The Wrong Way to Solve a Problem

remoteWhen faced with a problem, what do you do?

Some people rise to the occasion.  They are at their best when chaos reigns and solutions seem elusive.  They don’t show emotion, think and act rationally, and have a knack for making a tough situation seem rather ordinary.  We admire people like that.

And then there is everyone else…

One of the biggest challenges for my mom was learning new technology.  It seemed to grow in prominence in her life even as she aged.  My dad described her method of problem-solving a misbehaving computer or a confusing remote was “push every button until you figure it out.”  That of course never worked.  Their DVD player played every one of their movies in French until my son was able to fix it for them.

Sadly, that’s how most of us solve a problem.  We don’t really know what the root issue is so we go after the surface solution and try multiple attempts without documenting or testing anything which results in the occasional fix, but most often, a more complicated situation.

What’s the best way to solve a problem?  Try this approach:

Step #1:  Specifically define the problem.  This means name the problem.  Rather than “The TV’s broke” say “I can’t seem to figure out how to change the language from French back to English.”

Step #2:  Get out all documentation and manuals you have.  Intuition works occasionally but why reinvent the wheel when you can refer to some documentation.

Step #3:  Work systematically while testing and documenting each step.  Take a step.  Test the result.  Write down what the result was.  When you get a step correct, take the next step.  Stop, document, and move on.  Then, when the problem is solved…

Step #4:  Document everything you did.    This way you have more data to use when you need Step 2 in a similar problem.

This is the standard way to solve a technology problem but it can certainly work in other areas.

  • “John is a terrible employee”  (Vague, subjective, and not very specific)
  • “John is unreliable”  (Better, but still not specific.  What makes him unreliable?”
  • “John never seems to be here when we need him” (Still better, but more specific please?)
  • “John has been late 5 times in the past 2 weeks.”  (Now we have something to work with!!!)

Work through the steps using documentation from time and attendance, the HR handbook, and of course any previous performance documentation.  Then sit him down and figure out why he’s been late and get him to fix it.  Rather than trying a bunch of solutions to motivate John, be sure to go through this methodically.

Our organizational value is quantified by how well we solve or prevent problems.  Try these four steps next time you get challenged by a problem.

 

 

Is the World Ready for Your Big Idea?

bbbLately I’ve been watching a unique cooking show on the Cooking Channel called Big Bad BBQ Brawl.  It involves two brothers, Shannon and Big Rich Ambrosio who own a successful BBQ food truck in Brooklyn, New York, traveling the country competing with local chefs in a fun competition.

On a recent episode, the Ambrosio brothers entered a full BBQ competition in Florida.  This meant that they competed against real Pitmasters in three types of meat: brisket, ribs, and chicken.  Wanting to dazzle the judges who were used to traditional sweet southern flavors, they opted for Italian style brisket, Vietnamese-flavored ribs, and non-traditional chicken.

They didn’t place in any category.  And they were very disappointed.

Here’s the lesson:  While the food was good, the Florida judges weren’t ready for it.  A good idea at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We’ve probably experienced that too haven’t we?  We have a great plan in our heads for a new process and the boss shoots it down.  We come up with a new product or service we KNOW our customers will love and they simply blow it off.  We try to impress our partner or spouse with a new restaurant or gift and they don’t react the way we hoped they would.

In ALL cases, we approach the idea from OUR point of view rather than from that of our intended audience.

I know, it’s that Golden Rule thing:  Do unto others and YOU would have done unto YOU.  Unfortunately, most people don’t really care what YOU want done unto you, they simply want what they want done unto THEM.

If that’s the case, maybe we should approach anything new with a little market research or at a minimum, careful observation.  And innovation, while very cool, is a risky business.  The world might not be ready for what you have right now.

It takes patience and lots of careful research.

So this week, before you unleash your new idea on the world or even your relationship, ask the following questions:

  1. Is there a need for this right now?
  1. Is there a need for this EVER?
  1. Do I think it’s a great idea without even testing it?
  1. What will I do if the idea is rejected?

I don’t intend to discourage you.  Just wanting you to maximize success!

Why Simple is Often Better

I have a love/hate relationship with McDonalds.  On one hand I love the fact that I can stop off on any long car trip in the morning and get a decent (albeit unhealthy) breakfast with pretty good coffee.  But as an organization, I hate that they can’t seem to embrace what they really are:  cheap, unhealthy comfort food.  Their latest gimmick is artisan sandwiches that are supposed to help them compete with Panera (sort of like a Smart Car competing with a Chevy Tahoe in the heavy hauling vehicle category).  Nothing new here.  In the past we’ve seen offerings with salads, all-day breakfast, fancy coffee, and wraps.

But in olden days, McDonalds owned what they were.  I found a photo of an old menu.  Take a look:

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First of all, the pricing dates this.  But notice the simplicity.  And, since it’s so simple, the menu can add helpful descriptors that make me want to purchase.  Yeah I know McDonalds makes money hand over fist but I wonder if they stuck to simple then maybe their operations costs would lower enough to match today’s profits.  Sometimes simple is just better.

 

Which brings us to my lesson today.  Sometimes simple plans with clear communications give us a great chance for success.  Military planners, known for their complex plans that don’t translate well into an actual battle made this mistake in the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw hostage rescue attempt back in 1980.  The complexity and overplanning of this operation resulted in multiple aircraft lost and eight servicemen killed…all without ever confronting the Iranians.  Simple, yet not simplistic strategies with significant training to run that simple plan might have led to success.

 

So what about you.  What about your business?  Is the presentation you’re planning to make full of jargon, complicated figures, and wordiness that’s sure to put an audience to sleep?  Is your customer acquisition strategies so complex that it requires the lining up of the planets to make it work?

It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m convinced making your plans, presentations, strategies, and initiatives simple and uncomplicated eliminates confusion and results in a better chance for long term success.  Maybe McDonalds should ditch trying to be cool and trendy and on a par with Panera and Chipotle and go back to what they really are.  Cheap, unhealthy comfort food.  I might even become a raving fan then.

What do you think?

Are You Aware of Your Bias?

Unconscious BiasAre you biased?  If you say no, you’re just not human.  If you’re reading this, trust me, you’re human.

Recently I put together a short seminar on dealing with unconscious bias.  In researching the topic, I found some interesting information.

First, we are all biased.  It simply means we tend to sort out information and give preference to one piece of data to solve a particular problem.  Also, we as human beings sort out data as we see it.  For example, when we enter a room, the first thing we do is scan up and down and side to side.  Then we notice people.  The first thing we notice is their skin color followed quickly by their gender.  Up to this point, there are no problems.

Unfortunately, when it comes to that sorting and bias, if we’re not careful we can start giving preference unfairly when we’re not aware of our thinking process.  That’s where the conscious bias (what we’re aware of) can be influenced by our unconscious bias (what’s inside us and often has free run of our brains without ever being questioned).

My first wife hated fish.  She had the privilege of visiting some amazing places like Hawaii and Australia and had access to some of the best fish on the planet.  As long as I knew her, I never saw her take a bite of fish, and yet she always told me how much she hated fish.  Our daughter grew up hating fish.  She never took a bite of fish (as far as I could remember).  When she was in her early 20’s, she moved in with us for a couple of years.  I convinced her to try fish.  She loved it.  Her fiancé (and now husband) cooked lots of fish and she ate it.  She even ate calamari, not just the cylinder-shaped ones but the ones with all the tentacles.  An unconscious bias against fish (from her mom) led to a conscious one (from her) until it was challenged and overcome (by me and Chris).

But enough about fish.  Could a host of early experiences be lurking in our subconscious and affect our decision-making?  Absolutely.  Here’s how it works:

Think about your most trusted circle of advisors.  Don’t count family members in this group.  These folks are the ones you can rely on, can relate to, and can be counted upon to never let you down.  Do you have your list?

Now take a good look at them.  I’m willing to bet that most, if not all of them look like you (gender/race/age), think like you (political leaning/religious affiliation), and act like you (sexual orientation/marital status).  If that’s your trusted inner circle, you might be tempted to use them as your yardstick when measuring others.  If they “fit” you, then you trust them, if not, then you discount.  You do this unconsciously.  It’s normal.  Just pay attention to it.

It becomes a problem then when we select only those people or people like them for special projects, promotions, or favors.  We discount those we don’t know and don’t even give them a chance because on the surface we can’t really trust them.

Many years ago, a dentist that I assisted looked past the obvious (an enlisted kid with no motivation) and took the time to push me to attend college and dream bigger.  It’s the reason I have the career I do today.  The dentists I worked for before him and after him saw just the surface and treated me like crap. Had I never met Greg Nelson, I would not be successful today. Don’t let an unconscious bias derail the potential in others around you.

Bias is normal.  It’s the lack of reflection and honesty that makes it dangerous.  This week, make it a point to expand your circle of trust and begin to draw from the wealth and wisdom of others you may have previously ignored.  Everyone wins if that happens!

Unleash Your Inner Ninja Warrior

ninjatrainingThe other night while flipping channels on the TV, I happened to come across the American Ninja Warrior TV show. If you’ve not seen it before it involves some very physically fit individuals who run on a timed obstacle course. The course requires balance, stamina, and most of all upper body strength. I was amazed at watching some of these people and then even a 65-year-old who managed to finish several of the obstacles before falling off and losing his dentures in the water. I thought about what it would be like to be on this program but at my age and with my hip replacements and bad back, just bending over to tie my shoe is enough of a warrior challenge.

For all of us who are not athletes, I believe there still are some Ninja challenges we can do when it comes to our professional development.  It’s easy to admire of those in our field who are committed to excellence, who managed to give great presentations, do amazing analytical work, or solve complicated problems. The good news is that all of us have the potential to be in that class. It simply involves your commitment to personal and professional development.

I don’t know what these Ninja athletes do but I can imagine it involves several types of training, many of which are not directly related to the obstacles they must overcome in the challenge. What that means is that not only do they need to know how to climb on parallel bars, they need to develop the upper body strength and the hand strength to hold their grip. It doesn’t always involve just cardio as we might think about it via long distance running, it might be short interval sprints. This means that transferable physical strength and agility must be made to be the focus competitive strength and agility.  In other words, you have to train for more than just the actual competition.

We need to do the same in our professional lives too. While we might be really good at our jobs, there are some ancillary skills we might not be good at. I must admit I’m pretty good at what I do in organizational and management development consulting, but where I come up very short as in sales. That may not seem like a logical business skill for me to have but if I can’t sell what I do then I won’t be able to do it. With that in mind I’ve spent much of the last year and a half reading and studying everything I can get my hands on about sales. That is an additional skill that will help me be more successful.

But what about you? Right now are there other skills that would help you be more successful? You might be good at making a presentation but how are you and navigating the politics of your organization? You might be great at solving a complicated problem but how good are you at actually preventing that problem in the first place? All of us have a responsibility to be the best in our field. Since only a few of us can be an elite athlete, why not be excellent in the everyday playing field that is our professional lives?

 

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Child wearing grown up hospital scrubs, glasses and a stethoscopeWhen I was a kid, I told my parents I wanted to be the guy at the garbage dump that pointed you where to park and unload.

I’m not sure how they felt about that at the time.  After all, most kids my age wanted to be doctors or athletes or something significant.  The guy at the dump probably made minimum wage which, back in 1972 was probably miniscule.

For me, the job looked like a lot of fun.  I love digging through trash looking for treasure.  But what I really thought was cool was the stick he carried and used to direct traffic.  Of course my dream career never happened.

Recently I was contracted to teach a workshop on career development.  One question I always ask in the introductions is what each attendee wanted to be when they grew up.  The client was uncomfortable with that question so I was forced to explain.  The explanation is useful for all of us.

As adults, we are bound by a sense of duty, responsibility, and conformance.  For most of us, we have constraints around us that require us to follow the path in life that is usually chosen for us.  In a sense, our destiny is chosen for us.  We rarely choose.

But that isn’t often the case when we’re kids.  Which is why we look at careers that don’t often make sense financially or are even achievable.  The key though is to identify, with our adult eyes and minds, what drew us to that career choice all those years ago.

For me, it was being able to hunt for treasure and tell people what to do.  The treasure part might make a good hobby now, but the need for power has never gone away.  For the first eight years of my Navy career, I was not in a supervisory role.  I was told what to do and how to do it.  That wasn’t a good fit.  Even from year nine to 15, I still had people above me dictating how to supervise.  When I got out and went to work at my first few jobs, that problem was still there, even though by then I had two college degrees.  So in 2004 I quit bosses altogether and started out my own.  In retrospect, it’s probably the need for power that’s driving me.

But that’s me.  What about you?  What were your aspirations as a child?  Can you now, with the benefit of time, see what your motivators were?  If so, do they still exist today, maybe hidden and yet still impacting you?  If you had the need for power back then do you still have that sense of rebellion?  If it was to be seen as the smartest kid in the world, do you find yourself frustrated when someone challenges your judgement?

Career happiness is a right, but a right that needs to be earned.  The earning starts when you identify those underlying motives.  This week, revisit that inner 7-year-old you still carry around.  Are you living the life you wanted back then?  If not, why not take some steps to find it?

Peak Early…AND Often!

 

success bikeI believe all of us have potential for greatness.  In some way, shape, or form.  Not all the same either.  That’s not some motivational Tony Robbins fire-walking fluff either.  I just think it’s true.

Some don’t live up to their full potential.  It may be because of a lack of resources or encouragement or time or opportunity.  My dad was in this category.  He was full of great ideas but could never seem to pull the trigger on any of them.  I wish I could have met him at my current age, when he was 30.  He could have been the 1970s equivalent of Elon Musk.

Others reach their potential early but never seem to surpass or repeat it.

During my daughter’s senior year in high school, she was surprised to see some of the most popular seniors from the previous year come back to high school during their college spring break and actually sit in some classes!  One individual, a popular guy in his senior year but now a freshman at a prestigious college on the West Coast, asked one of my daughter’s classmates to ask HIM to the prom.  And she did.  And he went to the prom.  Again.

You probably know someone who fits into one or both categories.  I’m sure you don’t want to end up in either one.  How do you maintain peak performance so that we achieve success AND don’t have to always bring up our greatest hits from the past?  Here are five suggestions.

  1. Define Success.  It’s different for everyone but only you know what it is for you.  Think beyond wealth and status.  Make sure it’s tangible and achievable.  If you see success as being a brain surgeon but you faint at the site of blood and your hands shake when you get nervous, keep looking.
  2. Develop a Path to Success with Measurable Milestones.  Think of it as climbing a mountain using a series of diagonal switchbacks.  Your progress may be slow but if it’s heading upwards, you’re on the right path.
  3. Make Good Choices.  If you’re on the path to success, make sure whatever choices you make elevate you upward, not laterally or down.  Don’t let money or an unrelated success take you off the path to get the success you really want.
  4. Keep a Visual Record of Your Journey.  The reason fundraisers use the big thermometer to show donations is to have a visual to encourage people to help out.  You need a visual to remind yourself each day that you have a plan, and work to do to achieve it.
  5. After Achieving Success, Keep Going.  If you accomplish wins, you should now know the formula.  Why stop there?  Don’t be the 19-year-old who comes back to the prom to relive old glory.

All of us have a finite amount of time on this planet.  Why not use every last bit of it to achieve continual success?  It’s your choice.

I guess it comes down to a simple choice really.  Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’

– Andy Dufresne.  The Shawshank Redemption

 

 

 

 

Stop Taking “NO” for an Answer

Businessman holding paperMany years ago, while in the Navy stationed overseas, I remember what it was like any time you needed paperwork approved by our personnel support detachment (PSD), the equivalent of the HR department.  PSD was managed by a guy named John Clark.  No matter what you asked for, the answer was always a resounding “NO” without any explanation.  It might be because he outranked most of us, or maybe he was just a crotchety old-timer, but dealing with him and PSD was the nearest equivalent to going to the DMV.  I never forgot that.

Fast forward to today.  I do some work with a local company that complains incessantly they can’t seem to get into a nearby large organization in order to market to them.  It seems was an incident a few years ago and this company was banned from entering the premises to do business.  Unfortunate since the employees of this large organization are the perfect target audience for my client.  Nobody can tell me exactly what happened or where this ban notice is written, but they are all paralyzed by it.

Last week I attended a networking meeting and lo and behold I ran into the person from this large organization and I flat-out asked her what the deal was.  She told me it was a federal regulation that stated one part of my client’s services were not able to be promoted, but there was no official ban and they even looked forward to having this client get involved.  The regulation made sense to me and of course this is good news for the client.  If only they had simply asked after being told “NO” they could have been active and successful with this organization.

Our inability to move past “NO” is probably grounded in childhood.  We are all born naturally curious.  We ask lots of questions.  Finally, our exasperated parents tell us to quit asking questions.  Most of us stopped being curious then, but those who persisted began to encounter “NO” on a regular basis.  This culled the curious herd even more.  Now, just a few of us are left as adults to keep pushing when they hear “NO”.

It can be problematic to push past “NO” and it got me into a lot of trouble in the Navy and even in my first two jobs when I got out.  Today though, it’s the secret to getting business that others won’t ever get close to.  What’s the secret to pushing past “NO” without getting into trouble?

  1. Don’t push it when the “NO” is a safety issue. (i.e. “No Swimming in the Lagoon after Dusk Due to Alligators”)
  2. Don’t push it when addressing company policy that has a purpose.  (i.e. “Who are you to tell me I can’t wear jeans on Friday?” when working for a bank or financial institution)
  3. Don’t push it just to be a pain in the A**. (i.e. “This policy makes no sense.  I don’t care about it but I just feel like being an A**H*** today” – this was my first LPO in the Navy)

BUT, when the “NO” you consistently hear is preventing you from career or business success and you can’t get a clear answer as to why, then feel free to push back a little.

None of us wants to hear that we’re being held back by something that has no business doing it to us.  Pick your battles carefully and work diligently in the pursuit of “NO”.

Are Your Incentives Actually Incentivizing?

Still want to chew gum during the test?

Still want to chew gum during the test?

In my job working with organizations and business I often hear about new initiatives designed to build employee engagement.  Engaged employees, as the rationale goes, are more productive and loyal.  That’s a good thing.  The key of course is to figure out how to engage them.

Some companies try to be competitive with pay and benefits.  Others design educational and professional development incentives.  Some attempt to be Google, implementing organizational redesign with open workspaces, game rooms, and elaborate cafeterias.

And then there are those who use privileges to win over employees.  That’s also effective.  When done in the right spirit.

A colleague of mine shared the note that you can read in this blog.  It was given to all the kids in his daughter’s class in preparation for the standardized tests that are given each Spring.  The school was going to allow students to chew gum or Lifesavers during the test as a privilege, but first each student AND their parents had to sign a contract.  The gum chewing right came with a laundry list of requirements and rules.  What was designed to incentivize students was really no different than the standard set of rules they had to follow each day.  When the privilege has caveats, it ceases to be a privilege.

The idea of motivating people hinges around the concept that people are satisfied when they get WHAT they need, WHEN they need it.  Pay is only a part of it although to be fair, should be enough.  Privileges, like casual dress and bring-your-dog-to-work day should be those little surprises that dazzle and provide a spike in productivity.  But those privileges lose their luster when accompanies by a bunch of rules.  Granted, standards are important.  Provocative or offensive clothing can be a liability and nobody wants to step in dog crap when walking to the copier.  The rules are fine if the spirit of the privilege is not lost.

Which brings us to the gum-chewing contract.  With the fear of punishment high, combined with the added stress of standardized testing, I’m thinking students enter the test with lower morale than if gum was just outlawed.  The incentives just won’t incentivize.

So if your organization want to use incentives, keep the following in mind:

  1. Make the incentives special and limited in time.  Getting people accustomed to the incentive leads to it being seen as a right.  Now you’re stuck leaving it in place for good.
  2. Make the incentive something that the employee would want, not necessarily what you would want.  While I would love a new firearm as a gift, I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t see it as an appropriate anniversary gift.
  3. Make the incentive as rule-free as possible.  When privileges come with a host of regulations and rules, they just aren’t as special.
  4. Make the incentive as condition-free as possible.  My ex’s father paid to have the kitchen in her condo refurbished.  His condition was that she had to get rid of her pets and her son couldn’t fry doughnuts in the kitchen.  I’m not sure a gift should have that many conditions.

All of us love to give and get privileges.  Before giving them, take a moment to run through the checklist.  You don’t want your well-intentioned gift to have a negative impact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating Space to Clear Your Head

beltsIn my opinion, one of the best things about Spring and Summer is that I spend about 3 hours each week mowing my 4 acres of grass on my Husqvarna riding mower.  I’ll gas it up, get a big dip of Grizzly long-cut wintergreen, and put my Spotify mowing playlist (mostly classic rock), and get busy.  It’s my thinking time and where I usually clear my head and come up with new ideas…

…which was recently interrupted when my mower threw the serpentine belt about two hours into the job.  Now I was stuck and had to re-thread the belt.  Usually it’s not that hard but this time the belt was hopelessly twisted.  I had to get down on my belly and try to untwist it plus re-thread it around six different pulleys.  It was hot, grass clippings were stuck to my skin, sweat was stinging my eyes (when you’re bald, sweat seems to pour faster), and gnats kept pestering me.  Finally, after 15 minutes, I had used up all my patience and every possible curse word in my lexicon (plus a few new ones I invented) and walked away.  I looked at every YouTube video I could find on re-threading the belt and found I was doing everything right.  After 30 minutes, I walked back out to the mower and in 3 minutes managed to get the belt on correctly.  I bolted the two plastic guards back on and finished the job.  Walking away was the best thing I could have done.

All of us are good problem-solvers.  We all have something we’re good at.  Sometimes though it works against us.  Our tried-and-true methods don’t seem to work and we push on, determined to prove we can do it.  The harder we try, the worse the problem gets.

When that happens, try the most counter-intuitive strategy you can.  It goes something like this:

  1. Walk away.  You won’t get a new perspective on a problem by staring at it the same way.
  2. Look at conventional methods of solving it.  Find, based on sheer numbers of documented success, what most people are doing.  Just as a sanity check.
  3. Visualize the problem in your head.  Walk through your solving steps without looking or thinking about the particular problem at hand.
  4. Refresh yourself.  Get something to eat or drink.  Watch something entertaining if just for a few minutes.
  5. Now go back and see the real problem again.  Just the act of taking a break can clear out your old decision channels and let you see the problem as it actually is, not as you have solved it before.

My reasons for using the mower for creative thinking is that it takes me out of the home office and off the computer.  When that environment presented its own challenge, I should have actually gone into my home office and turned on the computer right away.  The key is distance and objectivity.

This week, when faced with a perplexing problem, take the time to create some space.  Your brain is an amazing tool, but it too requires rest and maintenance.  I promise it will come back in better shape when you do that.