Tag: #solutions #problems

Telling Stories

You may not have noticed it, but there is a battle quietly raging in the offices and boardrooms of the business world.  On one side of the battlefield stands evidence-based analysis, empirical research and a solid grasp of cause and effect. Meanwhile, massed across the valley are the forces of story-telling, narrative and opinion.  If only a ceasefire could be negotiated and peace were to break out; decision making, planning and problem solving would be far easier and vastly more effective. But don’t hold your breath. For the time-being, they seem hell bent on destruction.

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If you’re not certain about this, just turn on your TV or listen to a radio show on current affairs.  Be it a show on politics, the economy, society or sports, listen long enough and you’ll hear something a little like the following exchange;

Host: “This is an interesting development, now over to Chris for some analysis;”

Guest/Commentator: “Thanks Martin, I think it’s pretty clear that this means [insert compelling speculative statement and some further exciting narrative]”

In some respects, this can be seen as no big deal but in fact, it serves as an insight into how the two competing worlds of analysis and narrative are locked in something of a turf war, scrapping over their own very different definitions of the truth.  And make no mistake, it’s a zero-sum game and the stakes are always high.  What we’re encouraged to accept as analysis is opinion, guess work and highly subjective.  It is also, most of the while, extremely convincing.

When opinion, narrative and storytelling (which are both vital elements of human interaction) take over, they have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of our decision making. Storytelling helps us paper-over the gaps in our knowledge, encourages to apply faulty time lines, makes us feel comfortable about jumping to conclusions over what’s happening and about what we should be doing about it.  In very simple terms, narrative is a hothouse for producing the illusion of certainty.

Furthermore, if we’re the sort of team or organisation that focusses on people and is quick to point and blame, narrative will give us all the comfort we need to carry on in this damaging direction.  When ‘facts’ are fluid or completely absent, virtually any solution can be made to fit virtually any problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

As a firm that has worked with 100s of organisations over the past decade, some small, others enormous, we have steadily recognised a fascinating pattern in this area.

Namely, that the overwhelming majority of companies operating without an established problem solving method (one that demands objective analysis) tended to focus most of their problem solving activity on the behaviours of their workforce.  In practice, most of their solutions would fit neatly into what we now describe as The 3 R’s:

  • Re-Train
  • Re-Write
  • Re-Communicate

All 3 of which are eagerly implemented at the expense of better, longer-lasting systemic improvements.

The main issue here is not that training, documentation and communication aren’t vital to running a good business, they are, they really are! It’s that these ‘Re’ solutions usually involve a substantial amount of repeating an action whilst hoping for a different outcome. And that systemic improvements, which are nearly always relegated in this scenario, would offer far stronger solutions that benefit an organisation in the longer term, without having to overload the workforce.

Some of this probably sounds familiar.  It is very common for teams and businesses, particularly those under pressure, to drift away from a structured approach to problem solving (ironically when it is needed the most), leaving opinion and narrative to fill the vacuum. When a structured problem solving method, particularly one that includes a fact-based visual analysis process, is adopted it is virtually impossible to fall into this trap.  The behaviour of people is seen in context and solutions tend to be re-focussed on systems, offering vastly better value and far stronger returns on investment.



All organisations have problems and some of those problems are certainly worth solving. Clearly some teams and some individuals are better at solving problems than others, so what pitfalls can you avoid in order to improve your problem solving skills and outcomes?

Here are the ‘Big Seven’ pitfalls that we know contribute to weaker problem solving:

1) You don’t really know what problem it is that you’re solving.
Question: Have you clearly defined the problem you want to solve?

Being clear about the problem you want to solve is essential. If the problem definition is not clear in your own mind, and has not be coherently stated and shared to your team, how will you or others set about understanding and solving it? Experience demonstrates that individuals rarely have a shared perspective we assume they have when it comes to major issues.

2) You’re not in a problem solving state of mind.
Question: Have you got your inquiring mind set in place?

All too often, problem solvers are judged on speed and not effectiveness – professional perception of a role or profession can imply that good problem solvers should be able to come up with solutions immediately. Expert problem solvers will always put aside any assumptions that they know what caused a problem or that they already know what the solution is. This process prioritises effectiveness over speed.

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3) You’re telling stories.
Question: Have you broken down the causes of the problem down into its constituent parts?

Many of us rely too heavily on narrative (aka story-telling) which comes with inherent issues, such as artificial start and finish dates, truncated analysis, focusing on activity (usually the interesting bit), simplified timelines and reduced detail. An effective analysis drills backwards in time from the problem, methodically picking apart the cause and effect relationships at play. Only patient analysis will push us beyond the superficial ‘symptom level’ to the root causes.
4) Your focus is skewed.
Question: During your analysis have you paid attention to the systems and circumstances that have allowed change to take place?

Actions aka ‘points of change’ are usually the most obvious causes, but unless we consider systems and circumstances we will only have part of the picture, at best. Although systems and circumstances are often subtle and are sometimes harder to uncover, they are no less important when it comes to effective problem solving.

5) You’re blaming people.
Question: When ‘Human Failure’ is apparent, have you ‘drilled back’ to really understand what made the person behave in that way?

People are often the aforementioned ‘points of change’ and in that sense their role in a problem is often the most obvious. For many of us it’s easy to become focussed on the actions of individuals and this easily slips into a blame culture. This usually results in less information being shared and a reduced appetite to assess tools, practices and the working environment. In this scenario problems will never be satisfactorily solved. Equally, avoiding accountability altogether by dismissing causes as simply ‘Human Error’ gets us no closer to applying effective solutions either.

6) You’re searching for THE root cause.
Question: Have you taken into account that your problem will have multiple interdependent causes?

If only problems had just a single root cause!  All problems, especially complex problems have multiple causes. Fixation on a single cause leads to a similar fixation on a single solution. Avoid convincing yourself that a solution applied to just one cause, even a major cause, will completely solve your problem.  This is rarely the case. In fact, this pitfall, above all, explains why the majority of problems are frustratingly stubborn.

7) You’re choosing the wrong solutions.
Question: Have you methodically addressed your analysis to select your best solutions?

It’s all too easy to select solutions on criteria that don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny, or apply solutions that cluster in the part of the problem we are familiar or comfortable with. A systematic evaluation of all possible solutions should help us decide which will offer us maximum effectiveness, provide a strong return on investment and won’t trip us up badly when we’re further down the track.

Finding The Stamina to Fail

Much has been written about the importance of learning to fail, and fail well. So much so that in recent years it’s become the mantra of almost each and every tech start-up around the world. But beyond the rallying cries, motivational slogans and glib sound-bites what does this really mean? And how can it be achieved?

In my experience, the answer to both these questions can be found largely by looking at how successful organisations create a culture of collaboration and energy to address their problems.

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Almost without exception, every effective and successful organisation we at Sologic work with views complex problem solving as a collaborative activity. They commit to providing the necessary resources, skills and tools required to promote, and reward, effective group-orientated problem solving. No matter the experience or ability of any given individual they know that solutions are always stronger when shaped by teams. In addition, the entire process is energised when problems are viewed objectively, seen as systemic opportunities and addressed free from the toxicity of blame.

Broadly speaking, we see that all cutting-edge organisations really do share a set of positive behaviours. They implement a process that closes the gap between what happened and what should have happened, and alongside that, they develop and support an environment that maximises the opportunity to learn from the overall event.

In summary, great organisations:

  • Solve in teams
  • Define their problems clearly
  • Promote analysis over narrative
  • Start with ‘what’ never ‘who’
  • Evaluate all possible solutions
  • Learn from the event
  • Share that learning quickly and freely

In practice, these behaviours can only come from top-down acceptance that a) problems will always occur, that b) many of these are worth solving, and c) that in the longer term, a structured and sharable process is always going to outperform any ad-hoc one.

In the workplace the painful truth is that solving complex problems as an individual, or trapped within an organisational silo, is very stressful, seriously fatiguing and worse still, it’s damned ineffective. Under these conditions, precious stamina, be it physical or mental, is quickly exhausted. Energy that would be best directed towards long-term solutions is reoriented towards quick-fixes, work-arounds, denial, blame and, in some circumstances, even cover-ups. Left unaddressed, problems become engrained, they increase in size, they multiply, and inevitably the cycle of failure becomes more and more difficult to break. That’s why only a process and not another slogan will make the difference.

Working with The Hof.


The Hof gets everywhere.  You can’t switch on the TV, listen to radio, open a newspaper or check your feed without coming face to face with the Hof.  Larger than life, irrepressible, loud, brash and ageless.  The Hof is simply everywhere.

The Hof, better known to managers everywhere as Hofstadter’s Law tells us that ‘Things are going to take longer than we expect, even when we take into account Hofstadter’s law. Introduced by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in 1979, the law reminds us that the time lines applied to projects will be substantially short of the actual time that said task will eventually require – even when we try to compensate for the human tendency to underestimate this by applying, yes, you guessed it: Hofstader’s Law! The more complex the task, the more aggressively the law applies.

Root Cause Analysis, my area of focus, reveals time and time again that The Hof is a significant contributor to many of the problems that hold organisations back. In fact, if The Hof is considered as a form of contagion that spreads to throughout all critical resources, not just time, we can pretty much apply Hofstadter’s law to explain most aspects of project failure.  Let’s just list a few of these failures at random; staff fatigue, troublesome weather conditions, expired permissions, poor documentation, poor maintenence, training failures, labour shortage, unexpected overtime, fx costs, material shortages, even government and policy changes, and spiralling costs of finance.  In a world of shrinking margins any one of these predators can be the difference between profit and loss.  In the real world, they rarely hunt alone.

And of course, we all know of projects that blew a hole through their budget like a 12-bore shotgun or took years or even decades longer to complete that expected.  The Scottish Parliament building, in Edinburgh, was 3 years late and cost taxpayers £414 million (just 10 times the original budget), Wembley Stadium in London was 5 years late and the Sydney Opera House a mere decade late and 1357% over budget.  The queen of all though, must be the $3 billion Montreal Olympic stadium which came in on time (although features like the town and roof were incomplete) but to do so, over ran its budget by a mere 2000%. The channel tunnel, World Trade Centre station, Berlin Airport (yes, the German’s are at it too), Denver Airport, Three Gorges Damn (China? You bet!), all late, all billions over budget.

So, this begs a question; why then, do the best brains in the world so often plan and budget unrealistically without making room for The Hof? The answer is, to a point, simple. Hofstadter’s law is a manifestation of Planning Fallacy, a “fundamentalist cult” within what psychologists call Optimism Bias; the firm belief that we are less likely to experience negative events than positive ones.

Hofstadter’s law is particularly odd kind of variant of Optimism Bias though, since it’s a delusion that most of us are very aware of (maybe it’s that which actually makes it the most genuine of delusions), yet we repeatedly fail to take it in to account.  Just think, how many times in your life have you sat down to do a ten minute piece of admin that took an hour? – or worse still, asked a colleague to do a ‘quick job’ with those three dreaded words “Can you just…” And if we also introduce the Peter Principle, namely that many of us are promoted to our precise level of incompetence, it’s clearer still that we are woefully unable to comprehend the scope and realistic likely influences on any major project.  To make matters worse, neither are our team, financiers, stakeholders or clients.  We’re all operating in a groupthink mindset that’s contributing to the Hofstadter Delusion.

So can we do anything?  Or in light of all this are we totally powerless?  I’d like to think not, I’d like to think that there is an answer and it sits within tools and skills that many problem solvers already use; Root Cause Analysis.

RCA is traditionally used as reactive form of complex problem solving, using cause and effect analysis to uncover all the causes of events and incidents, from the obvious hiding in plain sight, through to the hidden but no less pernicious.  But it doesn’t have to be anchored in the reactive. The Sologic RCA method is just as effective as form of proactive analysis; equally at home as a planning tool or means to conduct an effective pre-mortem (imagining and investigating the failure of a project yet to launch).  In both instances the method revels the known and, crucially, the unknown causes that contribute to the time and financial demands of any project. If this can be combined with effective reporting, data management and common cause analysis (made easy through Sologic’s Causelink software) improvements in institutional learning have the potential to be exponential.

We’ll likely never fully shake off The Hof, I suspect he’s with us forever.  But RCA methods and effective RCA Software are two ways in which we can methodically bridge the gap between the resources we expect to need and the resources we’ll eventually end up using.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, this blog did take three times longer than I anticipated.