Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The #1 Planning and Organizational Troubleshooting Question

In an earlier article, I mentioned my personal favorite strategic planning question. It's also my personal favorite organizational troubleshooting question. Particularly when working on a problem that's not new -- something you've been working on for some time without meaningful progress.

The question is: "What's getting in the way?" Asked exactly that way -- verbatim -- "What's getting in the way?" It works for several reasons. First, it depersonalizes the issue. It's not somebody's fault (that would be WHO's getting in the way?"). It's just a question of symptoms.

There's a second reason it works -- it doesn't require a solution. It's not "What's the problem here?" That question requires analysis and troubleshooting -- something not many people are very good at. It's not "What do we need to do about this?", which not only requires analysis and troubleshooting, but also invention of a solution -- something even fewer people are good at. Certainly not on the fly.

Have you ever noticed, particularly in a management meeting, how something comes up -- maybe just an idle comment -- and someone else jumps in with "What you ought to do about that is .....", and then the conversation spirals off into a debate of the first proposed "solution" -- to something that may not even be a problem, and also unlikely to be a root cause? In fact, this "jump to solution" is generally a poorly-thought response to a poorly-defined problem. Or a non-problem. Curiously, this behavior is most endemic in organizations populated by problem-solvers.

By asking "What's getting in the way?", and then keeping the dialog on that plane -- asking "What else?" and then "What else?" again, you start getting the full picture of all of the symptoms. Avoid letting others (or yourself) shut down or divert the conversation by responding to or denying the asserted symptoms. Or debating solutions. Just keep the conversation going until the potential ideas of what's getting in the way are exhausted.

From that point (especially if you've had a white board handy to write down the answers), you're positioned to drill into causes -- asking for each symptom "And why do you think that is?". Again, asking for an opinion, not an analysis or a solution. Continuing along this line, you start to home in on the root cause. Problem-solving techniques such as a "fishbone diagram" are sometimes helpful in working your way from symptoms and asserted causes to root causes.

Then you have something to work on. You have a long list of symptoms, a list of suspected causes and a suspected root cause. You probably also have a decent list of what's not the problem.

Try this the next time you confront a repetitive, persistent problem. Ask "What's getting in the way?", then "What else?" and keep that dialog going. Share your experiences with this technique with others by clicking "comments" below.

For an article on a different way to look at effecting change in your business, see: Newton Was Right -- Effecting Change in Your Company

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Terry Weaver

Chief Executive Boards International
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Chief Executive Boards International: Freedom for business owners & CEOs -- Less Work, More Money, More Freedom to enjoy it

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