Fundamental #26: Practice Blameless Problem-Solving

The 30 Fundamentals that make up the “ConnectSMART Way” describe how we want to run our business – the way we treat our clients, the way we work with each other, and even the way we relate to our vendors and suppliers.  They’re who we are and they’re the foundation of our success.  They drive everything we do, every day. Each week we focus on a different fundamental and discuss in depth.

Fundamental #26: Practice Blameless Problem-Solving

Fix mistakes by focusing on solutions. Then identify lessons learned and use those lessons to improve our processes so we don’t make the same mistake again. Get smarter with every mistake.

As I have been focused on thinking about this fundamental this weekend, I think we may have unintentionally slanted the wording the wrong way. Reread the fundamental, what concept sticks out to you first? As I have been attempting to internalize and express what this means to me I realized that we used the word “mistake” three times! It puts into context that problem solving is about mistakes. While recognizing and correcting mistakes is critical to success in both our personal and professional lives, it shouldn’t be the focus of this fundamental to me. “Practice Blameless Problem Solving”. Sometimes we confuse accountability with blame. We may take the blame or place the blame, but in doing so we are really missing the whole point. “Houston, we have a problem” – we have all heard this familiar phrase, except it is actually misquoted. Jack Swigert actually reported from the Apollo 13 spacecraft was “Houston, we’ve HAD a problem”. In hindsight there were multiple ‘mistakes’ that lead up to the problem. It would be easy to place the blame on a last minute repair of a tank that should have been replaced, or many other incidents, but when the problem in the form of a spacecraft coming apart in orbit and all known methods returning to earth gone only survival mattered at that point, not who was to blame for the events that culminated in the explosion! The solution to return three men from space in a crippled spacecraft had to be found.

DashboardThere are four basic steps to problem solving. The hardest one is the that seems most obvious – identifying what the problem actually is! To do this requires the exercise of several of our fundamentals. The first is to check your ego at the door! (Fundamental #6) When anyone’s ego is involved we becomes a part of the problem not the solution. In fact almost every one of our fundamentals is required to effectively practice blameless problem solving. We have to “peel back the onion” to understand what the real problem is and that cannot be done without teamwork (#13), listening (#23), communicating clearly (#16), assuming positive intent (#20) and many more. (Don’t worry I won’t list them all out here, but it would be a good exercise to take a look at each of the 30 fundamentals and see which ones DON’T apply to this fundamental of Practicing Blameless Problem Solving. It is a small list of the ones that don’t directly apply)

Once we have a handle on what the problem actually is we have to prioritize. Unfortunately a problem is rarely singular and the realization of a problem is usually brought on by a crisis of some kind. In fact usually we already know most of the problems we have in some sense but it hasn’t seemed to be a big enough priority to deal with until the crisis brings it front and center. I am definitely a guy who wants to have my cake and eat it too (well, figuratively as most of you know I don’t have a sweet tooth). When presented with alternatives my response is often “yes, all of the above!”. That simply doesn’t work. We have to realize that we can only work on one priority at a time and if everything has the same priority none of them will get done. This often leads to hard decisions. What is truly most important? Hint – it may not be my pet project.

Once we understand the problem and priority we have to look for alternatives for resolution. This requires creativity and often lateral thinking. You’ve heard the quote that “to the man who only has a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”. While I don’t agree with everything Maslow said I think that there is a lot of truth to this. We often limit alternatives for a solution. At the same time we can often over-engineer a solution as well – I am often guilty of this. Why build a Rube Goldberg machine to trap the mouse eating the cheese if the problem is not the mouse, but that the cheese is being eaten? If it is just the cheese, putting it in the refrigerator is probably a much better alternative. You can deal with the mouse later!

Finally, evaluating the outcome. How do you know if you are successful or not? Now is the time to analyze the outcome and refine. Be honest with yourself as to the success or failure. Remember, it usually isn’t binary, but in the end Results Matter (Fundamental #11). Rinse and repeat!

As I said earlier we often only deal with problems when they become a crisis. If you identify them early, speak straight (#22) and be caring (#19) it is much easier to practice this fundamental. While I started out by highlighting that we too much emphasis on mistakes. While that is true from the points I wanted to make in this email, we all make mistakes. And that is ok. Frank Wilczek (a physicist – I never hear of him either before looking up who to attribute the quote to) said “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”. Don’t excuse the mistakes, learn from them to prevent them from happening again. And the only way you can learn from them is to practice blameless problem solving!

I will leave you with a quote from the great philosopher Winnie the Pooh –

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”