One simple tool to help you solve any problem

Have you ever had the experience where the same challenges keep coming up again and again? Whether that be in one to ones or in team meetings after a while these things get you down and you lose perspective or energy to solve them.

In my last job I managed a large remote team, we met together about 6 times a year. I used to sit in the day long meetings and note down everyone’s problems and take on the burden of solving them. I left the team meetings drained, stressed and quite honestly depressed. While my team left feeling upbeat and positive because they had unloaded everything. However, their initial relief soon faded when they realised that I wasn’t actually going to solve their problems. Just a quick aside – if this is a challenge you have – read: The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Ken Blanchard.

So, how do you solve this problem and indeed all the problems of your team? During my last three months in the job I took on a new team, a team that had lots of challenges. I knew that I had a short period of time to support them and that taking on their problems wasn’t going to help. I needed to empower them and give them the tools to problem solve.

The team was a small team in a charity responsible for looking after supporters – they were saying they were overworked and couldn’t take on a bigger caseload.  By looking at the problem in a more abstract way you start to unlock the root cause of the problem and frame it differently.

This is where the Ladder of Abstraction comes in. As you go up the ladder the thinking becomes more abstract and down the ladder thinking becomes more concrete. To move up the ladder you ask WHY and down the ladder you ask HOW. It is a useful tool to help describe our language and thoughts and re-label a problem. It can be used in many different ways but I have found it useful for problem solving and evaluating activity.

So how does it work?

You take your problem and start at the bottom of the ladder. For each statement you keep asking WHY. Eventually you get to a root cause of the problem and then you can work your way back down the ladder asking HOW. If you start with how you miss the opportunity to re-label the problem and you take it at face value. So, in the example below the problem is “We do not have enough capacity”, you might jump to – we need to recruit more staff or maybe we need to change a process or reduce workload. But you might be unsure which process to change or simply providing more capacity might not actually solve the problem – exploring the why helps you get to grips with this.

One simple tool to help you solve any problem

By using this simple tool we thought the problem was that the team didn’t have enough capacity but then we realised that we didn’t need to discuss every supporter together but that we could set aside a set time to creatively discuss specific challenges. This also helped the team focus on the solution and not the problem.

I have also used this tool personally to reflect on how a project or piece of work went – this is particularly useful if you feel that the project failed in some way. You could use the ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ method Better If’ method, which is useful. But the Ladder of Abstraction helps you to explore more deeply WHY things went wrong and then HOW you would do things differently in the future. It also makes it less personal because you can look at it objectively from a more abstract viewpoint.

I hope that this simple tool can help you unlock your thinking, solve problems and learn from failure. Used enough, asking WHY becomes second nature.

Emily Petty

 

Emily Petty, a member of the Lucidity Network, is a fundraising and change consultant. She is passionate about helping charities build a relationship led approach to fundraising and supporting them to unlock potential and manage change. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyPetty1 and on LinkedIn

 

If you’d like to develop your thinking and get better results check out the Lucidity Network. We’re open a few times a year. There is more information about joining the Network here

In the meantime get involved at the Lucidity Facebook Community – a free resource for clearer thinking and better results.

The tale of the bent fork and a lesson in collaborative problem solving

You don’t really expect to be drinking white wine in balmy afternoon sunshine in mid-October in the Baltics. But luck (or global warming!) were on our side last month and that’s just what Lucy and I were doing one sunny Sunday afternoon.

Lucy had joined me on one of the legs of my ‘EU Adventure’, a personal travel challenge to visit all the EU member states before the 29th March next year (don’t mention the B word!). We’d had a busy couple of days tramping round Vilnius before a super early start to catch the coach to Riga. After walking round the city for a couple of hours we found ourselves a sunny spot and settled down for something cold, white and dry. I chucked my canvas bag on the spare chair next to.

Clunk

Hearing that my phone had fallen out of my bag I leaned down to pick it up. I couldn’t see it. I shuffled round in my seat. Still no sign of it. I doubled myself down and looked right under my seat. A dawning realisation. “Oh no!” In a ridiculous I-couldn’t-do-that-again-if-I-tried turn of events, my phone had slipped out of my bag and right down through a gap in the decking. Decking that was secured to the main city square and currently home to a few hundred Sunday diners. And there it sat, shining up at us, visible through a gap that not even a child’s fingers would fit through, never mind ours.

We sat there for a while, giggling in disbelief. Then Lucy took control, beckoned over the waitress and over the next 45 minutes or so what played out in a square in Europe was a textbook case study in how different people behave in a crisis.

Waitress: “If this had happened in two weeks’ time it would be OK because we take the decking up on 28th October.”* She leaves saying she’ll come back with equipment.

*This is not useful information to know but in all problem situations there’s always someone who tells you how things wouldn’t be this bad if something else had or hadn’t happened. Stay calm.

Lucy and table neighbour man 1 and table neighbour man 2 have a chat about how the decking is put together. I sit there and look at my phone in the manner of a golden retriever puppy who stares at the garden shed, not quite believing his ball has rolled under there and got lost*. Table neighbour man 2 wanders off.

*There’s always someone for whom it takes a bit longer for the reality of the problem to sink in, who just observes for a while.

Waitress returns with some knives and forks. She drops to her knees and frantically fruitlessly starts stabbing away at the gap. After a few minutes she discards the cutlery saying she has another idea and she’ll be back. She never returns.*

*Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did wrong – there’ll always be people who dive enthusiastically and then get distracted by something else (in her case waitressing, which was the job she was actually there to do and don’t forget business as usual needs to carry on when other problems are being solved.)

Lucy, table neighbour man 1 and I get down on our knees and take over the fruitless stabbing with cutlery. We lose a knife down the gap. Table neighbour man 2 returns and in the manner of someone trying to cut a dodgy deal pulls back his coat to reveal a screwdriver. “Brilliant!” says Lucy. “Oh my God, that’s a ridiculous idea,” thinks me*. Not wanting to be discouraging I say “Oh wow, that’s a good idea but these are Phillips screws and that’s a flat head screwdriver.” Never have I been so grateful for screwdriver knowledge.

*Be risk aware. Never set about solving a problem if solving it will just create an even bigger one! Like damaged public property…

By now we have attracted quite a lot of attention and people around us are watching us, amused, offering words of support and adding the odd pointless observation. “C’mon, let’s forget this and drink our wine,” I say. Table neighbour man 1 retreats, a disappointed look on his face. Lucy and I settle back in our chairs. I start running through the problem. “I’ve been uploading my photos to Instagram as I go, the phone is being upgraded on 3rd November and until then I have a spare handset. I’ll find somewhere to print off my boarding pass for getting home.”*

*Be realistic about the likely impact of the problem and if it’s not that big a deal (or if the problem is unsolvable) just move on to thinking about how to solve the ripple effect problems.

But sometimes, you just don’t want to give up. I got back down and started some more focused cutlery manoeuvres. I managed to get the phone stood up on one side with the aid of a knife on either side. I was trying to concentrate but Lucy was busy throwing ideas out. “When you talk at me I lose my concentration and drop it again,” I said, which was really just a polite way of saying shut up*.

*Try not to tell people to shut up, even if they’re your mate.

And I should have been listening because her idea was great. “You need a grabber,” she said, fashioning one from a fork. We had our solution but there was a final moment of jeopardy! Table neighbour man 1 was back but in his enthusiasm to help he kept knocking my phone over just as it had been leveraged into the upright position and pushing it further away from the gap. I was losing patience and as I opened my mouth I glanced at Lucy – she was shaking her head and giving me ‘don’t snap at him eyes’.*

*Manage yourself and don’t get cross with your most enthusiastic problem solvers, even if they are a bit chaotic occasionally!

Then it all came together and with one of us holding the grabber and the other two holding a knife on either side my phone emerged. We cheered, the tables around us cheered. We were momentarily immersed in that wonderful feeling of solidarity than comes from a successful shared endeavour. And table neighbour man 1 was so happy. He looked puffed up and proud and excited in a way that felt a bit out of proportion, really. And I was so damn relieved that 90 seconds earlier I hadn’t lost my cool and burst his bubble. We ordered two glasses of wine for us and a bottle for his table and we all sat enjoying the last remnants of the sun.

“I’ll write a blog for you when we’re back”, I said as we wandered off, “it will be about collaborative problem solving.”

Catherine Raynor is a director of Mile 91, a story gathering agency for charities and social change organisations. You can find her on Twitter at @catherineraynor and on LinkedIn and she’s particularly enjoying meetings loads of inspiring new people through Lucidity Network so feel free to connect with her.

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