Building a Problem-Solving Culture (part 1 of 2)

Nov 29, 2018

It feels like many organizations today have become allergic to problems. The effects on the health of their businesses can be devastating.  Like a physical allergy, it’s not the problems themselves that are necessarily deadly. It’s the way leaders and organizations react to them that’s a killer.


Wells Fargo didn’t want to face its problems with an incentive plan run amok and unauthorized accounts. They tried to cover it up, which blew up in their faces and in court. When the theme of your major advertising campaign is “Earning Back Your Trust”, you know something has gone dreadfully wrong.


Facebook didn’t want to face its problems with data privacy and manipulative political advertising.  They tried to slow-play the public and the government. Since the scandal really broke earlier this year, they’ve lost over $200 Billion in market cap.  Even for Facebook, that’s a lot of money.


Executives at GE were too busy engaging in “success theater” to deal with the very real problems the industrial giant was facing.  Now they’re on their third CEO in just over a year and they’re selling any assets they can to raise cash. To add insult to injury, they got booted from the Dow Jones Industrial Average after over 100 years.  That tells you something.


These are large, well-known companies that looked successful and well-run from the outside. How does stuff like this happen?


The Tyranny of Being Positive


In my work, I get the chance to hear the unvarnished truth about people’s experience inside their companies.  There’s a sense in so many of these organizations, that your public face has to be unflaggingly positive to be considered a team player.


This dynamic shows up in ridiculous managerial clichés like “don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions” or “there are no problems – only opportunities”.  People are praised for portraying confidence and having “a positive attitude”. We’ve all heard it and seen it.


The intent behind these things is understandable, but the bad results are predictable: People don’t raise problems if they don’t have the solution.  Status reports are filtered through rose colored glasses. People sit in meetings putting a good face on for each other, while each of them privately knows things aren’t going so well.  Of course, It’s pretty hard to address the real challenges our businesses face, when we can’t talk about them, or even acknowledge that they exist.  That is, until it’s too late.


It also shows up in the treatment people receive when they do raise problems.  Too often they are punished, marginalized, and even fired. Those examples, and a few not-so-subtle references to “getting on the bus”, serve to silence everybody else.  Before long, we’re left with a bunch of leaders who are very positive publicly, but only share their real concerns in the hall after the meeting or over lunch with their close colleagues.  The problems get driven underground and it’s pretty tough to bring them into the light when doing so might be a career limiting move.


It’s worth pointing out, that it’s not just junior managers trying to curry favor with their bosses.  Once I was working with a Fortune 500 company on a hi-po program tied to their new corporate strategy.  While interviewing the c-suite for the needs assessment, about a third of them admitted to me that they didn’t believe the strategy would work.  Of course, they didn’t say that publicly.  And they’re not alone.  According to Don Sull at MIT only 50% of top team members are aligned on core business strategy.  Yet, even the most senior people in the organization don’t feel like they can talk about that problem.


Your Organization Needs a Problem-Solving Culture


As long as avoiding problems is the norm, your organization can expect to fall short on growth and innovation, even as you spend lots of time and energy working on stuff that doesn’t really matter.  Your company needs a problem-solving culture. A culture where problems are openly discussed, especially when the solutions aren’t yet apparent, or people disagree on the right course of action. A culture where the important issues are taken on, even in the face of risk and uncertainty.   A culture where the people closest to the problems feel they can engage others in understanding them and working through them together.


But, if the picture is so bleak,  how do we build a problem-solving culture?


It’s important to remember that corporate culture is not determined by the posters you put on the wall, or the values statement some SWAT team wordsmithed at an executive retreat.  Corporate culture is about group norms. What are the actual behaviors and practices that happen every day in your organization?  Which of them are reinforced by the group and which are not?


So, changing the culture isn’t about some kind of mystical transformation process or shouting slogans from a mountaintop.  It’s about changing specific behaviors and practices. If we change them at a critical mass and for long enough, then they become part of the self-reinforcing culture.