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

Dec 5, 2018

In Part 1 of this article, we discussed the challenge of building a problem-solving culture. We pointed out that 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.

In Part 2 we want to share three suggestions from our experience working with leaders across organizations and industries.

In that spirit, here are three suggestions from our experience working with leaders across organizations and industries:

  1. Problems Before Solutions

Leader behavior is incredibly important.  Leaders model the culture for the rest of the organization and they control the levers of reinforcement for the people on their teams.  So, we work with leaders to recognize the bad habits that blunt their effectiveness and the good habits that they need to foster.

One of the most common bad habits we see everywhere is jumping to action too quickly.  It’s understandable. Your leaders have experience and good ideas. You’ve always rewarded them for taking charge. Heck, there’s a good chance your competency model contains the words “bias for action” somewhere.   

Of course, we all want to get things done and there’s often time pressure.  But, we’re so eager to get to the solution that we skip over important steps.  As a result, we get the opposite of what we intend. Our solutions don’t work because they’re half-baked and people aren’t bought in.

To build a problem-solving culture, leaders should insist on talking about problems before talking about solutions.  They need to do it themselves and they need to set the same expectation for their teams.

  • It makes it ok to talk about important problems earlier, when we don’t yet know how to solve them.  When we talk about problems earlier, we have a much better chance of intervening effectively, because we have time on our side.
  • It increases solution quality, when we have a better understanding of the problem.  That sounds painfully obvious, but we’ve all been in situations where initiatives failed for reasons we should have known at the beginning, if we had taken the time to talk about the situation in any depth.
  • It prevents us from wasting time on solutions to problems that don’t really exist or aren’t important enough to warrant the effort.  If we’re honest, that’s a significant portion of the energy wasted in most of our companies.
  1. Create Space for Problem-Solving

Even when leaders do a better job talking about problems, people can be hesitant to initiate the conversations.  Agendas for routine meetings are frequently so packed with status updates and operational minutia, that it can feel very uncomfortable being the one to raise a problem.  There’s still that fear that the organization will kill the messenger. At the very least, it rarely feels like the right time to interrupt.

Leaders can create space for problem solving by specifically dedicating time to it. Whether that is carving out space on recurrent agendas or creating a forum specifically for raising emerging problems, the key is to hold that time sacred.  Doing that doesn’t just give permission to raise issues, it actually creates the expectation that everyone should be doing it.

This is especially effective when leaders convene relevant stakeholders from across the company.  Many of our thorniest problems cut cross organizational lines. We need multiple perspectives to fully understand these problems and we need expertise and resources from across the organization to solve them.  Leaders can use their convening power to pull together these cross-functional groups and ensure that their time is focused on addressing the important issues.

In our leadership workshops, we actually ask  participants to bring in challenging problems and to work through them live with cross-functional peers.  That’s one way of creating a venue for important work to get done. We also work with senior leadership teams, to transform their meetings from exercises in organizational theater and rubber stamping, to places where the real problems and opportunities facing the business can be discussed.  Those are two important ways to create space, but you can find many more.

  1. Reward and Recognize the Problem Spotters

We’re often good at rewarding the people who implement solutions, but not the people who spot the problems.  In fact, there’s usually at least a subtle penalty for raising tough issues. To be fair, nobody wants to encourage a bunch of petty whining or nit-picking.  But, raising the real problems that the business needs to face, takes a special kind of courage.  It’s hard and risky work. The people who step up to do that, knowing that they’ll take some hits in the process, are people who care about doing the right thing and moving the business forward.

We need to do a better job recognizing and rewarding their efforts.  It may be difficult to tie that directly to comp. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be reflected in a performance assessment, included in talent reviews and succession, weighed seriously when giving out important project assignments, and so on.  There are a lot of ways to recognize and reward if we think about it broadly enough.

However, one of the simplest and most effective is available to each and every one of your leaders any time they want: positive verbal reinforcement.  So, the next time someone on your team raises a real tough problem, stop and think. Don’t silence them. Don’t give them the death stare or marginalize them to the “parking lot”. Instead, say something like this:

Thank you.  I’m glad you raised that problem, because it’s important and we need to address it as a team.  Tell me more.

Now, the first time you say it, they might not believe you.  But after you do it a few times, you’ll be surprised how such that simple act can help you build a problem-solving culture on your team.