Problem Solving is not a Zero Sum Game

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“Are we forgetting the importance of actually solving problems?”

Leadership is all about a vision and being able to articulate it in a way that builds consensus, direction and motivation. Every day on the news, we are drenched in negativity with no plausible vision to look towards resolving the many problems the media gooses us within each news cycle. Sad to say, for those short on time or inclination to do any of their own research, the media creates the world setting for most people. Indeed, many of the events of the day seem to defy logic.  But what is adding to the negative impact and feeling of helplessness is the seeming lack of problem solving skills on the part of leadership in governments and large businesses.

Those of us who play on the field of “produce or perish” fully understand that when there is no apparent accountability, problem solving will take a back seat to personal agendas. Unfortunately, that same lack of accountability has spread into the C-suite of some of our most venerable companies-those who see themselves as too big to fail. Can you imagine your company having to pay millions or even billions in fines to the government and the CEO not being held accountable? What sort of message does our government and top companies send to the common working person? Only recently are we getting a view of how the public feels about the all too public favoritism and the injustice of it all. It strikes at the heart of democracy and makes all our national values sound hypocritical and shallow. In my humble opinion, much of the cause of all the current angst is the lack of leadership in its most basic form: problem solving.

Problem Solving

Those of us who participate in operating companies-large and small-understand the concept of identify, analyze, plan, test and implement. We also understand that there are no guarantees that our solutions will result in the desired outcome. The real spirit of being a leader is to accept but minimize risk and always have a plan B and a clearly defined measure to identify when it’s time to switch to plan B. However, it appears that as accountability in private and public management has diminished, risk is now defined as anything short of 100% success. As this is never a realistic option when it comes to problem solving-particularly when problems become so convoluted that they are even difficult for subject matter experts (SMEs) to understand or explain-the risk of being wrong in any public fashion is too much risk for personal agendas at the top. Indeed, it is much safer to “spin rather than solve.”

Top executives of some of our major companies seem to have taken on the same personal strategy of getting paid as if they provide real value to a company but are really more interested in avoiding any inkling of risk or making a wrong decision. Maybe this leadership paralysis is a natural result of the complexity and abstract nature of modern business and economics that perhaps it may be better to do nothing than appear to be a bold visionary when there are no clear solutions or satisfactory (no risk) options. But that too is risky if others come up with a solution to similar problems.

As an experienced consultant, I subscribe to the concept that being able to clearly identify root causes of problems and follow a path of logical analysis will normally produce a matrix of solutions from which to choose. However, there is always the question of risk-reward. Now we come to my key idea of this editorial: We may not have a good solution but we must be open enough to look to others for solutions.

Normally, the “brain trust” of a company is in the hands of the top management echelon. However, this division of labor has its own dynamics and agendas. I have seen it happen way too often that when management admits they don’t have the best answers and opens up to input from employees and shareholders, new solutions and ideas come flooding in.

One of my company’s specialties is helping top echelon management learn how to solicit ideas from throughout the total stakeholder community. Indeed, we could call it “crowdsourcing ideas.” To do this new form of transparent management requires a skill set that incorporates much of what Certified Business Analysts implement on a daily basis-how to facilitate and illicit consensus from a broad cross section of stakeholders. They do this by knowing how to properly define a problem, solution requirements, the direct and knock-on effects of potential changes as well as defining a range of strategies from doing nothing to making major changes. Albert Einstein was quoted to say “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than the solution,” so it’s incumbent on us to ensure were solving for the right things in a context people can grasp.

Often managers are either too isolated or too close to situations to make optimal decisions or to fully understand the impact of changes on complex systems. It takes leadership, an open mind and knowing the right questions to ask and to whom they should be asked.

My contention in this article is that too often we are forgetting the importance of solving problems as well as becoming too focused on personal agendas rather than being a bold leader. What I mean by bold leader is a person who is not afraid to test their ideas and is willing to step aside if they cannot meet the challenges they agree to take on.  If you look at history, so much gets done during war time because leaders are forced to make decisions that can have immediate consequences. There is real accountability for getting things right as well as wrong. But like most of us in positions of leadership in small and medium sized businesses, we live with that knowledge every day. So what is the solution to decision paralysis for our core institutions?

I believe that in both government and corporate governance, there should be some form of term limits for positions of leadership. We need to constantly be injecting the entrepreneurial spirit in the top ranks of business and government leadership. In addition, those who want to play at the top should be rewarded for the improvements and solutions they make and not just acting as status quo managers planning to secure their positions meanwhile getting paid handsomely for just care-taking activities.

Solutions and failure doesn’t need to be a zero sum game if strategies are structured properly.  But leaders should be expected to actually solve real problems and not avoiding risk to preserve personal agendas. Unfortunately, it is up to shareholders (i.e., a board of directors) and voters to provide the threat of accountability. I say unfortunately because it’s much easier to sell stock or not take the democratic process as a serious form of participation. Indeed, as issues and problems become more complex, it requires stockholders and voters to become more engaged and devote more of what little free time they have to take a serious interest in forming policy.

In conclusion, by establishing forms of term limits in both private and public top leadership positions, we can set up automatic constraints that will head off the current tendency to put personal agendas ahead of solutions and focus effort and reward on benefiting stakeholders or constituents.


Additional Reading

7 Important Leadership Skills

Signs of Poor Leadership – Fix them now


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