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Problem Solving for Inveterate Fixers

Problem Solving for Inveterate Fixers

How CIOs can find the right solution for the real problem

Nowadays, having a solution is viewed as the key to solving a problem. But what happens if we are applying solutions to the wrong problems? How do we always know what the real problem is, especially if it involves murky areas like staff morale, employee conflict or poor communication? For people who pride themselves on fixing things and having the answers, sometimes the best way to identify and solve these problems is to give their solution-providing reflexes a little vacation. This requires patience and the will to resist the pull of our 24/7, deadline-driven world. It is worth the effort, though, because the wrong solution can be more costly than taking extra time to find the right one.

I once knew a CIO who was concerned about the communication behaviour of his direct reports. They were hard workers, but were reluctant to contribute their thoughts and opinions at meetings and resisted collaborating and sharing ideas with one another when working on teams. They seemed to prefer taking on projects and working with their own staff in isolation. Incidents marked by miscommunication and misunderstandings among his staff were increasing, and he found himself spending more of his time managing the resulting conflicts. This was becoming a problem and beginning to affect his department's productivity and customer service, not to mention employee morale.

This CIO had made his way professionally by finding answers. He was a fixer, a solution provider who had learned that ignoring a problem was the worst way to solve it. He decided he was going to fix this communication problem. He was going to get his staff some communication training.

No doubt communication training is a solution, but is it the right solution for this CIO's problem? More significantly, has he even identified the real problem?

In my experience, one of the most effective methods for solving problems requires that we allow ourselves to have no answers - that we defy the urgent pressure to provide a solution and instead make time for questions. The power of questions lies in the ability of the right question to lead you to a new perspective. The process of inquiry calls for leaders to invest more time up front seeking to understand the problem in order to find a solution that delivers better outcomes. It also requires that they abide by the number-one rule of effective problem solving: Never exempt oneself from the problem or the solution.

Here are five steps to finding the right problem and its solution:

1. Generate open-ended, expansive questions about the observable data. Open-ended questions cannot be answered by "yes" or "no". They generally start with words like how, what, where and when, and invite a number of potentially diverse responses. Expansive questions are designed to seek a broader perspective about the issue or topic. The objective at this stage is simply to generate good questions, not to answer them. To that end, it is very important for those compulsive solution providers out there to put aside any thoughts about the fix, to resist answering questions, and stay open to new perspectives and ideas.

My friend the CIO might choose to describe to his staff the behaviour he has observed and ask them to write down the kinds of questions that will help them all think more broadly and deeply about the situation. As the questions are submitted, he could read them aloud (without attribution) and ask the group members to add to the list. And he would participate, asking questions to broaden his own thinking about the perceived problem. Consider these examples:

• How do we want our work environment to function?

• How is communication an issue?

• What gets in the way of our being able to communicate effectively across team lines?

• How else might we think about this problem?

• Where might we focus our attention differently?

• As leader, what am I doing, or not doing, that helps or hinders good communication?

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