During the course of our lives problems will arise: within our families, at work, or in organizations to which we belong. Our first reaction is often to cringe, deny and wonder why me. Let me put forth the notion that, rather than cringe at them, we view problems as an opportunity to improve our relationship with family, customers, co-workers, or fellow members.
To illustrate my point I’d like to share a story from my first job out of college. I was working for Motorola as a software engineer where my responsibilities included developing custom software for our CAD/CAM systems. By the end of my first year I had developed a number of new features for our CAD System to help speed up the design process for our circuit board designers. One afternoon, after I had made an enhancement to one of the features and reinstalled it, the designers complained that their systems were not behaving properly. After they explained what happened, I immediately knew what was wrong. I had made a small coding error and was able to fix it within a couple of minutes.
After the problem was resolved I was stunned by the designers reaction. Rather being disappointed that I had created the problem they were delighted that I had been able to fix the issue so quickly. I was now a hero and genius. So what lesson did I learn? Break things so you can fix them and be a hero? See Stop Trying to Delight your Customers?
I need to share another story. This time from one of my all-time favorite business books, “In Search of Excellence”, by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman.
“On the shop floors of Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant, he [Professor Elton Mayo from Harvard University] tried to demonstrate that better work place hygiene would have a direct and positive effect on worker productivity. So he turned up the lights. Productivity went up, as predicted. Then as he prepared to turn his attention to another factor, he routinely turned the lights back down. Productivity went up again! For us, the very important message of the research that these actions spawned … is that it is attention to employees, not work conditions per se that has the dominant impact on productivity.”
A lesson that can be taken away from this experiment is that when people recognize that we are trying to do something for them it has a positive impact, regardless of what we do and, based on my first anecdotal story, regardless of what caused the problem.
Now to get back to problems. Herein lies a great opportunity for us to do something for others. Just the simple act of “doing” can have a positive effect on someone’s mindset. Often we worry about doing the right thing when usually what is important is that we do something, anything. I’ve watched this happen too many times in my life, in all types of environments (work, family, politics, church …), to not recognize this as truth.
Here is a list of suggestions that can help you take full advantage of a problem for which you have responsibility.
- Acknowledge that the problem exists. This will help people recognize that when you do something you are trying to help solve the problem. Acknowledgement also helps trigger background thought processes that begin to work on solving the problem.
- Do something. Let the others know what you are doing even if it is only to tell them that you need to study the problem before you can come up with an answer.
- If you can’t address the problem immediately then ensure them that you are aware of it and that that you are working on the issue. Provide periodic status updates.
- Always remember that with a problem you have been given the chance to help someone else (even if you caused the problem). This will help you maintain a positive attitude and can actually improve your ability to solve problems (see Are We Wired To Succeed In Isolation?). Note, many books have been written on the value of a positive attitude; The Power of Positive Thinking” by Norman Vincent Peal is one that everyone should read.
- Are We Wired to Succeed in Isolation? Interesting research on how viewing a problem as helping someone else impact problem solving.
- The Power of Positive Thinking, a must read.
- Stop Trying to Delight your Customers, Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman, Nicholas Toman, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2010. A discussion of what really drives customer loyalty.