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Boost Your Problem-solving Power

Boost Your Problem-solving Power

You'll find these four factors are decisive

FINDING SOLUTIONS to the problems in your business turns on four critical factors:
• How the problem looks from where you sit.
• Your authority and margin for action.
• Your approach to the problem.
• Your ability to get your solution adopted.
Each of these has a powerful effect on your capability as a decision maker, one of the key responsibilities of any executive. Clarence B. Randall, former head of Inland Steel Company, puts the issue succinctly:
"A man who decides daily, grows daily."

Since solution-finding is a form of probing which leads to the generation of ideas and action, and is not just a stereotyped response to routine matters, you have to be constantly alert to the kinds of solutions possible in your business, the critical factors moving toward solutions, and the essentials of a sound solution-finding pattern. A solution can be evasive, compromising or direct. Put another way, you can resort to solutions which are little more than protective action—a safe way out. Or you can find a partial resolution to an existing challenge. Or you can act more constructively, seeking a direct solution geared to company objectives, operating performance, human factors, and the element of strategic timing.

It is in the direct solution, as William Oncken, president of Oncken, Heydrick and Associates, says, that one finds an unwillingness to settle for yesterday's solutions to today's problems. Such solutions, while involving policies and limits of the company, reflect a concern for means and ends. They may culminate merely in replacement of a piece of equipment on the testing line or in an exhaustive operations research project, but they represent what can be described as actions which advance the objectives of the business. More important, they represent action of the kind you would expect from a professional.

How the problem looks to you All solution-finding necessarily begins with an assessment of the situation. The way you size up a situation greatly influences the way you pursue solutions. You can size it up accurately and comprehensively, see just one dimension of the problem, or miss it completely. Observational powers, knowledge of a system or procedure, openmindedness, diagnostic ability—all can make the difference.

Your efforts in sizing up a situation should cover these important points:
. . . the risks involved;
. . . the clearing away of misconceptions;
. . . the dimensions of the problemeconomic, technical, etc.;
. . . the degree of urgency in solving it;
. . . the probable impact if it goes unsolved;
. . . the right questions to be asked
answers will come along later. Basically, what's needed is the kind of perception which goes deep. How you view a problem will tend to define it. As the noted logician and philosopher, John Dewey, pointed out: A problem well stated is already halfsolved. How a problem looks to you is important in several respects. Your perception can be unduly influenced by your field of technical specialization. It may also be narrowed because of some blind spot in regard to people, costs, ideas, values, or systems —or even your own responsibilities. The capable problem-solver—the man who has good perception—recognizes that in many instances a decision of the present is likely to be a decision of the future. A solution may lead to modification of an existing policy, revamping of standards, the reassignment of key people, the loosening or tightening of management controls.

Tackling a problem may be wholly within your authority, or only partially so. It may be within the province of another company official. It may be subject to review and veto by an organizational unit. The lines of responsibility and authority may be so fuzzy that you are really not sure whether finding the solution is something you should do.

You can undertake it, generally, under one of three circumstances: first, if it is clearly within your authority; second, if your boss asks you to undertake it, even if the authority is not well established or is marginal; or, third, when your department or division has more at stake than other units of the organization. In the latter instance, an aggressive manager simply takes over.

As James E. Black, a top official of the Pennsylvania Railroad, observes:
"It can be said that the good manager holds the initiative."

The modern contradiction This is of utmost importance because in modern management we face a serious contradiction. We are told that decisions should be made at the level closest to the problem. There the manager and his people are technically competent to handle the problem. There the consequence of the decision will be felt most. In fact, we are told that accountability will be pinned on him. and this will be reflected in evaluating his performance. The soundness of this concept is advocated by Peter Drucker, Harold Smiddy, and other leading spokesmen in the field of management.

Yet, this precept is violated so often that knowing the locale of authority is a critical factor in moving toward solutions to problems. One-man rule, second-guessers, ex eeutive intervention in the operating end of the business, and other such influences prevail in many firms. Knowing the extent of your authority to seek solutions is critical. too, in staff-minded organizations with an army of specialists on hand to do problem-analysis and recommend solutions. To the extent that they invade the middle manager's line responsibility and erode his authority, it is important that he know his authority literally rather than what the organizational manual describes it to be. In short, one has to know, real istically. where the decision centers are. Where these restrict his authority he can accept it, fight it, or file a resume with a reputable executive recruitment firm.

Your approach to the problem The temptations are many. You can cock an ear toward company tradition and do what's been done before. You can assign the job to a committee. Or you can retreat to the rule book. It may even be easy to twist the meaning of the problem so as to fit it under an existing policy interpretation. You can get legal counsel to render an opinion that nothing should be done. You can let the problem ride for an indefinite period.

It's equally tempting to seek some pat formula: Too many hands in planning and scheduling—give it to one man. Put it on the computer. Tighten up on controls. Restrict the union's influence. Centralize. Call in a consultant. Get rid of the deadwood. There is no shortage of pat formulas. Unfortunately, the problems won't always accommodate to the formulas.

A constructive approach involves certain basic requirements. Get to the origin of the problem, as best you can, and distinguish between symptoms and causes. This leads to the next requirement: probing for evidence and validating it. In doing so you have to separate facts, opinions, fictions, and emotions. Expect obstacles: the absence of data, sensitivities of people involved, rumors which have gone the full cycle and left their impact, supervisory cover-up. Deal with the obstacles as effectively as you can but guard against compounding the problem.

Be well informed on current policies, goals, production requirements, standards of performance, and available informational tools. Seek out good advice from your superiors, subordinates, and other managers. They can help you gain a fresh point of view, clarify technical aspects of the problem, or point out how similar problems have been handled in the past.

Consider alternatives. Check them out for advantages and disadvantages. Select the one which appears best in the light of your company's objectives, operations, the costs involved, and the likeli hood of the solution being converted into decision and action. Your approach should disclose an awareness of the kind of problem involved. Professor John E. Arnold of Massachusetts Institute of Technology cautions that we must know the difference between an "analytical problem," where the conditions are stated and generally one sound solution will emerge, and a "creative problem" which is open to a variety of solutions, of which some may be conventional and others innovative.

Your powers to persuade Solutions have to result in actions that are enforceable. They also must be communicated with clarity, timeliness, and effectiveness. Otherwise they lead to confusion and anxiety. For this reason one of the critical factors is the manager's power of persuasion. He has to get the people involved to acknowledge the problem and accept his solution. He has to allay their fears. He must listen to their ideas, proposals, and analyses, but not yield to their expectations.

The degree of participation of those involved ultimately proves to be the manager's most potent means of persuasion. This was well expressed by the president of Ansul Chemical Company, Robert C. Hood, when he said that "far and away the most powerful concept in our management philosophy is the idea that people support what they help create."

Involvement extends to one's bosses as well. Keeping them posted on progress in the search for a solution, conferring with them as necessary to draw upon their experience, and even standing up and doing battle with them, all add to persuasiveness. Being articulate is an advantage too.

The solution-finding orbit is not an easy one within which to move. You'll encounter sacred cows, entrenched bureaucrats. Goals and subgoals which don't mesh, policies poorly conceived or too loosely interpreted, systems and procedures born of another day, staff work of mediocre caliber—these add to the difficulties. Unilateral decisions by the boss which hamper your free and objective search for a solution compound the confusion.

It is precisely because the manager lives in this orbit that he has to use the assets which make him a good manager: a feel for the situation at hand, an understanding of and loyalty to company objectives, cost-consciousness, conceptual skill, analytical ability, good judgment, ability to work well with others, decisiveness. These competencies enable him to implement the important elements of perceptiveness, authority, sound approach, and per suasion. There are other steps you should take in finding and applying solutions to problems:

Monitor how things are going. using reports, staff meetings, complaints and criticisms, confidential memos, as information sources. Get moving at least on an exploratory basis to determine the severity and frequency of the problem and its impact on people and their performance. Ring in people close to the problem and those who might have had experience with similar problems, and elicit their participation and ideas.

Above all. it's your perceptive nets in sizing up the problem and your willingness to move toward a direct solution which count most. As Winston Churchill narrates in his account of the meetings with Roosevelt and his advisers, it was always Harry Hopkins who went to the root of the matter and asked the key question: "Surely, Mr.President, here is the point we have got to settle: 'Are we going to face it or not?' Faced it always was and, being faced, was conquered."

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