Problem solving – like finding a needle in a haystack

At certain points on your leadership journey, you will have confronted matters related to organisational complexity, persistent problems, as well as multiple and ineffective solutions to problems. At times, solutions to problems evade us – problem solving can become a long, painful and elusive solution seeking process. Effective solutions can elude us.

Organisational problem solving can feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack. You think that you have identified the problem – you treat it with the appropriate organisational development (OD.) solution – only for the problem to persist.  Organisational problems can manifest like cancer.

Problem solving - needle in the haystack Pic. Credit:

Problem solving – needle in the haystack
Pic. Credit:

When problems at organisations persist, leaders not only find themselves constantly looking for appropriate organisational-development (OD.) solutions, but they also get frustrated and confused. The lack of appropriate solutions can be attributed to bad luck for those familiar with the science of ‘chance as opposed to one’s actions’, poor OD. diagnostics and therefore the wrong solution to a problem, a complex organisational environment, static culture, etc.

Why should problem-solving be a challenge?

Leaders mint problems to OD. challenges every day.  Quintessential mathematicians would quickly relate this search for OD. solutions to regularly practising geometry, calculus – the more practice and rigour, the better they get at math. Is the latter similar to leaders trying to solve OD. problems? That the more they practice OD. problem-solving, the more adept leaders become at finding OD. solutions. Well, if the latter were true, we would have millions of classic organisations; sadly, we don’t.

The nature of OD. problems and the required solutions are such that one constantly eludes the other. Appropriate solutions to certain OD. problems are so rare that it is like finding a needle in a haystack

The art of precision-problem solving:

Finding needles in haystacks calls for a search process that is driven by the science of precision. Not knowing where to look, how to look, and for how long, means that those looking for the needle in the haystack may never find it. A needle in a haystack pauses real danger to organisations. In the context of the organisation, persistent problems eat into the fabric of the organisation and ultimately cause value-loss.

Leaders know that needles in haystacks bring about risk not only to the organisation but also the leader’s career; it may cause irreparable harm at any time.

Persistent problems have to be solved – and in an effective manner.

Below is an illustration of what ‘precision-problem’ solvers will NOT do:

  1. Not understanding that you have a problem – this is the easier part of the precision-problem solving approach. It is like knowing very well that in a haystack, is a needle.  However, we continue to see organisations not working well.  Missing deadlines, not achieving the required impact, low productivity, not confronting incompetence of individuals and teams, etc
  2. Not understanding the problem – leaders often realise that the organisation is faced with a problem, but may not know the exact problem. Often, leaders fail to articulate what is wrong at organisations. Problems manifest as illustrated above, but they do not always know what is causing them. The needle in the haystack may strike as you get your hands into the hay, but you may never know where it is striking from.
  3. Not understanding the underlying cause of a problem – in the rush to deal with the pressure of leading, there is a tendency by leaders to rush the solution seeking and implementation process.  Leaders do the latter without investing the time needed to identify the actual cause of problems. Leaders at times do not ask: i) what is the problem? ii) why did it happen? iii) what will be done to ensure problems do not happen again (taking note of the lessons). Leaders have to be careful not to limit themselves to a single root cause of the problem; at the Effectiveness lab, we call this the ‘tap-root’ effect. Proper root cause analysis investigates the whole root system – both the tap and secondary roots. It has to be a holistic approach to analysis.  Root cause analysis as a force for change is a threat to many cultures and environments. Threats to cultures are often met with resistance. Other forms of management support may be required to achieve effectiveness and success with root cause analysis. For example, a “non-punitive” policy toward problem identifiers may be required
  4. Not approaching the ‘solution-choosing’ process correctly – when the underlying cause analysis is done, right or wrong, leaders and their teams have to choose the right solutions to problems. It is not always that straight forward. Choosing what solution works best for a particular root cause comes down to a multiplicity of factors: first, how robust the root cause and solution definition process is, i.e. it calls for involving the right people at the organisation, people that know the organisation well enough; targeting the right processes within the value chain; as well as communicating to stakeholders what leaders are doing and the reasons for the same; and last but not least, to any root-cause analysis and solution-seeking agenda is a communication piece.
  5. Not planning the implementation process well – with work pressure at the modern organisation ever present, the temptation is always to rush and implement OD. solutions. However, even good solutions are only effective, when applied right.

Doing the opposite of the above five vices is a sure route to developing a robust precision-driven problem-solving paradigm. From such a paradigm, leaders may  find the needle in the haystack

Categories: Strategy

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2 replies

  1. Problem solving… or solving a problem? This was our first topic of social work class. We wanted to graduate as problem solvers. Problem solving is a skill. Anyone dealing with people in work related assignment must be ready to solve a problem on regular basis. People are inherently problem creaters. There, an indepth study or investigation of each problem is important. The reason students of management learn research skills and conduct research regularly to generate evidence upon which policy decisions are based.

    However, what we need to know as managers are contextual factors that cause problems. Then appropriate responses must be sought. Some managers or supervisors carry perceptions and preconceived understanding of problems. Reason why they reoccur. Some managers are a problem themselves. That’s why supervisees have learnt how to manage supervisors instead of vice-versa. You can only attempt to solve a problem when u stand out of that problem yourself.


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