Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

Seeing Problems as Solutions

Of all the truisms in the world, one that ranks high on most lists is – stuff happens!  Sometimes it’s because people screw things up.  Sometimes it’s because things screw up people. Other times, it’s hard to tell who or what screwed things up, and yet other times, it’s just one of those things.

Whatever the cause may be, it’s inevitable that something will go wrong sometime, somehow, somewhere, despite even the most vigilant preventive measures to safeguard against “stuff happening.”  Most of the time, people eventually get past their upset and search for ways to solve the problem, but how successfully they do that depends on a couple of key conditions:

  1. How much time they waste and how much damage they do in fault-finding and finger-pointing
  2. How open they are to seeing a potential solution in the problem itself

Handling Problems with People
When people are at the root of a mistake, reactions and repercussions can run the gamut from sympathetic to scathing and everything in between.  Given the nature of human beings and the natural desire to fix things when they go wrong, the most constructive and productive response is to treat people NOT as the cause of the problem, but rather as the source of the solution.

Here’s why.  When people are treated as the cause of a problem, they experience a range of debilitating emotions – especially defensiveness.  Assuming the person who caused the flub is perhaps in a good position to help solve it, how can they possibly do their best work when they’re feeling defensive?  On the flip side, if people feel like they are viewed as a positive solution, they are more eager to assume responsibility for fixing the problem, not to mention more likely to make things right.

Handling Problems with Situations
When a situation is at the heart of a problem, it can trigger an alarmist response that makes it difficult to explore an effective range of solutions.  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It,” offers a compelling example.

When the Titanic struck an iceberg that doomed more than 1,500 passengers to an icy death, it appears that no one considered the iceberg itself not just a hazard, but a potential safe haven  – a 400-foot long floating island where life boats might have ferried virtually everyone on board.  In part, that’s because it was viewed as the cause of the disaster, instead of a possible source of the solution.

Psychologists have a name for that kind of “blindness” to offbeat and counterintuitive ways of looking at how things work – functional fixedness.  When it comes to problem-solving in the business world, most organizations are caught in an array of mental biases that limit people’s views on how to survive and thrive, especially in the midst of a crisis.

To overcome functional fixedness, the authors of the HBR article offer a method for changing how an object is described by breaking things down to their elemental components, using what they call a “generic parts technique.”

With any given item, they ask two questions: “Can it be broken down further?” and “Does our description imply a particular use?” If the answer to either question is yes, you keep breaking down the elements to their most basic descriptions. If you are in urgent need of a string, for example, using this technique can help you see a candle as a source of the solution because you’re not stuck in the functional fixedness of seeing the wick solely as something you burn to give light or create a romantic mood.

Not all solutions can be found in the problems themselves, but organizations can gain at least two substantial benefits if they start the recovery effort by focusing on that possibility. First, when employees mess up, they will be in a better state of mind to rectify their own mistakes if they’re not looking over their shoulder worrying if they’re going to get chewed out or fired.  Second, when a crisis strikes, people are less likely to be seized by an alarmist reaction that clouds their ability to look more expansively and creatively at an array of solutions to the problem.

How do you create a culture where people are viewed as solution sources?  We help management kick-start the process with our Accelerated Continuous Improvement program. For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497

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