Carter: Have You Solved Any Good Problems Lately?

Thanks to my many years of experience I am firmly convinced of the fact that there is one skill which is critical for all of us to possess. It is the ability to solve problems. Each and every one of you has faced a problem at one time or another. If you are more than one day old, you have faced a problem (or two or more). Most of us are veterans of the barrage of problems which each of us faces in any given year. 

Before going any further I think it is important to define what a problem is. I will offer a few for you to consider. They are:

  • A matter proposed for solution
  • A perplexing or difficult matter
  • A difficult person
  • Something about which you want to learn more
  • A roadblock to your success
  • Something you have to handle
  • A decision you must make
  • Something you would love to avoid but cannot

As you review the list, please reflect upon the degree to which you can influence the outcomes of any of these. One of the things which I have preached for many years now is the thought that you should not waste time and effort trying to control things which are beyond your ability to control. However, since there is so much to do let me suggest that you will need to focus your efforts on things you can influence.

It is important to stress that good leaders are always sensitive to their environment. They keep an eye on things and look out for the presence of storm clouds on the horizon. I say this because some really small things can suddenly grow out of control if you don’t pay attention to the world around you. You will then be required to act to solve the problems as they occur. 

I believe that it is also critically important to remember that you cannot simply ignore things. Problems don’t go away just because you ignore them. They tend to get worse. Sadly this is something I have seen up close and personal. Someone once told me I had a weight problem. I ignored their advice and the rest is history. A somewhat chubby history. 

What are the parts of a problem? There are the symptoms of the problem and then there are the actual causal factors. In many cases these could also be called the hints and the clues that something is amiss. Let me give an example of a symptom.

Your fire department conducts drills twice a month. Over the past couple of years you have seen a decrease in the level of participation by your department members. During your early years in the department people looked forward to these drills and they served as a central focus in your organization. This is no longer the case. What is wrong?

There are those who would say that the attendance drop is the problem. I say it is a symptom of something else, something deeper. Has the emphasis on the importance of the drills been changed? Do the current officers seem like they are just going through the motions of conducting the drills. Has the content of the drills changed? Are the drills boring and redundant? Do you see where I am headed here? When the emphasis on the drills comes from the top and the support is strong and positive from the top, attendance will be much better.

Heck I have been a training officer and I know the need to make things both educational and interesting. I can remember what one of my mentors told me many years ago that he and I were in the business of training the people who had grown up as part of the television generation. He and I decided that we had to spice up our standard, ongoing, training curriculum. A bit of humor here, a laugh there, and some real war stories to share what we had learned about the actual world of firefighting. I think that we headed off a lot of problems by taking a proactive approach to making our training courses interesting.

Back to the world of problems my friends. What are some of the things we try to use when it comes to problems? Here are a couple of things that I have seen on many different occasions:

  • We deny that a problem exists. (Problem, I don’t got no stinking problems.)
  • We ignore the problem hoping that it will go away. (This has been my longstanding approach to weight control)
  • We seek to put the blame on someone else.
  • We blame ourselves. (mea culpa)

None of these things work. No they merely postpone the actual handling of the problem. 

Let me suggest that the first step in problem solving is to actually admit that a problem exists. You stare the problem in the eye and decide that something must be done. You must be honest with yourself and own up to the matter at hand. Done not hide from the problem and do not go into denial. 

Once you have owned up to the fact that there is a problem, you must then confirm that it really exists. Part of this is to define the problem in written form. You must then identify and define the actual causal factors which make up the heart of the problem. These are the things which form the root cause of the problem. It is important for you to remember:

  • Don’t get hung up on the individual symptoms
  • Use the symptoms as guideposts
  • Work your way back to the real problem

It is in part three of the problem-solving formula that you must work to target the actual things must be addressed. Once you have identified the actual problem it is important to remember that you don’t get hung up on the individual symptoms. Use them as guideposts. Work your way back to the real problem.

Once you have done this you can then begin to develop alternative solutions to what you have identified. Let me remind you not to jump at the first conclusion which comes to mind. You must work to get the whole story. Gather the facts as you find them and don’t embark on a witch hunt.

It is also important to review your department’s records and find out what rules and customs apply. There may be policies, procedures, and operational guidelines that can help you. It is important to speak with the people involved and gather the opinions, facts and feelings of those concerned.

Once you have identified all of the possible information on causes and symptoms you will need to decide the way in which to attack the problem and who will be responsible. The choices are:

  • Solve it yourself
  • Call a conference
  • Delegate to another person
  • Form a committee
  • Use an outside consultant

Regardless of the choice from the list above, there are a number of tasks which must be undertaken. You must work to fit the facts together. Consider their interaction and then review department policies and regulations to see if solutions exist within the framework of your existing policies. As you work to develop your alternative solutions you must consider the potential impacts upon your people as well as your organization. You do not want to make things worse. 

Now you are ready to begin the hunt for alternatives which might serve as solutions for the problem you have identified. Let me suggest that it is critical to bring people together to assist you in your hunt for a solution. Brainstorming among the people you have assembled is an excellent way to proceed. 

There is one critical question which must be answered in the affirmative. Are the alternatives realistic? Building a solution which does not bear on the problem is quite a bit like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Once you have made the choice of an appropriate alternative, do it. Do not study it to death. Do not bury it in the midst of endless discussions. Just do it and then see what happens.

There are a few things which you must do to insure that you are properly evaluating the manner in which your alternative is working (or not). They are:

  • How soon should you follow up?
  • How often should you check?
  • Be sure to watch for changes in output, attitudes, and relationships

It is critical to monitor the way in which your alternative is being implemented. Once the feedback is in you can then answer the critical question of whether your alternative is working or not. If it is, then graciously accept a round of congratulations on a job well done. If not then go to one of the other alternatives you developed. If none of these work then you must begin to step one and insure that you are really looking at the right things. Then you get to go through the whole system again.

Many people avoid decision-making because it is hard word. But it is also rewarding work. Let me assure you that you avoid decision-making at your own peril. It is a critical organizational process from which no one can hide. Take care and stay safe.