly equipped its teams to solve them.
We often hear the phrase, two things are certain in life, death and taxes. But, if we are honest, we could easily add a third: problems. Here is one more thing that’s true about every organization and team—there are always problems to be solved.
Craig Groeschel on the “Craig Groeschel Leadership Podcast” teaches that all leaders and organizations will face problems. For some example, Groeschel says, You may be overstaffed or understaffed, you may be facing a lawsuit, fighting to get a permit, or watching your church attendance decline. There are always problems to be solved.
If we are all going to face problems, having solid principles to follow is an essential for navigating them.
Nine solid principles for navigating problems to create solutions.
1. Be honest
Don’t be an ostrich ~ Craig Groeschel
First, admit there is a problem. Masahiro Arai, COO of SIOS Technology Corp. often challenges customers, leaders, and teams with the question: “Does the issue exist?” This is the first step, because until you are willing to admit there is a problem, you cannot do anything to solve it. Be honest, and don’t hide from the truth.
Acknowledging that a problem exists is as difficult to admit and recognize as it is crucial to unlocking options. Why is it so hard? First, because few of us want to admit they have a problem. Second, we are often conditioned to believe that admitting a problem can be bad and lead to negative consequences, such as:
a. Lost opportunities
b. Negative perception
c. Appearance of weakness
d. Lost business (clients, revenue)
e. Lost rewards (bonuses, salary, titles and authority)
Third, some organizations do not have healthy cultures that promote a willingness to fail, admit wrong, and improve. A colleague once shared that his previous organization had a high turnover rate amongst junior employees. Many of which no longer wanted to admit to creating problems or having a problem.
Example: Consider the example of Jane at XYZ Solutions. Jane has been working with Dave at NationalData to sign an agreement to purchase 1000 copies of Jane’s latest release. However, talks have stalled for weeks over a small provision. After two additional contract revisions, Jane admits to her boss that there is a problem.
2. Identify the present reality
“Now you know. And knowing is half the battle…” ~ G.I. Joe
If being honest that a problem exists is the first step and half the battle, then the next step is probably another 25% of the battle. Understanding the current situation and present reality is another big challenge facing teams and organizations. How do we assess the issue and problem? What is the exact issue? How did we get here? What are the factors involved and the things that make this critical or not critical to solve?
The key to identifying the present reality involves three crucial components:
a. Asking questions.
Ask questions of the team, the leadership, the customer, the issue reporter, key stakeholders, and of individuals closest to the problem. These questions should be open ended and structured to help flush out more information and details.
b. Avoiding assumptions.
Avoid assumptions about the problem or its solution. At this stage it is critical to avoid assumptions. This includes thinking that you have enough information about the problem, or enough information about the solution. Instead, wherever you find yourself making an assumption, turn it into another question.
c. Asking more questions.
Ask more questions to clarify your understanding, remove bias, and lead you towards the identity of the real problem. If you have made any assumptions or jumped to any solutions, ask more questions that challenge your assumptions or could potentially invalidate your solution. The goal here is to avoid both and focus on understanding.
Example: Jane’s boss advises her to ask some questions to understand the current situation. Over the next several hours Jane arranges a call with Dave and team to ask questions. Dave leads with a comment about price. Before simply assuming her price was too high, Jane continues to ask more questions about Dave’s concern, his view of the problem, and even background information that might have led Dave to this view. She uncovers the dilemma. Dave was fine with her price but he feared that a variable cost provision in the contract could increase his total cost by an unpredictable amount – a relatively easy issue for Jane to resolve.
The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that the problem exists – Zig Ziglar
3. Confront the problem
Once you have identified that there is an issue and it is impacting your current reality, the next steps begin to lead you towards a solution. Groeschel suggests that this step involves stating the problem or to confront the problem. In order to take this next critical step, you must be willing to state the problem clearly and concisely. A few helpful pointers for stating the problem clearly include:
a. State the problem
Simply restate the problem in a concise sentence or two.
b. State the facts, brutally
Restate the facts, honestly and brutally, without adding any assumptions, proposed solutions, or unnecessary details.
c. Outline the scope of the problem
Be sure to describe the full scope of the problem. Clearly identify symptoms versus root causes
d. Ask more questions
Use questions to confirm that you have agreement on the real problem.
Example: When Jane reconvenes with Dave she is ready for the next step. She summarizes her notes and states the problem back to Dave. “Dave, it seems that you are concerned that the provision in the contract is variable and will increase your costs,” she states. She outlines the facts about the contract, when the provision is applied, and describes her understanding of how Dave arrived at this concern. When she’s done she looks at Dave and asks, “Did I capture the problem correctly?” Dave adds a few more clarifications, which Jane adds as symptoms to her notes.
4. Develop solutions and proposals
After you have agreed on the existence of the problem, and the scope, move on to developing solutions and proposals. Look into unpacking both the pros and cons of options. When considering the solutions and proposals, be sure to consider the current reality from the perspective of the customer, the team, and the company. Understand legitimate and illegitimate fears that solving the problem or not solving the problem will evoke. Look past superficial “symptoms” of the problem to understand the root causes. Be sure to consider the side effects that solutions and proposals could create, especially those of cost and complexity.
Example: When Jane meets with her team she now has the agreement that an issue exists, clarification of Dave’s concerns, and agreement of the scope of the problem. Jane knows that XYZ Solutions cannot afford to lose this large client, but she also realizes that she cannot remove the provision in question without creating a lot of risk for the company. She knows that reducing the cost of the software or the change order costs Dave at NationalData is concerned about would not work. Dave cannot afford any additional variable costs. After several meetings with her team and Dave’s she lists out other potential issues from the delivery team’s view. Finally, she decides on a solution that could work for all parties.
5. Determine that the problem is worth solving
You’ve been honest and admitted there is a problem. You’ve been inquisitive and determined the scope of the problem and the present reality that is causing the problem. Now you’ll need to determine if the problem is worth solving for your team and organization.
Back to Jane and Dave: A few years earlier, Jane had dealt with a similar scenario. A partner wanted to add some provisions. After getting down to the real issue, Jane and her team decided that the partner’s problem wasn’t one that they could solve easily, and the added cost would take years to pay back, if at all. Jane knows that SiO Solutions cannot afford to lose this large client, and she realizes the proposed solution isn’t particularly costly. Jane determines that the pain and cost of solving the immediate problem is worth the immediate sales as well as the long term relationship with NationalData.
6. Determine who has power to solve the problem.
Knowing you have a problem and even knowing how to resolve it doesn’t help unless the people with the power to implement the solution are involved and participating. Perhaps an employee notices that a new process needs to be put in place to eliminate miscommunication or wasted time. Unless that employee has the support of the person with power to enforce that process, there is little likelihood that the solution will work.
7. Reach agreement
After the problem has been identified, quantified, researched and proposed, make a decision and then work to reach agreement. This step is also very important to the successful outcome for the problem. Make sure the proposal is clear and that stakeholders sign off on it, explicitly. Silence, in this scenario, is not consent or agreement. Avoid steamrolling objections, but carefully understand if these are valid objections or distractions towards making progress. For example, consider if the objection fits the current topic or issue, or is something that can be solved as its own issue or topic.
Example: Jane’s boss has reviewed her proposal and signed off on it. Jane makes the proposal to Dave. Rather than remove the contract provision and fees, Jane proposed a value-add fixed cost solution that lets Dave budget without fear of variable price increases and fees. It protects the company’s interest while adding more value to the partnership in the process.
8. Communicate the decision (up, down, and out)
Proper communication is critical to problem solving. While listed here as step seven, communication is critical at each step. In this phase of the process, communication needs to take place about the solution, the agreement, and the next steps. Be sure to communicate clearly to all stakeholders and persons involved in executing the agreed upon solution. Groeschel suggests that communicating the decision needs to take place upwards (managers, directors, board members), downwards (engineers, salespersons, finance and accounting, HR, peers and direct reports, and outwards (customers, partners, industry analysts if applicable, and other impacted stakeholders).
Example: Once Jane secures Dave’s verbal agreement, she devises a communication strategy to share the new value-add solution with her boss, peers, and other internal stakeholders. She also reviews the contract with Dave’s team – highlighting the timeline for the contract changes and the finer details of the value-add solution. Over the next two weeks Jane continues to share the decision and progress of final agreement with them.
9. Deliver the Value
Finally, deliver the value. You’ve made the decision to admit the problem exists, quantify and clarify it, develop options, and you have determined if it still needs to be solved. You also reached agreement internally and externally, and communicated as much. Now, deliver what you agreed to do. Delivery should be expedient and thoughtful. The focus should be on the value, not just a checklist.
Example: After receiving the signatures she needed, Jane delivered the software to NationalData and worked to make sure the solution worked flawlessly in the initial trials as well as the first large scale rollout. As a result, XYZ Solutions not only landed a great partner, but the pilot revealed the value of the steps of the solution process, and created a new value proposition that Jane’s peers were able to roll out in other parts of the business in the process.
We are all going to face problems, having solid principles to follow is an essential for navigating them. These nine principles can help every team and individual problem solve better.