In over 30 years in the corporate world, I can count on my fingers the number of meetings I attended that were designed to solve problems and that when we assembled, we started to talk about solutions!
At first I thought it was just me that was out of the loop as to what the problem was that we were called together to discuss and solve, but after a while I began to see a trend. No one wanted to waste time defining a “known problem” and we would waste an hour or two debating solutions and exchanging some “You don’t understand.”
Well, that was certainly true, we did not understand. We could not agree on a solution without having a common understanding of the problem. That would be like giving someone directions to the local hot spot without even knowing where they were starting from, or asking how much it costs to take a cab ride to the airport. The answer is totally dependent on where you start.
As a “soft skills girl” in a junior management role in a largely male dominated technical world, it took a long time for me to have the confidence to ask that we have a mutual understanding of the problem at hand and even longer for my request for a starting point to be taken seriously. And that was after the long wait to be invited to the meetings in the first place. But eventually the doors opened a little bit and I stuck my foot in and began what became a mission for me!
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So, there I was at the start of every meeting asking what problem we were there to resolve and this is where I made my second discovery around the question of “So what is your problem?” Apparently, a lot of very smart people have trouble simply stating the problem non-judgementally in one sentence or two. The responses to the question were split fairly evenly between blaming another department for the troubles or describing all of the pains that accompanied the issue.
This is where I took a backward approach and asked the participants to describe what their world would look like without the problem. I started with the desired state, the goal. Where do you want to be when this is solved? Simple, right? Apparently not! And perhaps this is where I earned a bit of a reputation that had people believing I was some kind of crazy woman and that, at my meetings, you would be expected to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya. I asked grown and highly skilled men to close their eyes while I waved my magic wand and made the problem go away. But magically, if you believe in that sort of thing, the words and thoughts came to them.
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At least now we had a destination we could work backwards from and define the issue. Sometimes, the desired state was as simple as “when the order arrives here, it will have X, Y and Z” which can easily be translated back to the problem statement of “when the order reaches me, it is missing X, Y and Z”. No name-calling or supposition that the originating teams were lazy, idiots or worse; just a simple statement of factual observations! Whew, a starting point at last…
We have a starting point and a destination point in mind so it is time to hit the road, right?
Not quite. If we are going to go on this journey as a group, we still need consensus. First that we all agree on the start and end point, and more importantly, that we all agree that we want to embark on the journey, because every journey has its share of risks and unknowns. So why do we want to bother with the trip? Did someone just say “to escape the pain?” Precisely!
This is a good time to circle back to the pain that everyone was so eager to share in the first place. When you do, document the pain from all angles including the players in the meeting, anyone else who might be involved and impacted (invite them to join the next meeting) and finally, don’t forget the impact on the customer and your brand image.
People now have a reason to take the journey.
Time for a break, not just for the writer, but for all the people who were at your meeting. Time to celebrate the success of planning the trip and to schedule a date to start picking the mode of transportation. You have reached the starting line.
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