Ebony Belhumeur discusses ideation, iteration and the art of strategic problem solving
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution marches on, the disruption to jobs and skills is coupled with rapid innovation and improved productivity. Our work now centers on knowledge and our ability to strategically apply that knowledge across broad areas in order to make a real impact.
While problem solving has long been a skill requirement for Assistants, the technical components for how to strategically problem solve aren’t yet well articulated in our field. For many of us, problem solving is the goal unto itself: How do I get as many problems “fixed” as possible? To achieve high fix-it rates, many Assistants engage in what I refer to as “Band-Aid Thinking”. This is the short-sighted, hasty problem solving that often produces the immediate hit of dopamine we get as a sign that something needs our attention.
Strategic Problem Solving
Strategic problem solving is concerned not just with fixing problems, but with ensuring that we are focused on solving the right problems. Its aim is to institute long term solutions rather than provide short term relief. Taken a step further, strategic problem solving helps us to circumvent future problems by identifying underlying structural issues and continuously iterating on solutions.
Observe and Understand
Solving problems is at the heart of what we do as Assistants, and it comprises a good portion of our day. All around us, we observe a whole host of unique problems, each requiring a unique solution. The harder ones always seem easier to ignore, to put off into some distant future when we have the time to tackle them. The issue with this endless cycle of procrastination is two-fold. First, we’ll likely never have the time because organizations are dynamic living things, ever in a state of flux. New problems always accompany this kind of perpetual change. Second, it’s very likely the bigger problems we’re avoiding are fueling the smaller everyday time-sucks we must endlessly tend. Finding our way back to productivity is a journey that begins with strategic problem solving. Doing so effectively means learning how to observe and understand problems. The goal here is to uncover the internal thinking in the organization that might be contributing to problems, or even preventing them from being solved.
Do Nothing Yet
Imagine your executive comes to you complaining about a “brittle culture”, one where employees don’t feel relaxed and awkward office conversations abound. Your boss is worried because employees keep hearing from other friends about the “great cultures” at other companies. She wants you to “do something about it” – to fix it. Rather than rushing to action, you should “Do Nothing Yet”. This seems counterintuitive, after all we’re assistants we solve problems, and right away. “Doing nothing” seems to fly in the face of our very purpose. Patience may not be fashionable in our line of work, but it’s one of many important interconnected skills. Strategic coordination requires a good deal of patience. Expert decision-making skills develop when there is a willingness to listen and learn with patience before jumping to conclusions.
Although you refrain from making decisions at this point, it’s not quite fair to say that you’ll be doing nothing. The observe and understand phase of strategic problem solving is about identifying the correct problem and diagnosing structural causes. To do this effectively you’ll need to proactively observe cultural exchanges and document findings. As an assistant people likely already broach this topic with you. It’s highly unlikely you haven’t seen or heard some rumblings about the problem, so start there. In addition to internal observation, do some external fact-finding as well. “Culture-visits” are becoming more and more common. Friendly organizations often allow struggling organizations to visit their company during an arranged time period to share best practices and inspire others. There are also resources on forums and groups on the web where you can pose strategically relevant and specific questions. Some examples:
- What are two things you like most about your company?
- What are two of the main reasons people want to work with your company?
- Can you define what it means to have a robust and healthy company culture?
As you collect these data points from a diverse array of sources, you’ll likely notice themes emerge. Company culture isn’t just what you say, it’s what you do. And while mild grumblings seem to only be creating small problems now, as the war for talent continues it could do real damage to the organization’s ability to succeed in the long term. Retaining top talent will be almost impossible as more esteemed companies come calling, luring promising newcomers to start their professional careers with you will be a significant challenge. Without fresh perspectives and new energy, the problem can only get worse.
You’ll likely be hearing a lot about ideation over the next decade. It’s a concise way of describing the process of identifying not just good ideas, but great ones, through sessions such as sketching, brainwriting, worst possible idea, and brainstorming (amongst others). This is the time to collaborate and embrace your inner inventor to find creative ways to disrupt current ways of thinking about your organization’s culture (and this can apply to any way of thinking).
Small Working Groups
Form a small working group to collaborate on ideas. Small teams are a powerful tool that even large, global organizations are learning to leverage more (the Future of Work). Learning how to work on them effectively is a crucial skill for being able to distinguish yourself in the talent pool over the next decade. Developing your leadership skills in this kind of format is ideal for novice and intermediate leaders. Whether you have the resources to leverage a small group or you go it alone, the ideation process will still look similar. The goal is to get ideas out in the open, all kinds of ideas. Ideation specifically, encourages the use of weird, wild, and wacky ideas. In fact, the Worst Possible Ideas technique is all about inverting the search process by describing the properties of truly awful solutions and then searching for their opposite. For example:
- No vacation days
- Making everyone curtsey to their superiors
- Forcing everyone to join the 5AM Club
We can all agree these ideas are truly awful, and we might get a little chuckle at the thought. But this exercise reveals a lot about the things we do value, as much as the things we don’t. People want to balance in their professional lives and that often comes in the form of vacation days and reasonable or flexible working hours. As adults, we want to feel respected as peers rather than serfs under a tyrannical gaze. Getting to these ideas can be energizing and the process itself is informative. Practicing this kind of unique perspective thinking will help turn you into the kind of problem-solving maverick that the new decade is calling for.
Take a Point of View
After generating some preposterous and awesome ideas, it’s time to nail down what works. You’re likely to have several good ideas, and it’s critical that you narrow down the most valuable ones. Generating a set of criteria that will establish the framework for how you evaluate the worth of an idea is the first step in this process. Criteria can vary, but the general principle is that valuable ideas will be viable, scalable and desirable. In the case of transforming culture, you might consider things like stickiness: is this idea likely to become a habit? Does it have emotional appeal? Integration will also be an important factor. How well does this idea integrate with our organization’s overall strategy and/or company goals? Working in this way will ensure you develop a well-articulated strategy for implementation which will, in turn, increase the likelihood of success over the long term.
Once ideas have launched, it’s important to remain open to change. Iteration is the active process of learning and adjusting and it’s a valuable skill to have in the era where knowledge work reigns supreme. Doing this effectively requires us to be open to constructive feedback, willing to strategically experiment, and adapt to changes in our environment. All ideas that survive over the long term do so because they’re iterative. We’ve watched companies engage in this process for years. They’re constantly working to reinvent themselves or a core product. Microsoft and Intel come to mind, and so do Balmain and Chanel. Stagnant things don’t last very long in the information age and the expiration window on ideas continues to narrow. To stay fresh, open a feedback loop and encourage people to provide regular input on how a given idea might be improved. When a new approach comes in, try a micro-experiment to evaluate its effectiveness. Ultimately, the goal here is to make the process of learning and growing ongoing; to lean in to long-term strategic thinking by using tools already at your disposal. When we reflect on successful days, it shouldn’t be counting how many band-aids we put on. More than almost anyone else in our organization we have the potential to influence change and make an impact. To do so, we must develop our strategic problem-solving capabilities, so we’re prepared for future challenges.