The time I solved the wrong problem for the client

I facilitated an offsite with a professional services client years ago. Their revenue had been decreasing for the past 18 months. In this time, no new service lines were introduced. I was told the key issue stunting growth was a lack of innovation and development. They wanted the senior leadership team to solve this problem by developing new service lines that would turn the business around.

Seems simple, huh?

We solved the ‘innovation’ issue and it “exceeded expectations”. Or so we thought…

Fast forward 12 months; revenue and profit was on the up, but it was barely back to the same position they were in 2.5 years ago. The time, energy and resources it took to drive the two new product lines hardly seemed worth it. People were tired and employee turnover was higher than it had ever been.

I made a rookie mistake when it came to facilitating a problem-solving process. I took the problem at face value. I was told it was an innovation issue. Yet what I soon realised, once we gathered further information, was that the services they were providing was not the issue. It was far more complicated than that.

We spend too much time, money and resources by focusing on the wrong problems. It’s like trying to win an archery tournament wearing a blind fold. Way too risky. In more ways than one.

One of the reasons is that we are conditioned to find solutions. 

This conditioning starts early. When we are young we are curious, we ask lots of questions. We don’t stop. We can be irritating, especially to our parents. So, they tell us to ‘stop asking so many questions’. 

Then at school we become obsessed with coming up with the right answer and are graded based on this. We are not encouraged to define the issue or problem in the first place. 

When we start working we are rewarded for what we solve, not the problems we identify.  “Don’t come to me with a problem. Come with a solution” probably rings a bell for most of us.

We become good at solving problems rather than truly understanding the core issues. We band aid issues way too quickly.  We might know that people are disengaged through pulse surveys, so we decide to review our salary packaging, or run a fun team day offsite and ‘bond’.  However, the core issue of disengagement is not understood. E.g. the leader could be the issue, the employees are not connected to what they deliver, they don’t see the purpose in what they do… or something else. The point is, it’s not diagnosed up front BEFORE we go into solution mode.

Most organisations have a cultural bias for solutions and implementation rather than identification. A global C-suite study conducted by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg found;

  • 85% strongly agreed or agreed that their organisations were bad at problem diagnosis
  • 87% strongly agreed or agreed that this flaw carried significant costs

Because of a penchant for action, management quickly moves to problem solving rather than accessing the core problem.

Another reason we focus on solutions is that we just don’t know how to get to the source of the problem. We don’t know the right questions to ask, the best data to gather, where the intelligence is to be found, nor the most appropriate people to include. According to Harvard Business Review a ‘strategic off-site’s success is largely determined by what happens before its convened’.  That’s when the quality of the conversations are focused on the right issues, in the right order. 

Let’s agree to spend more time on diagnosing our problems before we move to solution mode. 

PS – If you loved this then you might be super keen to learn about our offsites (and onlines). Send me a note if you’d like to have a chat.