Abraham Maslow, famous for his theory of the “Hierarchy of Human Needs”, also had this to say about problem solving: “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

I have known no managers who had only one management tool in their kit bag, although I have known quite a few who seemed to love the hammer above all others. I have, however, known quite a few managers — tools aside — who have had considerable difficulty sorting out precisely what the real issue or issues were in a given situation and were, therefore, somewhat at a loss to select the right management tool needed for the occasion.

Occasionally a problem confronting a manager is fairly simple and straight forward.  The real issue stares you right in the face.  Such focus immediately directs our attention toward the action or actions required.  More often than not, however, the form or words used to present the problem obscures underlying or associated issues, or overly dramatizes one particular facet that immediately dominates our attention.

For example, in my management workshops, participants intellectually wrestle with a number of management situations, each confronting them with a series of issues requiring their attention.  One of my favorites involves the receipt of a phone call from a parent or spouse of a subordinate questioning the quality and fairness of a performance evaluation you recently gave that subordinate.  While the call is its own surprise, so is the insinuation of unfairness in what you thought was a solid, balanced evaluation well received by the subordinate.

While there are several important issues buried in this scenario, many irate workshop participants immediately wish to confront the subordinate regarding the phone call, ignoring everything else, including the fact that they are still on the phone.  Their immediate — although not the most important —  problem is to carefully consider what they can and can not say to anyone else about a private, professional performance evaluation and then to end the call as quickly as possible.

The best managers understand that management is a deeply analytical profession.  Solving problems demands an ability to accurately diagnosis situations, an appreciation for the full range of issues involved, and the ability to prioritize the best sequence of actions to address each of the issues identified.

So start by sifting through the problem or situation as presented to identify the real issue or issues involved.  What are those specific things within your authority and responsibility that you will need to address?  Once identified, ask yourself which issues are the most important and in what order should they be addressed?  Protect yourself from the danger of untested assumptions, by reminding yourself that a search for facts is a great place to begin when confronting any problem.

Next, for every element of a problem you intend to confront, achieve clarity on your precise end goal.  That is, at the end of the day when all is said and done, what is your desired outcome.  In an earlier article in this series focused on what I call the “Strategic Triangle”, I refer to this as knowing your “Commander’s Intent”.  Lacking clarity about your exact problem solving intent, conjures up the old saying that “if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there”?

Of course you may decide to alter your intended outcome as you dig into a problem.  But an altered outcome is still a known destination you plan to reach.

With the real issue or issues contained in a problem clearly understood and with your “commander’s intent” firmly in mind, selecting an approach to the problem that maximizes your chances of achieving your goal are significantly improved.  Those who shoot from the hip without much forethought occasionally hit their target but the ready, fire, aim approach is also known for its frequent collateral damage.  The best managers, however, know that the up-front analytic work described above significantly increases their success odds.  Selecting the right management tool absolutely requires that you first understand the real problem you intend to fix.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading, Self-Management

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3 replies

  1. First let me express my gratitude to this well presented article. Terry you did well in presenting problem-solving as tool in effective management of any organization. More often than don’t managers fall into a trap of thinking that they are well vested with problem-solving After reading this article I have noted that an effective approach of problem-solving is hierarchical like you gave an example Maslow’s theory. I do concur with you that it is important to identify the root cause of the problem/s, then you move on in a step by step approach to solve the problem/s.

  2. Great article, I like the comment about ‘assumptions’ they can be a huge issue when identifying the root cause of an issue and should be avoided / validated wherever possible. Like with everything, it seems there is a time / value reward ration here, but certainly worth consideration.

    Thank you,

  3. This really made me think because so often we can only later figure out what we should have done first. By then, we have reacted and sent a message or solved the wrong problem. I have found that one of the best ways to slow down a solution-oriented person like myself is to ask questions. This gives you time to find out the real problem and sometimes you do not even have to come up with the answer because the other person does it for you.

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