Playing the Problem Whack A Mole Game in your company? Don’t let the little critters win. Warren Buffet famously said about investing: “it’s simple, but it isn’t easy.” He was referring to the emotion that comes into play when people make investment decisions. When making decisions in your business, a myriad of reasons can get in the way of creating and executing a solid plan to eliminate a problem that’s driving everyone batty. This time, make no excuses. Instead, follow these simple steps:
1. Name the problem.
If it doesn’t have a name, you can’t easily talk about it. Instead of naming the problem, people endlessly describe its symptoms and frustrations, amplifying the problem and making it seem impossible to resolve. So give it a name for quick reference.
2. Use problem statements, not solution statements.
Our culture has conditioned us to use solution statements when describing something that’s going wrong; managers say things like “don’t tell me about the problem, tell me how to fix it!” But when we frame a problem in the form of a solution we cut off peoples’ ability to identify other possible solutions. For example, take the problem statement “We are chronically into our line of credit in the summer.” The solution statement might be, “We need to increase our line of credit for the summer.” But that’s one alternative; other solutions might be to change payment terms, collections processes, or staffing. By focusing only on one solution, we cut off other viable alternatives.
Bonus points if you can quantify the problem to identify its magnitude. “We’re paying 4% interest on $500,000, but another cost is Dianne’s time when she scrambles to try to make ends meet – it’s probably a couple of days a week for 2 months a year. Not to mention the stress it causes.”
3. Write down your best ideas for a permanent resolution.
By putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), you clarify your thinking. Take five uninterrupted minutes to brainstorm alternatives on your own, and another five to flesh out the top one or two solutions.
4. Distribute the problem to others who could help with the resolution. Typically, this would be members of your senior team.
Susan Cain has become very popular with her theories about working with introverts, but we all intuitively know that the majority of the population (not just introverts) will bring forth their best ideas not on the spur of the moment, but after careful consideration. That’s why we “sleep on it” and allow the subconscious mind to work on the alternatives before coming up with a course of action. As in step three, your managers should take ten minutes to prepare to discuss the problem, and come to that meeting with their written solutions.
5. Hold a 20 minute meeting to review the solutions and agree on a plan.
This should be a quickie meeting, unless you’re going to tackle more than one problem. Simply go around the table and have each person read out the solutions they brought with them. Each person should read their solution and not further elaborate (or take questions) until everyone has had a chance to speak. This encourages everyone to participate and also checks that everyone took the ten minutes to prepare.
From there, the leader can identify one or two ideas to pursue, and describe the action plan.
6. Assign the execution of the plan to one person. Give them tactics, resources, and deadlines.
Now that the group has put forward its best idea, it is time to put the idea into action. Go. Execute. Fix that problem. Forever!
7. Follow up regularly to ensure they stay on track.
In more sophisticated teams, once work has been assigned you can rest assured that it happens. But if you are one of the leaders complaining that “No one ever follows through!” don’t give anyone the chance to disappoint you. Schedule yourself to follow up on progress, while simultaneously setting the expectation that you want them to tell you about their progress. See if they can’t beat you to the punch.
Follow these seven steps and you’re more likely than not to stop the problem whack a mole game for good in your organization.