I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.
Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:
“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”
Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.
In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.
The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is not just a book with a few good theories about coaching. Bungay Stanier includes a lot of specific words, phrases, and conversation examples to help you see concrete ways to improve your coaching. One example that Bungay Stanier includes is a quick way to get a coaching conversation moving in a clear path to help you discuss the issues that are driving the challenges for the individual you are working with. His quick start question is as follows:
“So there are three different facets of that [the problem the individual said they are having] we could look at … the project side — any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issue with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”
What I love about this question is that from the start, it disentangles different parts of a problem that anyone may be facing. In my own life, and in listening to others, I have noticed how frequently all of these different issues seem to meld together and become overwhelming. By disaggregating each piece of the problem, you can begin to look at individual items in a manageable way. It is a lot easier to begin to look for things that one can change or adjust, when you take the pieces one by one and fit them back together.
This question also helps to steer coaching conversations away from becoming venting conversations. I really struggle in my relationship with my wife with handling conversations about the challenges she faces. One of the reasons is because I don’t handle venting well. When my wife wants to vent and tell me about the issues and challenges she faces my natural reaction is to simply tell her what she should do as if I was some sort of magic profit who could solve all her problems. Of course, my views of her challenges are not actually accurate and my advice giving does not work in these venting conversations. By steering questions away from venting using the approach that Bungay Stanier suggests in the quote above, we can heave more productive conversations focused on what really matters. A coaching session will be useless if it becomes a venting session. The other person may feel better temporarily about having a chance to vent, but nothing will actually be solved and their possibly mistaken perceptions will in a sense be validated by being heard.
The questions that Bungay Stanier presents in the quote above keeps us focused on specific issues in a solutions oriented direction. The questions also show that there are different aspects of our problems that need to handled in different ways. By working with the individual to acknowledge the self originating aspects of their problem, you get them to refocus on themselves and their growth without blaming other people for their challenges. The other pieces of the issue can be also worked on in a more objective manner when we are not looking at the whole.
In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface. Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives. One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in the world.
In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”
I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion. Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance. Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.
What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.
Dave Birss writes in his book, A Users Guide to the Creative Mind, about being creative, finding new solutions, and combining ideas and perspectives to create something new. On solving problems he writes, “The best way to find the right solution is to make sure you’re asking the right question.” I am a huge fan of this quote because it shows how important varying perspectives can be, especially when combined with persistence, a desire to improve, and flexibility. Too often in our daily lives, be it business, our personal lives, and even national politics, we settle into a single perspective and we begin to approach problems from one side with everyone asking the same question.
If we follow Birss’ advice, then we begin to reach out to find solutions to our problems from new perspectives. In my mind it is as if we take a problem, and leave a two demential space where we are looking at the problem as if it were a wall in front of us, and enter a three demential space and look at the problem as if it were a sphere where we could change our angle and vantage point at will. When we begin to look at problems from new perspectives we find that we have different questions about our original problem. In fact we may see that our problem is actually a goal, an opportunity, or just a thought that others have not acted upon.
Asking the right questions is an exercise in persistence because you have to reach beyond the first thoughts and questions that you develop. You must begin to think of things in new ways, ask others for their thoughts and advice, and not be afraid to voice opinions that may be different. Our openness to new ideas will help us change our perspective, and our new perspective will help us ask new questions regarding our problem. When we take this approach to push forwards and constantly grow, we will build new bridges and make new connections with a more well rounded and flexible mind.