How to Solve Difficult Problems

Step #1: Hands in pockets

Step #1: Hands in pockets

All of us have been confronted with difficult problems.  While the nature and scope of each person’s problem might differ, the pattern and solutions are often similar.

Problems begin when a result does not match up with expectation.  If that happens, our first reaction is to search for someone or something to blame.  In reality, if we look at the problem systematically, we might find the actual cause of the problem, which might be very different than what we thought it could be.  I have four steps that work well for me and for the folks I’ve taught in my workshops.

  1. Hands in Pockets.
  2. It’s not Always What You See, Diagnosis is the Key.
  3. Identify the Root of the Problem and Find the Solution for it.
  4. Document Your Steps.

Step #1 – Hands in Pockets.

Back in 1989, my first wife pestered me endlessly about installing a telephone in the kitchen of our home in Cerritos, CA.  This was well before cordless and of course mobile phones.  Weary of hearing her complaints, I found a jack in the wall, put in two big screws, and anchored the phone into the wall.  She was happy.  That made me happy.  My younger brother Marshall came by a month or so later and laughed at my install job.

“Do you want to know the first step in a successful home project?” he asked.

“Of course,” I replied somewhat sheepishly.  “Enlighten me.”

“Hands in pockets.”

He then explained that it’s always best to examine your project thoroughly before buying materials and putting holes in the wall.

It was good advice.  I’ve applied it in the years since.  Particularly now as I am often contracted by organizations to help them solve their complicated issues.  “Hands in Pockets” cools off the emotions, derails those who rush to solution, and minimizes the risk of acting on the first few pieces of data.

Of course it’s just the first step.  The remaining three brings the process to completion.

Why We Don’t Need More Leaders

 

boss-leader-newThe infographic above stirred some controversy when I posted it earlier this week on LinkedIn (ironically, most of the haters hail from the UK, not sure what that means). I created it because I was sick of seeing posts touting the greatness of leadership and contrasting it with the evil of management or “the boss.” Those posts and memes typically come from armchair consultants and fantasy business-owners.

In my mind, we don’t need more leaders. We need more good bosses.

Hear me out. First of all, I speak from academic (MA in Organizational Leadership) and practical (15 years of working in/with corporations around the USA and abroad, developing employees and managers) experience. I’ve written 12 books, taught on the college level, and consulted in most every industry there is.

We don’t need more leaders. We need more good bosses.

The manager or “boss” is the backbone of any organization. The boss makes sure the trains run on time. The boss makes sure the work is properly distributed and completed. The boss keeps an eye on the budget, supplies, and customers. The boss has the most important responsibility in the organization. In fact, I hope it’s not lost on you that the executives featured on the CBS show Undercover Boss  are not called undercover leaders. “Boss” is not the newest four-letter word in the urban dictionary.

There are only two kinds of bosses, good and bad. When people think about the boss, it’s usually a negative connotation. Bad bosses are written about, parodied on TV and in movies, and of course are the topic of conversation around the dinner table at night.

There are no excuses for a bad boss. Bad bosses should be fired. Rapidly.

Leaders are seen as the little angels on your right shoulder. They are touted as visionary, mindful, emotionally intelligent. They are reflective, big-picture thinkers and assume every employee is intrinsically motivated. All that’s needed are programs and career tracks that take into account an employee’s personal vision and motivations and everyone will live happily ever after.

Except that it rarely happens that way. And since it takes a boss to assume control of this Pollyanna culture and turn it around, we immediately think the boss needs leadership training. As if leadership was a skill that could be taught.

Smart people know that training won’t work, coaching will. Except that if a person doesn’t WANT to be more mindful, reflective, or visionary, it’s a waste of time. The only winner is the ICF certified coach. Bad bosses that don’t want to change and cannot be made into leaders. Leaders are not the immediate answer to falling profits, declining customers, unproductive employees, or changing markets. A good boss is.

Like the infographic, a good boss takes control and makes stuff happen. Rather than reflect and be mindful, they put hands on and get stuff done. Rather than agonize over the unproductive employees, trying to emulate a Google culture, or creatively incentivizing, they realize the best solution is to get rid of them. The good boss delegates to competent people. The good boss takes and shares the credit. The good boss also takes the blame. All of the blame. The good boss makes reading and improving skills a habit. The good boss reproduces others. The good boss has their hands on the controls and yet doesn’t have to have full control.

Contrast that with the archetypical leader, up on the mountain creating a vision, taking non-skill based courses through large profit-hungry training vendors. While they try to be mindful, chaos runs rampant. While they take time for reflection, the products are no longer selling. While they create and align their personal vision with the organizational vision, competition has already pinned their organization into a corner they’ll never get out of.

I had a really bad boss when I was in the Navy back in 1996. It was during the time I was enrolled in my Masters program in Organizational Leadership. He was the topic of one of my research papers. I took each of his bad behaviors and contrasted them with the favorable, leadership equivalent. I got a good grade. Except that my bad boss was just that, a bad boss, not a non-leader. Him learning leadership skills, being more mindful and reflective would not have made my life easier. He could have just learned a few skills to become a good boss.

You don’t replace an old toothbrush with a power washer, you get another toothbrush.

You don’t replace a worn-out car with a jet pack, you buy a new car.

You don’t replace a bad boss with a leader.   You replace them with a good boss.

It’s good to be a good boss. A good boss is not an enemy.

So how about working to develop good bosses? We have enough visionaries. We need some people to get stuff done!

Why You Should Be “Cool as a Cat”

Sunday morning we were loading up, getting ready to drive to church when I decided to let the dogs out one more time. Our two barn cats, Iris and Athena happened to be on the carport.

Candy, our miniature poodle went over to see Iris. Then Rambo, the other poodle followed. Iris got a bit unsettled and walked away briskly. Then Sonny, our black lab mix followed. Iris began to run which was her first mistake. This caused the dogs to all give chase. Her second mistake was running up one of the many oak trees on our property. She was up about 8 feet and then Sonny jumped up against the tree causing Iris to keep climbing. When she got near the top, about 35 feet above the ground, she realized she was stuck. If dogs could laugh and trash talk, they would have been. Iris was hopelessly stuck.

Now I had to figure out how to get her down. My tallest extension ladder was 12 feet and probably extended out another 10. My wife suggested backing my pickup truck up to the tree and putting the ladder in the bed. That gave me about an additional 3 feet. I set the ladder in and propped it against the tree. Then I began to climb.

I really hate heights. Air travel doesn’t bother me but anything else, such as the Arch in St. Louis, the observatory at the Empire State Building, or the Space Needle in Seattle DOES make me sweat. I bravely began to climb, not wishing to look down. Barb and Allie held the ladder at the bottom. Iris looked down as I inched towards her. The truck, ladder, and my 5 foot 9 inch height still left me short, even though I was standing on the second-to-the-top rung of the ladder. I held the tree in a death grip with my right arm and beckoned to Iris with my left. Even though she must have been nervous, you couldn’t tell. She wandered towards my hand and stopped to lick her paws. Then she looked at me as if to say “What are you doing up here? I got this!” After about 20 minutes on the ladder, I managed to coax her close enough to grab her by the ear. Then she yowled and dug her claws into my arm. I pulled her down and cradled her like a spikey football. As I inched down the ladder, it occurred to me just how cool cats look under pressure.

Years ago, a research team studied the refugees who crossed the Pacific Ocean from Cambodia to the United States. This was a treacherous crossing and not every boat made it. A boat would swamp or a storm would hit and the people on the boat would freak out and start thrashing about. Eventually, the boat would take on too much water and sink, drowning everyone. Yet every boat that safely arrived had someone onboard that remained calm under pressure. Their calm was contagious. Even in a crisis, people managed to keep their heads.

We saw this with the US Airways flight that crash-landed in the Hudson River back in 2009. Now I fly nearly every week and when the plane arrives at the gate and the “DING” sounds, my elbows start flying along with the other passengers and we all madly try to deplane at once. I can’t imagine what would happen if water was coming through the floorboards of the plane, yet the passengers of Flight 1549 calmly exited the plane. All accounts point the calm demeanor of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger as he communicated to the passengers. His calm was contagious.

All of us deal with stressful situations. It takes a conscious effort to remain cool but if we do, there’s a good chance those around us will follow suit. If you’re nervous before a presentation, mentally prepare to display calm and take some deep breaths. If you appear calm, as if the audience doesn’t bother you a bit, you’ll be amazed at how people will pay attention to what you’re saying and not silently criticizing your nervousness.

It certainly worked for Iris and the passengers on Flight 1549. I know it would work for you! Take some time this week to begin rehearsing your “cool as a cat” skills. Make it a routine and you’ll find it becomes second nature to you.