How to make sure every issue at work doesn’t become a fire drill

Problem solving skills are a pretty big deal in professional life and personal life. See, even though we don’t like to discuss failure very openly, failure happens. When failure happens in a work context, that’s a problem (usually). As a result, you need problem solving skills — but you need real, tangible ones, as opposed to the type of bullshit you discuss in a job interview. You can even make a case that instead of focusing on problem solving skills, you should try and become a “problem-anticipator,” which at most jobs would probably lead to a lot of “Atta Boy!” and 10 years at the same pay band. I digress.

What’s an effective way for us to think about problem solving skills? I got an idea. Let’s use an acronym!

Problem solving skills: A.C.T.

I jacked this from a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Lessons From Companies That Put Purpose Ahead Of Short-Term Profits.” When I initially clicked on the link, I was keeled over laughing — companies are notoriously bad at providing any type of purpose back to employees (and in reality they don’t need to be good at it), and almost no executive in history would prioritize purpose over short-term fiscal gain. (Although ironically the ones that do probably make more money long-term.)

So I didn’t learn very much about purpose or passion in this article, but I did learn about this approach to problem solving skills. Acronym time!

  • Accept
  • Confront
  • Transcend

Seems like a good model, right? A.C.T. or, ACT. Let’s go a little deeper.

Problem solving skills: Accept

… and, at Step 1, the wheels are almost off the bus entirely. Most people don’t accept problems very openly. This ranges from drug users and alcoholics (personal) to hard-charging, target-chasing executives (professional). Most managers have absolutely no idea how to give feedback and don’t know what ‘accountability’ really means, thinking it’s a synonym for ‘scare the shit out of someone.’ Almost everyone with a moderate-to-high degree of authority that I’ve ever worked with has gone absolutely bonkers when something didn’t go right the first time out, even though almost nothing goes right the first time out. You need to understand that failure happens. Accept that there is a problem. That would be a logical first step to problem solving skills.

Problem solving skills: Confront

A couple of additional wheels fall off the bus at this stage. Here’s commonly how people ‘confront’ a problem at work:

  • They craft an e-mail or call a meeting
  • Someone replies all when they shouldn’t, and another three people add new members who shouldn’t be on the thread
  • Everyone immediately focuses on the process and minute details of the problem, instead of the bigger picture and context
  • Some middle manager chasing praise sets a fire in an attempt to resolve it and be praised by an executive
  • Some executive, because he/she can, dives in with a completely out-of-left-field e-mail or idea, deems it an urgent priority, and violates every established process as he/she does so

The above bullets are traditional corporate problem solving skills: basically, you run everyone around in circles and create as many headaches for them as possible in an effort to somehow look better yourself. It’s an amazing thing to watch in real time, as some middle management joker rushes past you like he just heard his mom got hit by a car. In reality, some exec told him that moving Bullshit Non-Priority 108 from Bucket A to Bucket B now was an “urgent business need.” Your sprinting co-worker probably tripped over a trash can en route to hit his target, and may have smashed his face on the sink, knocking out 4–5 adult teeth. You know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s all about doing what the big dogs want, baby!

So that’s the way most companies approach the ‘confront’ level of problem solving skills. The better way would be to figure out what problem you’re actually trying to solve, figure out who needs to be involved, and go from there. It’s not rocket science, but the dude barreling past your cubicle and tripping over a trash can has a degree of entertainment value as well.

Problem solving skills: Transcend

You’ve accepted the problem, you’ve confronted the problem, and now you’ve got to rise above the problem, i.e. transcend. It’s the third logical step in problem solving skills.

What normally happens: A bunch of people at different levels “collaborate together” and chase their tails on a few no-ROI deliverables completely out of scope with any true organizational priority. Some higher-up pings the entire thread at 11pm on a Thursday night and changes the entire direction of the problem — because he can. Everyone’s yelping, screeching, bellowing, hollering, chest-pounding, and racing from meeting to meeting and call to call with no preparation. Eventually, another higher-up deems the original problem not to be a problem anymore. “We’re all onto this other urgent thing now!” Rinse and repeat, and in 1.5 weeks, let’s do it all over again.

What should happen: People have accepted the problem, understood why it’s a business need, gotten together on what the outcome should look like, determined how the outcome will be measured, thought through who should be working on the problem together, and then dispatched them as a team and cleared their other responsibilities. There is a point person, sure, but the team can manage each other — the hierarchy isn’t rigid. They work for 2–3 weeks, hit the target, show their problem solving skills, solve the problem, and then go back to other projects and priorities.

Problem solving skills: What’s the rub?

Most of the issues with problem solving skills in a job come back to poor management, which is what most issues in a job come back to in all honesty. (“People leave managers, not jobs,” etc.) Managers have a tendency to spend so much time swatting down ideas they see as threats, puffing out their own chests to display relevance, pucking the posterior of those above, and trying desperately to seem relevant and not incompetent. As a result of these focal points, most work examples that need good problem solving skills just become Chinese fire drills within about three hours. You want better problem solving skills in an organization, figure out how to get better managers. Less target-chasers, and more peeps focused on empathy. Yes? Yaaaas?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.