Tom Hanks surely would not have imagined that this simple dialog of his from the 1995 Sci-Fi drama ‘Apollo 13’ would become synonymous to problems of epidemic nature and would become such a common phrase used by people from all walks of life, all over the world. Based on the true story of the ill-fated 13th Apollo mission bound for the moon. Astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert were scheduled to fly Apollo 14, but are moved up to 13. It’s 1970, and America have already achieved their lunar landing goal, so there’s little interest in this “routine” flight.. until that is, things go very wrong, and prospects of a safe return fade.

Fortunately though, our businesses and corporations do not have to call mission control with such announcements on a regular basis. We mostly deal with noncritical, nonfatal situations, few of which are blown out of proportion occasionally. It is nevertheless important that despite the severity, recurrence or nature of it, any problem needs to be dealt with timely and aptly to prevent it’s escalation to a catastrophic magnitude.

During a discussion with my Senior Manager Operations on call center performance one day, he suddenly popped a question to me, “How do you go about solving a problem when someone approaches you with one?” Ordinarily, this would have been a difficult question to answer off the cuff. I guess problem solving is more of an experiential learning than a text book method to be followed.

Here is what I said to him, “It’s not that difficult, I first step into the shoes of the person to try and understand why this issue is such a problem for him and how it might be affecting him. Then I encourage him to give a solution, discuss the solution and finally appreciate him for the effort.”

“Is that it?”

“No.” I said, “There is another small detail, sometimes you have to align the person to the solution or vise versa.”

The science and methods of problem solving techniques have been researched extensively and hold their validity and usefulness. Complex, fundamental level problems need a systematic and scientific approach, deliberations, consultation, statistical analysis, in short, every trick in the book to arrive at a solution. Most of the degree courses in Business Administration, courses like Six Sigma, Kaizen cover the aspects of problem solving through tools like the 5 Why Analysis, Ishikawa (Cause and Effect or Fishbone Analysis) etc. Problems requiring such an intervention are however not routine and approaches to resolving them are specific and high level.

The People Connect
In managing a process and a team, it is the dexterity of resolving the routine, day to day issues that count the most. The issues a manager invariably needs to deal with on a daily basis are more at ‘people level’ than at the process or fundamental level. These problems usually are situational, circumstantial or person specific and could be affecting someone at an emotional level, professional level or maybe both. Quite often you would find that when someone approaches you with a problem, it would involve another person. An issue may seem trivial and the inclination to put it aside for a later time may be strong but delays and inappropriate handling of such issues have a direct impact on the individual’s morale and productivity. Instances of attrition predicated on dissatisfaction in the employee’s mind on account of a mishandled issue are not uncommon.

In my experience over the years with people with varying experiences, qualifications and maturity levels, I have realized that dealing with the ‘person’ in the problem is, at times, more important than dealing with the person’s problem. Quite often it is the individual’s perception that needs attention and not so much the problem itself. It just might be that there isn’t a problem at all, only a perception of a situation or event as a problem. False perceptions have an uncanny habit of gathering reinforcement with astonishing tenacity if the team is not given the confidence that they can approach their reporting manager or skip level managers anytime if they have a problem. Sans this freedom and confidence, people try to seek redressal from peers and invariably end up a tad more confused, concerned and negative about their perceived situation.

Another flip side to such peer redressal is the infelicitous transfer of a misplaced perception that can vitiate an entire lot of individuals and catapult the situation to levels warranting damage control measures. It is therefore very essential for the managers to give the confidence to their teams that they are approachable and to encourage the practice of ‘consultation before conclusion’ among team members.

Before diving into my recommended approach for dealing with routine issues, I would like to emphasize on two relevant and significant aspects that generally elude many. Firstly, if there is a steady footfall of people in your office for mundane issues or seeking your concurrence for every action of their’s, I would say you have gone wrong somewhere in exercising your leadership effectively. Secondly, the kind of issues your subordinates bring to you are a good indication of their competence, confidence and level of involvement in their job. Both these aspects would get clearer in the succeeding paragraphs.

Teach to Fish
I have always been an ardent follower of the ‘teaching a man to fish’ philosophy and it applies so aptly to creating an efficient, productive environment in the company. In everyday working of an organization, a significant number of issues would not even surface if there is proper coordination, cooperation and communication at intra and interdepartmental levels. Everyone knows this yet unfortunately, it needs to be driven. This was the first aspect I set out to change when I started managing SEIPL. Couple of weeks into the chair, I realized that the influx of HoDs into my cabin with issues relating to other departments or their subordinates was unusually high. I was spending a lot my productive hours coordinating issues between departments or resolving them with their subordinates. As a result my own to-do list piled up sky high.

Basically it was the lack of coordination, cooperation and communication at every level that caused the beeline at my cabin. People went about doing their jobs in isolated pockets expecting a synergy in the outcome at the organizational level. There was a rampant tendency to knock the superior’s door of anything and everything. All roads led to Rome.

A simple method of asking the managers to discuss issues amongst themselves, before coming to me, altered the entire situation. Old habits do die hard and I had to drive it for a while with conscious efforts. It took regular counseling, some admonishing, a lot of encouragement and giving the confidence that taking decisions is alright, to bring in the change.

A monthly ‘only HoDs’ meeting was started and everyone was encouraged to be vociferous in this open forum. No one chaired the meeting and the HoDs thrashed out their issues across the conference room table. After a month or so, the knocks on my door reduced dramatically, communication and cooperation improved and relationships between people started getting better as they continued interacting and understanding each other.

The move from ‘giving a man a fish’ or tackling their issues for them to ‘teaching them to fish’ or inculcating the habit of communicating and coordinating to resolve issues themselves, provided the sustained and stable solution that not only increased efficiency but also brought the departments together. The cog wheels started turning in sync. The most significant change was that as people communicated, shared their issues and worked together to resolve them, they automatically transcended their thought process towards achieving team objectives and in turn organizational goals. The change in language from I, Me, My to We, Us, Ours became pleasantly apparent.

A Caveat
Accountability stems from commitment and engagement. Effective managers and leaders not only feel accountable but they are also risk takers. Breakthrough teams across the globe have been led by people who take risks and encourage the behavior with their team members. Taking risks is about taking immediate actions, on spot decisions in the best interest of the organization when there is a necessity and not wait to first pop it to a superior for an approval. Just to recall, I am referring to matters/issues of routine nature and general KRAs here, not fundamental level issues.

Individual’s competence breeds the confidence for such behavior which is further supported by a culture that provides autonomy and authority to it’s frontline leadership. The caveat here is to watch for those who still approach you for your consent for every small decision or action on the regular and routine issues despite the empowerment given to them. It is either professional incompetence or unwillingness to be held accountable or both, that prompts such a behavior. Efficient and productive teams seldom have such leaders, in other words, such leaders will rarely produce efficient and productive teams.

Prolific use of the singular pronoun ‘they’ by a manager to refer to his team, is an indicator of the manager’s proclivity to transfer onus away for any undesirable result or outcome. The keyword here is ‘prolific’. I would advise you to not be judgemental and observe over a few interactions before making an opinion.

In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), this translates into an individual’s tendency to operate solo and feel accountable for his own actions alone. Whether it is the impulse to project one’s own proficiency and/or a self-centered concern for proving one’s own competence, the ‘I did right but they did not’ attitude is not good for the team’s performance. Interestingly the ‘they’ changes to ‘we’ with such people when things go right or when the objective is achieved.

Bringing a change in such an attitude requires a paradigm shift, a change in thought process that is not so easy to come by. Counseling and personal coaching surely helps provided the individual is willing and intrinsically motivated towards the change.

The 3E Approach
The 3E approach to solving the regular issues is a fairly simple yet effective approach to problem solving and teaching it to your span. The 3E’s stand for:

  • Engage
  • Encourage
  • Elevate

The transformations that the 3E method brings about are multiple. As you apply the method, there would be increased collaboration, communication and creative flow of thoughts among the span. It encourages innovation and out of the box thinking in finding solutions to the mundane, day to day operational issues faced by any organization.

Step 1 – Listen: The first step deals with the people connect aspect by involving the person in the solution finding process. When you are approached for a solution, the most important thing to do is to listen. By listen I mean, really listen, without letting the mind go into the processing mode of finding a solution as soon as you have heard the opening sentence. It would take a little effort and training your mind to do that but it is not really that difficult to accomplish. The disadvantage of letting the mind work on the solution, even before you have heard the person out completely is that as your mind gets busy formulating a solution, you are no longer listening to the person. You are already preparing to give your response, forming those sentences at the back of your mind to deliver your response. That is how our brain works, one thing at a time, no multi tasking. In the bargain you also tend to miss out on the entire information related to the problem and more importantly you would not involve the individual in the solution finding process.

Step 2 – Involve: If you have listened to the person carefully, you would have a fair idea how the issue is affecting the person (emotionally, professionally or both) and whether the issue is situational, circumstantial or purely personal. If you are unclear about any aspect, go ahead and ask leading questions to understand the cause and effect of the problem. We have not talked about any solution yet and we won’t. Reason is that we want to engage the individual in the process rather than giving a solution right away. You would surely have all the answers worked out by this time in your mind but if you want the individual to learn to resolve issues on his own, the key is to hold your horses and not be in a hurry to offer a solution.

Now is the time to ask a few questions to get the individual involved. Here are some questions that can help:

a) How do you suggest we can resolve this efficiently and quickly?
b) I am sure you would have thought about it, what solution do you have in mind?
c) What should be our approach in resolving this?

By asking questions like these, you are achieving a couple of things simultaneously viz. involving the person in the process, conveying a message that his opinion is valued and prompting him to think a solution (if he has not done so already). Question b) is a way of communicating the message that he is expected to think of options as well before approaching for a solution. Notice the use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ in the questions indicating “it’s not just your problem, I am with you on this so let’s work together”.

When the issue involves another department or individual, a question like “What did the (department/individual in question) say when you discussed it with them/him/her?” If you get a response that it has not been discussed, it is the perfect opportunity to lay the emphasis on communicating and collaborating through self affirmation. Put forth a question “I am quite confident that (the department/individual in question) will have some suggestion if you talked about this, don’t you think it might help?” or “Don’t you agree it might be a good idea to discuss this once with (department/individual in question)?” The answer to these questions would mostly be ‘Yes’ (self affirmation).

Once again, through the first question, you have made clear the expectation of a mutual discussion between the parties before approaching with a problem and the self affirmation aspect of the questions will ensure that a discussion between the parties happen since no one likes to contradict himself. In all probability, the issue would get resolved when it is discussed between the concerned parties and it would rarely come back to you.

Thus through this step in the 3E process you would have achieved the following:

  1. Teaching the individual that it is important to think of solutions as well instead of just looking for readymade answers.
  2. Prompt the individual to start applying his/her mind on solutions rather than getting worked up about the problem alone.
  3. Teaching the individual that more often than not, matters get resolved through a simple mutual discussion with concerned people (communicating and collaborating).
  4. Clearly laying out the expectation that every individual is required to think a solution through and/or collaborate before approaching with a problem.

Appreciation is to human mind what water is to fish. We thrive and flourish on appreciation. It is the most effective and longest lasting intrinsic motivator. This is really not an esoteric fact yet it is surprising how widely it is missed by most and so often. We never forget to toss a biscuit to or pat our dog when he does a roll or barks on our command but, and  sadly so, we seldom remember to appreciate our fellow human beings for their efforts. Especially when it comes to a work environment, there is an overbearing propensity to consider what people do routinely, as something that does not deserve appreciation since it is considered to be in line with what they are supposed to do.

The next move therefore in the 3E method is to encourage and appreciate the individual for working with you in resolving the issue. The predication here is a positive reinforcement of the person’s ability to resolve issues on his own. If you find that the individual is hovering around the solution you think is right and is unable to pinpoint it, lead him to it.

“Did you mean (your solution), when you suggested (what he suggested)?” or
“That’s a very good suggestion, I feel something is missing, don’t you?”

It is always a good idea to avoid usage of negative terms like no, not, wrong, incorrect etc. and lead the person to the solution in a manner that he feels he worked it out on his own.

Through this step you are basically creating the confidence in the individual in his own abilities. Congratulate him and appreciate his abilities with something like “You have a wonderful thought process, I am sure you will be able to deal with such matters in future!”

The “I can do it” feeling that you will instill is going to go a long way in helping this individual deal with roadblocks, not only in his professional life but personal life as well. You have just elevated this person to the next level through a very simple process. People are in general afraid of going wrong and develop a phobia of taking decisions, you have driven away the fear of decision making and given the confidence that it is ok to go wrong.

This is the stage when you can touch upon the RCA (Root Cause Analysis) aspect and engrain recurrence prevention in the mind of the individual. I do not suggest being technical about it and going into methods like 5 Why Analysis or Ishikawa (Fishbone analysis) unless you are aware that the individual is trained on these. It would lead to more complications than ease. I recommend something simple and straight forward.

Go on and work with the individual to discuss the root cause of the problem and measures that will prevent the issue from recurring. A bit of counseling at this stage on importance of finding permanent solutions rather than bandaid fixes would be in order. As we did in the ‘engage’ step, involve the individual in the process. When you arrive at a conclusion, appreciate and reiterate the importance of recurrence prevention with any problem that may come long in future.

There would be improvisations and innovations necessary to the 3E approach since no two individuals are the same. As long as you have understood the basic principle of teaching the person to collaborate and communicate, how you go about it is really not significant. The approach worked for me and it will work with most environments simply because it deals with the ‘human aspect‘ and it will always be humans running an organization, at least in the foreseeable future.

I firmly believe that there is a tremendous potential inside every individual. It lies dormant and obscure under a maze of paradigms of past experiences and lack of opportunities to recognize these abilities. It is a matter of letting the person find these hidden treasures through the freedom, values, recognition, opportunities and confidence you provide. Value and respect them, guide and lend them your complete support and you will have a shinning star in every member of your team.

Shalabh Agrawal

Houston, We Have a Problem…

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