Opinion by Stephen Balzac

Is the darn thing on?

Sometimes, solving a problem is as simple as knowing what to look for

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on off switch Jason Zack, Wikimedia Commons

I was having dinner recently at the home of a friend, a doctor with extremely impressive diagnostic skills. Since I spent many years in the high-tech business, as an engineer and as a manager, he said to me, “Steve, my computer backups aren’t running. Would you mind taking a quick look?”

As I did so, he explained all the things he’d tried to do to fix his problem: reinstalling the software, trying to do backups at different times, verifying that the cables were all attached, sacrificing a latte, and so on. As he finished, I reached over and turned on the external hard drive.

Problem solved.

Why couldn’t my friend see this really simple answer? Because he didn’t know what to look for and therefore was distracted by all the things that didn’t matter.

A lot of problems come down to the same thing. Here’s another example.

One of my jujitsu students once came to me and said, “Sensei, I can’t fall anymore.”

“What do you mean?” I asked her.

“I used to be able to fall easily, but now every fall just hurts.”

Being a sympathetic and considerate sensei, I immediately called over another student and had him throw her. And then throw her again. And again, while I sat and watched. He kept throwing, and she kept falling, until I figured out that she was doing the equivalent of not turning on the external hard drive. Just a slight over-rotation of her body was all it took to transform the fall into a very unpleasant experience. Once I identified the problem, though, it was amazingly simple to correct.

Afterward, I asked her how long she’d been tolerating those painful falls.

“A few weeks,” was the reply.

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“I figured the problem would go away.”

A commendable attitude, if you don’t mind unnecessary pain. Sometimes, the best way to see something is to get someone to look from the outside.

I was called in to a large engineering organization to help them figure out why they were stuck. Team members seemed to have no interest in helping one another. Rather, whenever something went wrong or the customers reported a problem, the only thing to get fixed was the blame. People would work long hours and make it obvious they were doing so, yet productivity was remarkably poor considering how long everyone appeared to be working. Meetings were an exercise in one-upmanship. Firing the worst offenders and hiring other people hadn’t solved anything.

When I was called in, I asked how long this had been going on.

“I don’t know. Months. Maybe a year. It’s been getting worse for a long time.”

“Why have you tolerated it?”

“We tried to fix it, but nothing worked.”

“And how is this affecting you?”

He pointed to his bald head and replied, “I used to have a full head of hair.”

OK, he didn’t really say that. What he did say isn’t printable.

I spent the next two weeks observing the business. Since they’d already made any number of attempts to fix the problem and nothing had worked, it would have been silly to just jump in with another “solution.” Compared to the hard drive or the falling student, this situation was a bit more complicated.

It wasn’t until I was allowed to sit in on some performance reviews that the solution revealed itself.

At the risk of oversimplifying what was a complex situation, the fundamental problem was that the bad behavior was being rewarded. Despite all the talk about the importance of teamwork and cooperation, employees were being rewarded for their personal contributions. Project went well, but you couldn’t prove you had contributed sufficiently? Poor review. Project went badly but you could show all the times you had stood up and fought for the “right” answer? Good review. And so it went. Teamwork was talked about, but selfishness was rewarded.

Once the problem was correctly identified, fixing it was eminently doable. The most difficult part was taking some deeply rooted beliefs about what should work and replacing them with facts about what would actually work. On the other hand, the sacred cows turned out to make excellent hamburger.

Quite often, the best way to figure out a problem that is only getting worse is to combine the lessons of the hard drive and the jujitsu student: You have to have the right person looking at the problem from the outside. It’s knowing what to look for, what to ignore, and having perspective on the problem that makes finding a solution possible. It’s amazing how many seemingly intractable problems have remarkably easy solutions once you know what to look for and how to look for it.

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and Organizational Psychology for Managers. He is also a contributing author to Volume 1 of Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play. For more information, or to sign up for Steve's monthly newsletter, visit 7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or steve@7stepsahead.com.

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