Problem solving isn’t highly overrated . . .

Posted by on May 8, 2012

. . . when you’re solving the right problems.

Last week I read an article by Lorne Armstrong titled “Problem Solving is Highly Over-rated”. It tweaked my interest since much of my work involves helping leaders to clearly define, and to avoid or overcome, important strategic problems.

When a blog article makes a few good, practical points that readers can use immediately, the writer has hit the mark. Armstrong succeeds. He points to common deficiencies that undermine the value of problem-solving, beginning with weak problem definition. For example, he notes that many people cite the absence of their solution as “the problem” (e.g. “the problem around here is lack of management training”). Those who have worked with me may recall that we avoid this pitfall when defining key issues in strategic planning by defining objective conditions, not solutions you’d employ to exploit or avoid them.

Finding solutions to poorly-defined problems not only wastes time, but misallocates resources and people’s efforts into the wrong areas and activities. That’s one of the reasons I dropped SWOT lists from my strategy process in 1995. I saw too many ill-defined SWOTs channeling resources into fighting dubiously defined “problems” and away from what matters most – customers and opportunities!

Armstrong makes another good point when he warns that trying to solve the wrong problems can be a distraction and a major time waster. I wholeheartedly agree.

Meta problem – diffused focus

The related strategic issue is one of managerial focus. To maximize strategic success, leaders must focus their attention on strategic priorities. Many of the frustrating organizational problems people chafe against are far from strategic. Resolving them may reduce frustration, but will do little to accelerate and multiply the organization’s payback from its strategy. Meanwhile, other factors are pivotal in improving strategic payback. Focusing on low priority frustrations siphons time, energy and scarce resources away from what is most vital to increasing payback.

Which problems are worth solving?

Problems that threaten to undermine the success of your strategic plan are definitely worth solving! The strategic problems leaders should focus their efforts on fall into two categories:

  1. Emerging opportunities that could expand the success of your strategy.
  2. Barriers that stand in the way of the successful execution of your top strategic priorities.

If you’re unsure of whether such a problem is worthy of your efforts, see where it sits on your strategy map. Follow the primary cause-effect links between the core strategies among your strategy “inputs” (people, skills, motivation, organization, operations, processes) and your desired “outcomes” (customer satisfaction, sales, reputation, profit and growth). Is the problem undermining progress on one of your strategic priorities? Would solving it increase the value created by your strategy? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, you may have found a problem worthy of your efforts. If not, pass it up and focus on issues that meet those tests.

Problem solving is critical during strategy implementation

Problem solving is especially important during strategy implementation. That’s because parts of a new strategy take most managers out of their comfort zone, from a place where they know the terrain to an unfamiliar landscape. They are likely to encounter far more problems than in the familiar territory of operations. Managing the unfamiliar requires frequent and fast problem solving. When you venture into this territory, don’t wait too long to assess your progress, and to ask “what have we learned” in a way that reveals either bigger opportunities than you’d initially envisioned, or uncovers previously hidden barriers to implementation. Put regular “plan-do-check-act” cycles into your implementation process to maximize learning in this critical phase. This will help you to identify barriers to implementation earlier, and will increase the lead time you have to identify the root causes before your performance begins to suffer.

Understanding problems well is a major step in solving them. And understanding which problems are actually worth solving is even more important, and should be the first step. But solving the right problems – those that will help you get from plan to payoff as quickly as possible – is about the best thing managers can do with their time.

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