The world we live in today demands more of us. Technology has expanded the reach and increased the pace of communication. The time to deliver solutions has shortened, the room for error has diminished, and complexity has increased. These requirements impact the way we manage our workload, the way we approach a problem, and the resources we leverage.
The good news is that we can impact the way we deal with new pressures around us. Here are a couple of thoughts:
- Understand your client’s problem and expectations:
Before you start working, take the time to understand what you are being asked to do and what the problem is. As trivial as it may sound, I’ve seen the importance of this many times. I remember a manager who spent weeks working on a solution to a problem. When he presented his work weeks later, his leader told him it was not what he had asked for. The manager realized that while his leader did not communicate enough information, he also failed to seek out the information necessary to gain a better understanding of the problem and expectations.
What to do:
- Pause for understanding: obtain information from the client and, if possible or necessary, from other relevant sources, in order to understand your client’s problems and expectations.
- Check for understanding: rephrase or present your understanding of the problem or project to your clients, and let them confirm that your understanding is correct.
2. Assess the nature of the task:
The situations we deal with never have the same characteristics. Therefore, what is required of us to do our job successfully will likely change. Someone famously said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I would also argue that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results could drive you insane. One approach does not fit every situation. We need to understand what the nature of the task is before attempting to choose the best approach.
What to do:
- Assess the complexity of the task: does the task require specialized skills and knowledge? Does the task require in-depth planning?
- Assess the difficulty of the task: does the task require additional resources that are hard to obtain? Is the deadline difficult to meet given level of complexity and your current capacity?
- Based on assessment, choose the right course of action: see examples below.
3. Be ready and execute (with the best approach):
The nature of the task will help determine the approach needed to complete it. Below I present approaches that I found interesting. They do not address the whole range of possible problems. Instead, I am focusing on ways in which successful people tackle complex problems.
- When stakes are high, thorough study pays off:
General Mattis, US Marine Corps, makes a case for the extensive study of others’ experiences, especially when dealing with situations where stakes are high. In his case, lives could be lost. He said:
“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”
So, if you know consequences for mistakes could be devastating or costly, make sure you study those who have gone through similar experiences. You can accomplish this with books, seminars, mentors, and other sources of experience.
- When the problem is complex, trial and error is king:
A famous ABC report followed a group of product designers who were given 5 days to re-design a shopping cart to better meet consumer needs. Their design process was supported by brainstorming and teamwork. They believed the following:
“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius”.
The team designed the cart by considering a variety of ideas aimed at solving specific problems. Then, they worked in smaller teams to build prototypes. Not every prototype made it into the final product, but they all contributed important elements that resulted in the final product.
See video on YouTube here: http://youtu.be/JkHOxyafGpE
- Build a plan, then throw it away:
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell gives an example of how intuition can help us make the right decisions and produce results. The example was a war exercise the Pentagon commissioned to prepare for the Iraq War. In this war game, a team played the U.S. and another Saddam Hussein. To their surprise, the team playing Saddam won.
Gladwell said that the reason for this unexpected outcome was that the “General understood the distinction when you ought to trust your instinct and when you shouldn’t.” The General carefully designed his plan of attack. However, when confronted with the complexity of war, he started making decisions that did not follow the plan and in doing so, stayed one step ahead of the other team.
As companies require more timely and effective solutions to remain competitive, determining the best methods to solve problems is becoming more important. It requires a good understanding of the problem and an assessment of what is required to tackle it. Every problem is different, so the best approach may not always be the same. Be open to unfamiliar and counter-intuitive ways of finding solutions. Among them:
Learn from others’ mistakes and success instead of only your own
Plan carefully and improvise swiftly
Produce many solutions and pick your best
What approaches have you used that produced great or not so great results? What did you learn from it? I look forward to hearing from you!