How well do you solve complex problems?
Would your leader agree?
What decision-making tools do you use?
It’s impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so very ingenious.
In real life, there are countless problems waiting for you to resolve. It’s about making choices that range from the mundane to the life-changing. The most important first step is to accurately identify the real problem, rather than the symptom of the problem. Then you’ll gather all the facts and make any needed assumptions. Now, you’ll list all your possible solutions by Brainstorming. You’ll now need to test your possible solutions using Screening and Evaluative Criteria.
Then you’ll select (Decision Making) the BEST solution among competing alternatives, but you’re not done yet. You still need to create your Plan of Action (POA), implement your Plan of Action (POA), and then assess process and results. Sounds easy, but it’s not.
Most people make serious decisions based on their emotions or a gut feeling. This normally turns out to be a mistake – especially when they begin to see and live with the results.
Here are a few suggestions on how to enhance your ability to resolve problems.
Effective people prevent problems from occurring in the first place. Years ago, I asked my wrestling coach how I could counter a wrestling move, and I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “Don’t get into that situation to begin with – don’t let your opponent use that particular move on you.” The best way to prevent problems is to not put yourself in that situation in the first place.
How do you do that? Have you ever delegated a project to a team member, only to find out later that he didn’t fully understand what you asked him to do? If not, you will. This is why it’s important to have a Corrective Action, Preventive Action (or CAPA) program.
Effective people know that CAPA improves their unit’s processes by eliminating the causes of problems. It focuses on the systematic investigation of the root-causes of problems to prevent the occurrence (Preventive Action – before the fact), or recurrence (Corrective Action – after the fact). To ensure Corrective and Preventive Actions are effective, the systematic investigation of the root-causes of problems is critical. How can you avoid most if not all your future problems and mistakes? Keep reading!
A mistake or defect is not a problem if you identify
and resolve it before your leader discovers it.
Preventive Actions are implemented in response to potential root-causes of problems. What systems do you have in place to catch problems before they leave your unit?
Check and Check the Checker
Do you need periodic (daily, weekly, monthly) internal inspections, visits, checks, and assessments with reports given to you? What systems (process, procedure, test, and checks) do you have in place to identify the causes of problems before they occur (Preventive Action)?
Murphy’s Law Reinforced:
If anything can possibly go wrong, it will – at the worst possible time.
Being a firm believer in Murphy’s Law, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to overcome it.
Use All Applicable PREVENTIVE ACTIONS
Preventive Actions are actions planned and conducted 30-60-90 days in advance of a project’s start, added to the project’s time table, to identify and resolve problems early on to enhance the success of a project.
Preventive Actions are designed to identify all the Pre-Problems (mistakes, defects, short-falls, omissions, and errors) before they become problems. Rehearsals are powerful. What do you need to physically see, test, or practice a few days before you start? Do you need to preview or rehearse anything before the event/activity? Who is reviewing documents, correspondence, or handouts to see if they make sense and are correct? Even criminals have rehearsals.
Warning: Don’t ask if everything is okay or if they’re ready. Just say, I want to see it! What’s stopping you? If you fail to use these Preventive Actions, do so at your own peril.
ELEVATE Problems you Can’t Resolve
What about problems you Can’t Resolve? Have you ever run into a brick wall trying to solve a problem? Most folks have. Here’s an idea. When you encounter a problem that’s beyond your ability or resources to solve, elevate it to your leader, ASAP! Elevate your problems! Don’t let your fear or pride stop you from asking your leader for help. This is done primarily because your leader has more resources than you do. By elevating the problem to his leader, he can modify the project, assign the problem (or a portion) to someone else, or assign more resources to you to solve the problem.
Asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.
Also, if you fail to elevate, and the project goes bad, you’ll have committed the Sin of Omission, which is failing to do or say what you should have. Your credibility, not to mention your reputation, will be damaged.
What if you Can’t Complete your Project?
As soon as you determine you can’t fulfill a project, your duty bound to tell your leader, As Soon As Possible (ASAP). He’s counting on you to deliver. If you’re not available at that time or you feel you don’t have the ability or resources, tell your leader! Don’t just blindly accept the project when you know you can’t deliver. Can you fulfill all you’re being asked or expected to do? If not, speak up!
If you can’t be there at the time the project starts, ensure you have your #2-Person or a trusted team member to fill in for you until you return. Don’t drop a project or problem on your leader at the last minute. Prepare someone else to take over for you. Let your leader know all your Unresolved Issues and changes, as they occur – before you become overwhelmed. You don’t want to surprise or let your leader down.
If you run into a problem you can’t solve, tell your leader immediately and recommend what needs to be done to resolve it. If you, or your team, ever become overwhelmed by a project, pause, take a deep breath, and ask your leader for help.
Ask your leader for an extension, to modify/negotiate/alter the scope of the project, that additional resources be assigned to complete the project, or that some tasks be either canceled, reassigned, rescheduled, or postponed. Give your leader options of thing that could help.
What if one of your Team Member is Sick or has a Family Emergency?
If one of your team members can’t participate at the last moment before a project starts (death in the family or auto accident), find out what tasks have been completed and what tasks remain undone. Armed with this knowledge, pass this to another team member. To ensure everything else gets done, always retain your Flexibility to Respond. The important thing here is to ensure someone else is assigned to pick up where the previous person left off. Flexibility to Respond is the leader’s freedom of action to check on what’s happening, to identify and resolve problems, to remain responsive to his leader, to conduct his leader only inherent duties, and to respond in case a team member needs help. The leader must be free to roam and reposition his members, equipment, money, or supplies to where they’re needed most. Being a leader means being on site prior to the execution to supervise, direct, and resolve problems.
What if a Team Member is Struggling?
Ever have a project go bad? We all have! Some things may not get done the way they were planned. So, what do you do? True failure only occurs if you give up! So, hang in there and do your best! Most bad things that happen are undesirable outcomes or learning experiences, but not failures. Besides, there are plenty of members involved to ensure things don’t get too far off track. If things don’t arrive on time, ask your team member for an explanation. Hold him accountable. He needs to find the answer, not you. Don’t let him off the hook. How will he resolve this short-fall? Let him figure it out.
If your Team Member fails – YOU Failed!
Ask him to create a POA to resolve the problem and Backbrief you on his plan. But, don’t perform this task for him. Let him struggle. Struggle is good! He won’t develop his skills if you do his job.
Effective leader’s resist the urge to immediately resolve their member’s problems.
After your team member has done all he can do, coach him through the solution, but don’t take it from him and do it yourself. And, occasionally, someone who has come through in the past, will drop-the-ball on a project. It happens. And, if it does, remember we’re all volunteers in this great game called life. The personal relationship is more important than the project. Few mistakes endanger life or cause serious financial loss. This too shall pass. Learn from your mistakes and get better every day.
All this is good, but what can you do to correct problems once they’re identified?
It’s impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so very ingenious.
Now you have a problem, what can you do? Effective leaders know that Corrective Actions are actions implemented in response to problems like customer complaints, problems identified during an internal audit, or adverse or unstable trends in product and process monitoring. What systems (processes, procedures, or checks) do you have in place to correct problems once identified? Here are a few suggestions.
Conduct a PROBLEM RESOLUTION MEETING
A Problem Resolution Meeting (PRM) is designed to address emergencies and serious problems that just surfaced. To make good decisions, you need good information. Separate facts from opinions and speculation. A fact is verifiable or vetted information.
During any PRM, seek good answers to these questions:
Assess the Situation:
- What’s the situation and how do we know for sure?
- Tell me what you know and tell me what you don’t know
- Tell me what you think? What’s your best hunch?
- What’s your intuition telling you?
- What are our risks (danger or vulnerability)?
- Any fatalities, injuries, or property loss/damage?
- What caused it to happen? (Root-cause)
- Do we have someone on the ground?
- What are our facts and assumptions?
Inform your leader:
- Who else needs to know what we’re doing (chain-of-authority, family members)?
- Who else can help? (Fire, police, medical, legal, PR, etc.)
Determine your options: Use the Problem-Solving Process.
- What are all our Options? Brainstorm
- Do they pass the Common-Sense Test?
- What are their advantages and disadvantages?
- How much time do we have and how much time do we need?
- Do we have what we need (any short-falls)?
- When is it too late? Once we decide, how will it take to act?
Select the Best Options:
- Which option is best?
- Do we have consensus? If not, why?
Create a Plan of Action:
- What’s our Plan of Action? Who does what, when, where, and how?
- What tasks need to be accomplished? Who’s In-Charge?
- What are the Unintended Consequences and 2d and 3d Order Effects?
- Do we need to set up an Operations Center until this is over?
- Who else should we be talking to? (Legal, disaster recovery, insurance, etc.)
- Who has faced this situation before?
- When do we meet again to reassess this situation?
Take Decisive Action!
- Give new instructions to team members
- Supervise the execution to ensure the problem is resolved (how ensure this never happens again)
- Follow through with your leader
Reassess the Situation:
Return and Report the situation to your leader and explain what needs to be done to ensure this doesn’t happen again: Ensure you keep a documented Time-line of what happened and when it happened for investigative/legal purposes later.
Use the “ESSENCE OF A FINDING”
The Essence of a Finding here refers to something that was identified to be a problem that needs to be corrected. The Essence of a Finding is a systematic process of documenting, tracking, and following up on problems to ensure they ALL get resolved. Don’t let problems slip-thru-the-crack (get forgotten).
Here are the most important components of an Essence of a Finding:
- Problem #2214: for tracking
- Standard: What is the standard?
- Condition: What was found or observed?
- Cause: What is the root-cause of this condition?
- Effect: What is the risk, danger, or vulnerability of this condition?
- Recommendation: What needs to be done to mitigate or eliminate the root-cause?
- Action: Who, what, when, where, why to correct the problem?
Corrective Actions, Preventive Actions (CAPA) should be part your overall Quality Management System (QMS). Delegate these actions and review them during your weekly meetings.
Making Better Decisions
Have you ever been in the situation of being the one who had to make the final decision on an important issue/problem? How did that make you feel? Did you feel any pressure or anxiety? Here are several suggestions to enhance your ability to make better decisions.
Don’t go it Alone:
Don’t attempt to solve the problem by yourself. Ask your team for their help and input. Seek out and be receptive to advice. Use the Problem-Solving Process and seek consensus from your team. Do your research. You may have to make the final decision by yourself, but you don’t have to solve the problem alone.
Involvement equals Commitment!
You’re taking the time to involve your team because you value their opinion. Keep an open mind because you just might learn something important.
Know the Best Time to Decide:
“The key is not to make quick decisions, but to make timely decisions.”
– Colin Powell
Do you have to make the decision right now? This classic answer to this question is usually, No! However, since humans are impatient, we usually want a decision now, or yesterday. This is rarely necessary. Resist the impulse of making a snap decision when there’s no need to do so. Normally, you’ll have sufficient time to decide. So, when should the decision be made? After you have 40-70% of the information you need, decide, plan, prepare, and execute.
Mistakes, as long as you learn from them,
are the building blocks of greatness.
Adjust later, if the results become unacceptable. If the decision turns out bad, adjust, and remember what you’ve learned for the next time.
Know the Best Person to Decide:
First, leaders decide! Or, at least, take responsibility and ownership of the team’s decision, especially if it turns out bad. Ask members for their input before you decide. Hopefully, you’ll be smart enough to ask for recommendations. Also, if the decision affects everyone in your unit, why can’t all members be given the opportunity to concur or non-concur (with reasons)?
Know the Difference between the Decision and the Result:
There’s a big difference between the decision and the result of the decision. You could be the most talented and experienced decision maker on the planet, and you could make the best decision, but there’s no guarantee that the result will resolve the problem. You can actually make a good decision and the results could still be a disaster because the situation, facts, and assumptions that were available when you first made the decision could (and will) change over time. What was good today could turn out to be bad tomorrow. What a comforting thought!
Does this Decision need the Approval of your Leader?
Have you ever been in a situation where you’re waiting for your leader to approve your decision on internal problem? If the problem is internal, doesn’t require additional resources you don’t have, and is not in conflict with any organizational standards, why are you asking for approval? That’s what he’s paying you to do. But, do let him know. Or, if you’re in doubt, tell your leader when you’ll be making the decision (like the end of the week), and if you don’t hear from him before that time, you’ll be taking action.
Sometimes it’s Better to Ask for Forgiveness,
rather than Permission.
Make sure you tell him why you’ve made your decision.
Use the Best Decision-Making Tools
Leaders decide, Team Members recommend!
In addition to the Problem-Solving Process and consensus building, here are a few additional tools to enhance your ability to make the Best decision.
Use the “Blue Team/Red Team Technique”
The role of the Red Team can vary from one of instructor, evaluator, or Devil’s Advocate depending on what the Decision Maker needs. It’s a variation of the standard Problem-Solving Process and the overall intent is to ensure the Blue Team uses the Problem-Solving Process correctly and completely, continues to test their assumptions, uses the appropriate Decision-Making Tools, and produces the Best Solution possible based on the time and facts available. To do this, the Decision Maker can ask:
- Both Teams to work independently and each presents their solution
- The Red Team to sit in with Blue Team at the end of each step to play Devil’s Advocate
- The Red Team to stay with the Blue Team throughout the process playing Devil’s Advocate
Note: Playing Devil’s Advocate means ensuring the team uses creative thinking & critical reasoning, checks facts and assumptions, achieves consensus, identifies unconscious assumptions, and uses all the problem-solving steps and decision-making tools needed – to achieve the optimal result.
Use “Decision Points”
A Decision Point is a condition that once met, triggers an action be taken. For example, let’s assume you and your unit are responsible for ten major accounts. How low in “Annual Sales” would an account have to get before the decision is made to take some form of action? When is it no longer cost effective to continue doing business with an account that adds little to your bottom-line? In this example, once “Annual Sales” drop below a certain threshold, what action should be taken? What options exist from which to make a choice?
Identify the criterion in advance by carefully considering all the options you have available (like who does what, when?). Carrying this example further, let’s assume you have the following options available for any accounts whose “Annual Sales” numbers drop below the previous year.
Here’s an example of Decision Points:
If Annual Sales Drop Below Previous Year
0 – 5.9 %
Contact client directly
6 – 9.9 %
Set up meeting with client and leader
Set up meeting with client and our CEO
There are many more options that you could create. However, the question remains, what must happen (conditions) before any action is initiated? Ensure this document is Staffed through all team members and approved by the Decision Maker.
Use a “Decision Support Template”
A Decision Support Template (DST) is a table created in advance to help you act more quickly once the decision criterion is known. Have you ever been in the position of being the only one to make the final decision with little or no time to gather information? How did that make you feel? DSTs are used when response time is at a minimum like when making crisis decisions every day from as high as the US President to local Emergency Response Teams.
Most decisions in life aren’t made this way because time is not a concern. But, occasionally, you need a system to help you decide quickly to either open door A or B. Especially, if you know that when it comes time to decide, you’ll have little time to think about it. Think about the decision in advance and prepare a DST.
DST’s normally support and are an appendix to a Contingency Plan. For example, let’s say you need to decide about where the company picnic will be held (either outdoors or indoors). The obvious determining factor is the weather. By talking with last year’s Project Leader, everyone was soaking wet from the rain. Being a student of Murphy’s Law, you decide to reserve both a local park (if good weather) and a local high school gymnasium (if bad weather).
But, here’s the dilemma. You need to make a weather decision because you’ll need at least two hours of setup time for all the food, beverages, and entertainment. You decide to make a final weather decision two-hours before the picnic starts so members will know where to go to set up. How are you going to figure out what the weather’s going to do? You could use the local weather report. But, how accurate are weather reports? You decide to use two different criteria; the local weather report and a spotter on the ground at the picnic site (at a local park).
Here’s an example of a Decision Support Template:
Question: Two hours before the company picnic, is it the Local Park (outside) or the Gymnasium (inside)?
Weather Report from Spotter at Park
Local Weather Report
Local Park (Risk)
Using this DST, only one option (upper right, above) is at Risk. How could you mitigate this risk? Find and reserve a park that has a pavilion or other overhead cover. Ensure this document is Staffed through all team members and that their comments are attached to this document. Now, you’ve beaten Murphy’s Law. Nice work! Let it pour! To avoid surprises, your DST’s and all Contingency Plans need to be approved by your leader.
Use a “Decision Matrix”
A Decision Matrix is a table that arrays raw data to help you select the best option. As in the case below, on the horizontal axis are the five choices/options being considered.
Here’s an example of a Decision Matrix:
Total Cost ($)
Total Time (Days)
# Positive Referrals
You can see (above) that Option A is the Least Expensive and Option B has the Shortest Time to install.
Use an “Authorization Matrix”
An Authorization Matrix is a table created to enable your team members to make decisions in designated situations without your involvement. This drives decision making authority down to the lowest level. Have you ever been told that no one could make a simple decision because they were waiting for you? Or, have you ever decided, only to find that one of your team members had already made the decision yesterday, and you didn’t agree? If you had an authorization matrix, you won’t have to worry about either of these. Your members need to know who’s authorized to make which kinds of decisions. This is where an authorization matrix can help you.
The first step is to list, with the help of your team, all the types of decisions that could be needed in the future. Knowing that some decisions need to be made at the lowest level, decide which decisions you’ll keep for yourself only. Then, create an Authorization Matrix showing what decisions need to be made and who is authorized from your unit to make the decision. Drive decision making authority down to the lowest level. Then, train your team how to make good decisions. Groom them for success.
Here’s an example of an Authorization Matrix:
Who can decide to:
Spend over $1,000
Less than $1,000; anyone on team
Change a requirement
Now, post this matrix for all team members to use. Then, train your members how to make good decisions and support their decisions. Hold them accountable for their decision and the results and give all the credit to them when the decision and the results are good.
“An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments
simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”
– Edward de Bono
In addition to the Problem-Solving Process, collaboration and consensus building, here is one of the six most effective Decision-Making tools to help you make the BEST decision. Remember, these tools will not decide for you.
Use a Decision Paper
If you need additional resources you don’t have (like people, money, or facilities) to solve a problem, you’ll need your leader’s approval before moving forward. To help your leader (or his leader) decide, prepare a Decision Paper.
A Decision Paper is an expedient format used to obtain a decision from a Decision Maker to move your project forward.
A Decision Paper is a document that helps a Decision Maker make BETTER
Decisions and to help you move your work forward.
Here’s a Format for a Decision Paper.
Subject: Briefly state the subject.
Problem: State the problem, issue, short-fall, unknowns, question, or obstacle, in one sentence.
Recommendation: Clearly state what you recommend as the solution.
Discussion: Your discussion explains why you’re recommending this solution by addressing the following:
List all the solutions you considered
List the advantages/disadvantages of each
List any opposing views from team members during Staffing a Document
State why you selected this solution among other options
State the cost and who should pay
State how long this problem will take to fix and when it should be started
State how long we have before this problem becomes a crisis
State any 2d and 3d Order Effects or Unintended Consequences
Ensure this document is staffed through all team members and that their comments are attached to this document. The base document is no more than two pages, with supporting documents summarized and added as appendices.
To be continued: If you’d like to learn more about enhancing your ability to resolve problems and make better decisions with confidence, you can do so by adding this book to your professional library, today!
YOUR GUIDE TO BETTER PROBLEM SOLVING
Here you’ll learn:
Chapter 2: Problem Solving Process
Chapter 3: Preventing Problems
Chapter 4: Correcting Problems
Chapter 5: Making Better Decisions
Chapter 6: Decision Making Tools
Chapter 7: Obstacles to Decision Making
Chapter 8: Solving an Actual Problem
Chapter 9: Advanced Problem Solving with VUCA
You now have the chance to enhance your career by learning how to become more effective tomorrow than you are today.
Or, you can take advantage of our Special Offer below.
To SAVE 75%, purchase The Effectiveness Guide, which contains all 10 Volumes, instead of buying each volume separately.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
CHAPTER 1: BY BECOMING A BETTER FOLLOWER
CHAPTER 2: BY BECOMING A BETTER DELEGATOR
CHAPTER 3: BY BECOMING A BETTER PLANNER
CHAPTER 4: BY BECOMING A BETTER ORGANIZER
CHAPTER 5: BY BECOMING A BETTER COMMUNICATOR
CHAPTER 6: BY BECOMING A BETTER PROBLEM SOLVER
CHAPTER 7: BY ENHANCING YOUR AWARENESS
CHAPTER 8: BY BECOMING A BETTER TRAINER
CHAPTER 9: BY ENHANCING YOUR ABILITY TO MOTIVATE
CHAPTER 10: BY ENHANCING YOUR CHARACTER
APPENDIX A: PLAN OF ACTION EXAMPLE
APPENDIX B: REAL WORLD PROBLEM SOLVING EXAMPLE
APPENDIX C: ADVANCE PROBLEM SOLVING WITH VUCA
APPENDIX D: CAREER ADVICE
APPENDIX E: CREATING MISSION AND VISION STATEMENTS
The Effectiveness Guide is the best investment you’ll ever make in your career.
Also, if you feel this information could help someone else, please take a few moments to let them know. If it turns out to make a difference in their life, they’ll be forever grateful to you – as will I.
Let’s make a difference together – one person at a time!
All the best!
Founder of TheCAREERMaker.com
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The 10 Core Competencies of Effectiveness
Followership | Delegating | Planning | Organizing | Communicating
Problem-Solving | Awareness | Training | Motivating | Character