A colleague sends you an urgent email which begins, “We have a serious problem…”.
As a leader, often the desire is to jump into action and get the problem solved as quickly as possible.
In pre-Covid days, this might have meant calling an urgent meeting to get all those involved around the table. Now, the first instinct might be to convene a video call.
The key to successfully handling serious problems is to step back and immediately begin a process to help you gain a calm and thorough understanding of the problem. This helps you successfully lead your team to an effective solution and, crucially, ensures the organisation has learned in the process.
As a leader, it’s your job to calmly set out the process by which you would like your colleagues to go about tackling the problem.
The seven-step process to dealing with complex problems can be summarised as follows:
- Definition – Establish exactly what the problem is, the scale of the problem, who is affected, the risks and the costs involved.
- Understanding – Gain a full and detailed understanding of the causes of the problem – avoidable and unavoidable. Consult those affected to learn from their experience and insight.
- Identification – As you talk about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” and collect the answers. This will help you to develop some success criteria and establish some potential solutions.
- Exploration – Consider at least three potential solutions – even if you think you are pretty clear what the solution is.
- Decision – Agree on the best solution – a plan, timeframe and budget for implementation.
- Implementation – Ensure effective implementation of your plan within an agreed timeframe and agreed budget. Communicate this to your team and stakeholders. Show how this solution addresses the problem.
- Learning – Review the implementation process and check that it is delivering your success criteria. See what you have learned as a team and see how it applies to other areas of your organisation. Share your learnings with other teams and stakeholders.
Share this process with your team, so that they know when they say, “We have a problem…”, the first thing you will say is something like, “Let’s define exactly what the problem is.” Indeed, if they know that this is the process you will use they should come into your office with the beginning of a definition. It’s only the beginning of a definition because it’s vital that you dig beyond the information they give you when they first alert you to the problem.
So how does this work?
Stage 1: Definition
Successful definition of the problem will require you to ask lots of questions. Questions like:
- What has gone or is going wrong?
- How serious is it?
- Are there any legal, financial or safety implications?
- What are the effects?
- Who is involved?
- Who is aware of the problem?
- How was the problem identified?
As you will be asking lots of questions, you might find a mind map is a helpful way of making notes of your discussions. As you listen to the answers, you will find that factors interact. Your mind map will help you make connections and literally ‘picture’ what has happened.
Stage 2: Understanding
Sometimes this stage is skipped over, often due to the desire not to create a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘blame culture’, sometimes to avoid difficult conversations, or sometimes simply to rush to solve the problem.
However, you really can’t spend too much time understanding what caused the problem. This doesn’t have to feel like an investigation and can be a true learning exercise for your team. Explain to your team that, “If we don’t understand how we got here it will be harder for us to build the right solution together. There is nothing wrong with us facing problems; it’s part of doing what we do. The only mistake will be not learning from the situation we are in.”
The deeper your understanding of what caused the problem the better. Different colleagues may have different perceptions as to the cause of the problem and it is important to hear all views. Find out if the issue is a systems and processes issue, a people issue (capacity/skills?), or resources issue (budget?).
One way of capturing what you learn is to write down the problem and then list the first-level contributing factors. Then list the contributing factors to each of those first-level factors – you dig down level by level. The best way to capture this is to create a diagram that lists levels of contributing factors. This could work well as a shared document on a Google drive so your key team members can share it, add to it and develop a shared understanding.
“All well and good, but how exactly do I get this to work – especially when we are all working remotely?”
1. A shared list of questions.
Brainstorm all your questions before you talk to those involved, and share this list of questions with them – they will have more to add. This list will help you define the problem.
2. Making time
Your diary may already be pretty booked up and you may have an assistant who books meetings. You need to have initial meetings quickly and close together. Ask your assistant to make time and explain the process to them.
3. Initial team meeting
Have a short video meeting with the key colleagues involved to set in motion the process, establish a shared understanding and review your list of questions and any initial answers they may have.
4. One-to-one meetings
Follow your team meeting with one-to-one discussions with each of them to get their perspective. It’s best to do this over a day if you can rather than have these meetings over a protracted period. Video calls are more necessary for group discussions but you might find phone calls work better for one-to-one calls. Often people find it easier to talk about difficult subjects over the phone than on video. Ask your team members to prepare for the meeting – ideally sending you bullet points of key points they would like to make so you can dig deeper in your discussion.
Stage 3: Identification
As you learn about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” Aim to find out who does this well and how they do it. The clearer picture you have of success, the closer you will come to achieving it. This isn’t about jumping to finding the solution, it’s about defining what you want the solution to deliver.
Remember you don’t need to understand how to get there at this stage, you just need to be able to articulate what you are aiming for. Depending on the scale and importance of the issue, this may be the appropriate time to discuss the issue with your Governing Body so you are clear on their expectations.
You now have a picture of the problem through your mind map, a clear idea of all the contributing factors and a picture of what success looks like. Stages 1-3 are complete.
Stage 4: Exploration
This can be a creative process for you and your team. Lead a thorough exploration of potential solutions – don’t accept the first one offered to you.
Ask questions like:
- How else could we address this?
- How many options do we have?
- What are the pros and cons of each?
- How do others solve this problem?
- How could we solve it if we had no additional resources? (This tests whether the extra expenditure is needed)
- What is the fastest solution?
- What is the most long-lasting solution?
- What is the simplest solution?
Ask your team to put forward at least 3 options. Test each option against your success criteria so you are sure it delivers what you need. Interrogate it further by asking questions like:
- How could this be better?
- What is missing?
- What risks are there?
- How long will it take?
- What have we forgotten? (My favourite for bringing out further information).
- What do our stakeholders think?
- Does this address their needs/concerns?
- Have we asked them?
- Do we need their views on these options?
- How can we best get them?
- Are there any EDI implications we have not considered?
Ensure that your options are shared in some form with senior colleagues and the Governing Body (if you have determined that the problem warrants their involvement). Asking for their input at this stage will gain their confidence and ensure your decision is supported.
You will need to set aside quality time for this stage – at least one long video session, even better two, so people have time to reflect in between. You will need someone to capture notes in a shared document.
Stage 5: Decision
With all you have learned in stages 1-4 this stage should be straightforward. The key to success though is not just deciding on a solution, but agreeing on a timeframe and budget for implementation. It seems obvious but it’s amazing how often a timeframe and budget are not mutually understood and agreed upon. Sometimes teams who are under pressure offer unrealistically short timeframes or underestimate the budget required. Ensure the timeframe is realistic and that there are key milestones for the project and dates for these.
Ask your team to agree this plan and milestones to ensure it works alongside other projects which colleagues may be working on.
Ask questions like:
- What might prevent us from putting this solution in place within the timeframe? –
- What might lead us to go over budget?
- What are we doing to mitigate these risks?
Stage 6: Implementation
By now many colleagues may have lost interest as they understand what happened and have agreed on a solution, but a robust implementation process must be in place. So often leaders find that problems recur and are frustrated that the institution hasn’t properly addressed them. To avoid this, ensure the project has a champion at a senior level and a project manager who oversees implementation.
Clearly articulate what information you would like your champion and project manager to give you at each stage of the project. Ask them how they will report on the achievement of project milestones, and escalate any issues which arise. If the team knows you are maintaining interest in the project, they will maintain the momentum and deliver the project. If they feel it has lost importance or urgency they may prioritise other activities.
Finally, at this stage, ensure that a communications plan is in place:
- Who do you need to share your decision and plan with? Internally? Externally?
- At what stages of the process do you need to communicate with them?
- Do they support the decision and implementation plans?
Nothing frustrates stakeholders more than hearing nothing. As a consultant, I often hear, “I never did hear what they did about…”.
Stage 7: Review
So, the problem has been resolved, a solution is in place and you are achieving your success criteria – fantastic! But can you be sure that the problem will not arise again and that your team and wider organisation have learned from the experience?
Bring those who have been involved in the problem and its solution together and ask questions like:
- What are the key learning points?
- What could we have done better?
- What other similar problems should we be aware of?
- With hind-sight how do we feel we could have avoided being in that situation? Have we successfully delivered on all our success criteria?
- What can other teams learn from this?
- How can we share the learning?
This will help them to see that you value the work they have done to solve the problem, and their insight into your institution. It may also highlight further improvements you can make. It also establishes a culture where things get done and we truly learn from our mistakes.
Sounds simple, but how often have we worked in institutions where the wheel seems to be reinvented every few years and the same mistakes seem to be made again and again? Nothing undermines confidence in leadership more quickly than the same errors recurring. It’s also vital to document what you have learned in some way as it’s amazing how much can be lost when team members leave, and none of us will be there forever.
Many leaders need support to undertake this process. It may be that they do not have time to undertake the process, or that they prefer an independent view to be brought in.
Halpin undertakes this full process in partnership with our clients. Our highly experienced consultants have the sensitivity, insight and gravitas to support leaders and their teams to deliver change.