The too hard basket story:
You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight…and another… and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to find the person who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”
Adapted from a parable commonly attributed to Irving Zola.
The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff
Businesses have faced major changes over the past year which has tested our ability to face challenges, adapt quickly and solve problems. In my first career as an occupational therapist (50,000 years ago), one of the first things I learnt was the ‘problem solving process’: define, assess, set goals, plan, execute and evaluate. It’s second nature to me to pull this process out of the bag when faced with problems and last year when cancelled course followed another cancelled course, it was this time honoured framework I turned to. It led me to thinking more about ways to solve problems, especially the big, hairy, intractable issues that businesses often face.
In his book ‘Upstream‘, Dan Heath takes a new look at an old concept: whether to build a fence at the top of a cliff to prevent people falling or to provide an ambulance at the bottom to treat the injuries resulting from falls. What’s new is that Heath has created a formula for building the fence at the top of the cliff – a ‘how to strategy guide’ for business managers and leaders. It’s a refreshing look at taking the adaptive, ‘on the spot’ thinking that we’ve all had to deliver on in the past year and apply it in a deliberate and focused way.
Overcoming the barriers
It all starts with overcoming “that’s just the way it is” thinking to recognise there’s a problem in the first place. Followed closely by “that’s not mine to fix” and “I can’t deal with that right now.” The ‘hit your head on the brick wall’ things in your company that drive your people crazy and your customers out the door. The status quo issues that people blindly accept and seem too complex to fix. Like customer complaints about the same old issue, or resolving the tension about remote working vs being in the office. The problem is passed from production to marketing to managers, tossed in the ‘too hard basket’ where having a ‘bucket list’ takes on a whole new meaning.
Building the fence
So, how to solve these festering issues?
- Build a team. Not just any team. Identify the stakeholders (Hint: use a RACI chart to help) and make sure everyone on that team has a role and knows what that role is. Heath suggests “the philosophy of the ‘more the merrier’ is not sufficient. The core team should be selected more strategically” by surrounding the problem. This means you need to “attract people who can address all the key dimensions of the issue”.
- The mandate: Bring them together, develop the team charter to clarify roles, expectations and how the team will work together, along with a compelling and important goal. Give them ownership of the problem and the authority to make decisions. Clearly outline the problem, ensure they have the data that contains insights for the purpose of learning, along with specific examples of the problem, while avoiding the temptation to give possible solutions or create policy. Clarify what success looks like: do you want them to make recommendations to the leadership team, or are you empowering them to make the decision?
Then let them do their stuff.
Here’s what it looks like
Work from home or the office? During lockdown, many people set up a home office and enjoyed the benefits of working from home. So much so they didn’t want to return to the office. Afterwards, many business leaders were faced with a dilemma – how can we be sure that people are communicating effectively, retain our culture and ensure that the work is getting done when people are working from home?
Building the team
Rather than making a top down decision, one company decided to create a project team to address the issue. They considered who/what was impacted by the decision to work remotely vs work from the office: employees, leaders, employment law, property, cleaning, health and safety, customers and IT services, and set up a core team that would look at the issue from all points of view. They gave the team the mandate to ‘make recommendations to the senior leaders for guidelines for working remotely’, and access to employee survey data and key performance indicators prior, during and following lockdown. To ensure the data wasn’t viewed in isolation, specific examples of employee lifestyle profiles were factored in e.g. single parent of 2 children under 5 years, person under 30 years flatting with others, parent of school aged children, single person living alone, person living with their partner and no children…and so on.
The core team met to develop their team charter and a process for working through the problem. They interviewed people in different living situations across the organisation and analysed the data to determine a set of risk factors. Their recommendations to senior leaders was not a ‘one size fits all’ policy but a series of guidelines and factors to be considered. The outcome was a list of conversation starters and questions for team leaders to have with their team members when discussing working from home. Ultimately, it led to an agreement to change the leadership approach from ‘time in the seat’ to outcomes to be achieved by the end of the week. There are dedicated office days where everyone is expected to be present, and stand-up meetings at the beginning of each week to set weekly goals.
While it remains a work in progress, the company is seeing benefits beyond the initial brief. It has enhanced the conversations leaders have with their team, and built trust across the organisation.
And it ends with a challenge:
Think about a thorny problem you’re grappling with in your business. Perhaps you’ve been putting off addressing it because it seems too hard to deal with. Now try changing the conversation. Instead of saying ‘this is impossible to solve’ try: ‘how can we make it possible?’