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Tackling big hairy problems in the workplace
As an operator, there’s nothing like stepping into a problem and thinking: “How the **** am I going to solve this?” It's thrilling to plunge into the unknown, giving it form and structure. Yet, that thrill usually begins as a fear of the possibility that you may not be able to solve the problem at hand this time around. I've worked across numerous sectors that were initially unfamiliar to me, and managed to make a substantial impact on the operations within those organizations. A particularly memorable example was when I worked at a used car marketplace. Although I was responsible for selling cars, I didn't know how to drive one — a fact that remains true even today! I recall asking my team what a chassis was and the disbelief that followed.
So, how do I handle complex, daunting problems, irrespective of my familiarity with the subject? I follow a method I call the "MIGHTY" approach:
Map it out
Investigate best practices
Gather the data
Handle it piece by piece
Talk about it
The first step in tackling a complex problem is engaging in several discussions about it. These conversations help me familiarize myself with the subject matter. I converse with anyone involved with the problem to gain different perspectives, listening closely to their explanations of the problem and previous attempts to solve it. After getting a preliminary mental picture of the problem, I circle back to certain individuals with follow-up questions, helping me consolidate my understanding.
It's important for me to set the expectations with the people I'll be interacting with: that I will require their help to comprehend the problem and this might necessitate multiple discussions. I explain my "MIGHTY" approach to ensure they understand the value of their time spent.
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Mapping it Out
To visualize the problem and further understand it, I map out the processes involved. Process mapping can be approached in various ways, but what's truly important is that the process is laid out in a sequential order and in detail. This will reveal areas that need clarification, areas for automation, and opportunities for general process improvement.
Investigating Best Practices
Researching best practices in the area is a crucial yet often overlooked step. The current methods within your company may not necessarily be the best. This research provides alternative possibilities, allows you to benchmark your current approach, and accelerates your progress towards a solution. Sometimes, you'll discover that an existing process is entirely incorrect and needs a total overhaul, which can lead to increased productivity in the future.
Gathering the Data
Before attempting to solve any problem, understanding the relevant data is essential. Although sometimes anecdotal, data often provides useful metrics. By examining trends in this data, you can identify key issues and patterns. Analyzing conversion rates across various stages in your process, as well as industry-standard metrics, can guide your approach and provide a basis for comparison as you evaluate performance.
Handling it Piece by Piece
The final and most important step in addressing a complex problem is to break it down into its smallest components. This is akin to gradually illuminating a cave until the entire path is clear, leading you to success. Trying to tackle too many aspects of a problem simultaneously can be overwhelming. Breaking down the problem allows for quicker execution and easy wins, which in turn builds trust in your ability to solve the issue. A Gantt chart or project plan can help in breaking down the project into manageable parts, which can then be prioritized by their impact using data.
The culmination of the MIGHTY approach is the yield - the results. This isn't a step per se, but rather the outcome of following the previous steps. It's the tangible proof that the problem has been addressed and the situation improved. It's the moment when all the mapping, investigating, gathering, handling, and talking come to fruition. It's the satisfaction of seeing your hard work pay off and the validation of your problem-solving skills.
If you have a big hairy problem or two that you’d like help on, don’t hesitate to reach out. Happy to partner with you in tackling you or be an ear in creating a framework to help you address it. Remember, with the MIGHTY approach, no problem is too daunting to overcome.