Tag problem solving

Frameworks.

I think I’ve always been interested in solving problems, and when I’m asked to describe my strengths, “problem solver” is a phrase that immediately comes to mind.

In my experience, there are three steps to problem solving:

  1. Identify & understand the problem
  2. Choose or build a framework in which to solve the problem
  3. Come up with the solution (or solutions)

For many of the problems I’ve tackled over the past several years (many in the form of specific projects), the “framework” has remained fairly constant: it typically involves the creation of a team organizational chart and a conceptual visual that depicts the project’s “end state.”

While this model works well for project management, it doesn’t fare as well for creating business models.

Historically, business models tend to be verbose and full of financial analysis and risk-oriented topics.  In many cases, this results in a business model that is too detailed, lacks true understanding and prone to gaps / errors.

In the book “Business Model Generation“, the authors present a different way of creating business models through the use of a modular graphic, or “canvas.”

This “canvas” approach streamlines the process of creating new business models by allowing participants to focus on the core subject matter vs. having to constantly remember how the pieces “fit” and whether anything has been missed.

Here is what this framework looks like:

I found this approach to be particularly useful, so much so in fact that I used it during a recent interview.  One of the questions posed involved identifying several key aspects of introducing a credit card portfolio to a company’s product suite.

To answer this question, I drew two canvas’ on the whiteboard.  The first represented the “as is” state and the second represented the future state, one where I had successfully integrated a credit card portfolio into their business model.

I used these two visuals to explain or identify:

  • what would need to change
  • where resources would be required
  • sources of revenue
  • potential opportunities
  • sources of risk

Once I was able to tell this initial story, I found I was able to answer additional questions much more easily now that I had a solid foundation to work from.

When problem solving, the use of a problem solving framework is, I think, essential to long-term success.  Once you find the right framework, you can continue to refine and expand its use, which can lead to more efficient use of your time and can open up possibilities in other areas as well.

When asked a problem that involves getting from point A to point B (physical location or point in time), duplicate the framework to show what sections need to change.  Once you have a grasp on the original framework, replicating and showing the delta between the two versions is easy.

It’s at this point where you can spend most of your energy solving the real problem, and that’s where the fun really begins!

Designing the Future

“I think the old definition of designer-as-problem-solver is a bit limited: here’s a problem over here; there’s the solution.  The problem isn’t static.  It’s moving.  It’s a living organism.  To think you can simply ‘solve’ it is ridiculous.  Rather, you need to negotiate it.”

Allan Chochinov, Designing the Future (Metropolis Magazine)

The (New) Hierarchy of Needs – Part V

[This is the final segment of a five-part series on project management that is based upon Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”]

Problem Solving

The next level starts to go into the core of the project – problem solving.  This is essentially what all projects are about.

What is a problem?  A problem is an obstacle which makes it difficult to achieved a desired goal or objective.  Problem solving can be fun as it helps to build a certain skill set regardless of the topic.  In the project management space, problem solving is the name of the game.  While many problems may be obvious, there are many that will not be as obvious and may remain hidden.  It’s the job of the project manager to uncover these hidden problems and take steps to address them.

To ensure understanding, hidden problems are those that are known by the project team but aren’t being surfaced to project leadership.  Team members are more likely to hide problems if they don’t have confidence these problems will be addressed.  Problems can also remain hidden if there isn’t a clear understanding of who can solve them.

Your role as project manager is first and foremost your relationship with the team – if team members have a clear understanding of the objective and team organization, and have confidence in your ability to lead, problems will be raised much more rapidly and the team will be able to make greater traction in the long-run.

Thus, your ability to lead, instill “order” and “structure” and tackle the tough problems are all very important in this “layer”.

Momentum

At the top of the pyramid is momentum – that’s what ultimately keeps the project going!  Initial momentum naturally follows the layers just described, but it ultimately requires a core belief that the project will be successful.

As shared earlier, the ultimate goal of this new hierarchy is to have every team member reach their full potential.  While this is a lofty goal, if you want to deliver a quality product / service in a short period of time, this is what you need to shoot for.

As with any moving object, ensuring that you maintain positive momentum is ultimately dependent upon the source of “power.”  In a project, that source of power is the team and the hierarchy tiers that fall just below this one.  The more organized and refined the underlying layers, the less “friction” and the longer you can maintain positive momentum over the long-term.

References:

The (New) Hierarchy of Needs – Part II

[This is part two of a series on project management that is based upon Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”]

Having managed projects of various sizes and complexity over the past several years, I was puzzled with the absence of “interpersonal” elements in project management literature given that the team is ultimately at the core of any successful project.  To this end, I formulated a hierarchy of needs that incorporates pure project management concepts along with core interpersonal elements.

This hierarchy looks like the following:

  • Momentum
  • Problem-Solving
  • Accountability
  • Storytelling
  • Constraints
  • Foundation

The key behind this structure is that it has a very close relationship to Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs.

This is important to understand because the “real” goal of any project is to have a team where each individual is striving to be the best.  If each team member can work within an environment or “operating structure” (the layers listed above) such that they are able to realize their full potential (i.e. she/he is involved and engaged) and reach a state of “flow” (self-actualization), the collective team will ultimately build enough positive momentum to virtually guarantee project success.

Thus, you can see why this hierarchy of needs and the concept (and primary goal) of “self-actualization” is extremely important: if team members are happy, the chances for project success are that much greater.

Let’s explore this hierarchy in more depth.

Foundation

At the bottom of the hierarchy is a fundamental understanding of what the project hopes to accomplish.

To this end, going through a formal exercise of defining an explicit mission statement and underlying objectives can be extremely beneficial in the long-term.  This may seem unnecessary or even foreign.  But first, what exactly is a mission statement?

“A mission statement is a brief written statement of the purpose of a company or organization. Ideally, a mission statement guides the actions of the organization, spells out its overall goal, provides a sense of direction, and guides decision-making for all levels of management.” – Wikipedia

In the project management arena, the mission statement is ultimately there to guide the project team and to serve as a “beacon” when things start to become cloudy – “Why are we doing this again?” or “Why is this important to the company / LOB?”  In some circumstances, the explicit definition of a mission statement can start to raise questions across the board where assumptions will start to be challenged.  “Oh, I didn’t know that we are really doing this for LOB A …. if that’s the case, then we need to do X, Y and Z …”

Once there is agreement on the project mission, it’s only then where you can start to identify core objectives.

There really shouldn’t be many – three or four.  If you find that you’re heading beyond that, you may start considering ways to break up the project.  Be careful that the customer is not automatically jumping to the requirements definition “phase”.  This is not a requirements gathering exercise – it’s asking “What are you fundamentally trying to accomplish?”  If you’re struggling at this stage, it’s recommended that you remain at this “level” until you and your customer are certain what you’re collectively going to do.

In some situations where there are multiple organizations involved, it is also valuable to define what each organization/department hopes to gain from their participation.  While this may not directly change things, this level of understanding is helpful when challenges arise – “I see why team A is pushing back on X, because they are really focused on Y …”.  It’s better to know what’s driving behavior now than struggle with it later on.

Emotion Detector.

Several years ago, I was introduced to the concept of a “trigger” – a specific action or event that results in a specific emotional response.  I found this very interesting because the very nature of a “trigger” helped me formulate a conceptual model that I could use to manage my emotional response to specific actions or events.

Over the past few weeks, I thought of expanding upon this idea to broaden its use.

Let’s first explore what a “trigger” really is.  To do this, let me give you a very basic example from many years ago.

I used to work very late hours because I was fortunate enough to truly enjoy what I was doing.  When it came time for me to leave, a co-worker would frequently ask – jokingly – “Are you leaving early?”  Interestingly enough, my co-worker’s question (the “trigger”) indirectly resulted in feelings of guilt and sometimes even anger (!):

Guilt = “Am I not working hard enough?”

Anger = “What else do I need to do!?”

After many weeks of hearing the same question, I stopped to think about why this question was so problematic for me.  After much reflection and self-analysis, I was able to understand the underlying reasons behind these feelings.

The limitation of the trigger is that it doesn’t really “solve” the problem.  A trigger is telling you that you will have a specific emotional response given a specific event, but it does not ultimately address the underlying “issue”.  It does, however, point you in the right direction.

By the very nature of the brain and one’s personality, everyone will have triggers – so the objective is not to eliminate the need for triggers, but instead try to perhaps minimize the need for them.  The way to achieve this is through “emotional containers”.

An emotional container is a way to conceptually “compartmentalize” a particular issue that you may be dealing with in such a way where you can better manage it.

The number and magnitude of each container is highly dependent upon one’s life experiences – both past and present.  Furthermore, some containers are “permanent” while others are “transient”.

To help visualize this concept, someone who has experienced numerous challenges in their life, may have one one large container that is linked through numerous triggers – i.e. many different “events” can trigger a single emotional response (of significant “magnitude”).  Another person may have numerous containers linked by a single trigger – i.e. one question or comment could trigger multiple (and varying) emotional responses.

More specifically, an emotional container contains the “root” issue along with the emotions that relate to that issue.  If one were to partition their subconscious mind, it could be perhaps represented through these “emotional containers” and their associated “triggers”.

In order to build this “subconscious superstructure”, one should ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What are the things that result in immediate emotional responses?
  2. Where do these triggers link to?
  3. What is the underlying issue or theme behind these triggers?
  4. Is there a way to minimize these containers or even eliminate them completely?

The goal – over time – is to become your own “mind cartographer”.  By taking the time to understand the concept of a “trigger” and “emotional container” you may be able to improve your ability to constructively deal with (negative) thoughts and feelings.