Right Answer, Wrong Question

Why is it that we can do the right thing and get the wrong result?

The answer starts in how we learn.  Most people don’t create tools.  We just learn to use them with more or less proficency.  Whether it’s hammers and wrenches or computer hardware and software or microscopes and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) machines, we get some form of training and education in order to use tools to accomplish tasks that are relevant to our jobs.  The same applies to work processes.  Most of us don’t design them, we just learn to use them, and to modify or adjust them as necessary.  In fact, mastery of technical or business or organizational skills usually implies experience, such that a person can “read” a situation and know easily what the most likely solution would be, or even anticipate a problem before it happens.

This usually keeps our focus on efficiency: doing more work with greater accuracy and less effort.  Under a lot of scenarios, this is a good thing.  As long as what we’re doing is the right thing (the right product, the right service, the right procedure) it’s good to make it better.  Where people often get into trouble (in many ways) is through assumptions.  The trouble, though, is that we need assumptions; they’re an important part of being efficient.  If we had to question or think about every detail of what we did everyday, we’d get very little done.  So the tendency is usually to “try harder” – to put more pressure on the wrench, or on people who are supposed to be getting something accomplished, if things are not working.  Sometimes that strategy works, but only if the problem resides at that level.

The more difficult approach is “take a step back” and try to understand the nature of the problem itself.  Just because a problem showed up in a particular place doesn’t mean that the problem actually started there – or can be fixed there.  If a part breaks in a machine it could just be a faulty part.  The simplest answer is to replace it.  If the new part breaks it could be a bad supplier who continues to sell you defective parts.  It could also be that the machine is being used for something that exceeds its capacity and you have just found its weakest link – the part that will continue to break if you continue to use it this way.  (You could replace that part with a sturdier one, but that may just lead you to find the next weakest link.)

The same basic principle applies to people.  If you have an employee problem the simple answer is to assume that you have a problem-employee, and to replace them.  By the time you’ve had several people in the same position, though, and continued to have similar problems, it should become clear that the problem may not reside in those individuals, or necessarily in their professional backgrounds or professional orientations to the world.  (In the mean time, you may have lost some people who were actually good, and wasted a lot of time on resources and recruiting, etc.)  The problem may lie in the role or the position itself, or in how that role fits into the rest of the organization.

The possibilites continue to scale up.  Your marketing problem may actually be a larger shift in the markets themselves.  Doubling your advertising and public relations budgets probably won’t fix that.

The most difficult problem is how simple and self-evident this is – but why we don’t often act on it.  We end up with Sales blaming Distribution for a problem that they are sure Production caused.  Or we do double the advertising budget because Sales and Marketing both pushed for it, and if that doesn’t work we’re left with less money to invest in another solution.

Getting to the right issue at the right level is one way to apply systems thinking to organizations, and one that can create a significant return on its investment.

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