One of the greatest challenges in managing an organization is knowing what you don’t know.
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The larger and more structured your organization becomes, the more effort it takes to really know what’s actually going on at the front line. Nobody likes being the bearer of bad news, particularly when it comes to uncovering business problems that occurred under your watch. Let’s face it, good news naturally bubbles up while bad news tends to get buried--particularly when there is fear of finger pointing and blame.
To find out more about the challenges of dealing with this phenomenon, I spoke with Michael Roberto, Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University. In his book, Know What You Don’t Know, Roberto talks about the notion of being more than just a problem solver and stresses the importance of being a problem finder.
Roberto points out that “most large scale failures have an incubation period and are not the result of a single root cause, but a chain of errors.” However, as you climb the corporate ladder, it gets tougher to see small errors incubating beneath you. This is why managers have to rely on communication with their staff in order to keep small problems from growing into big ones. Inevitably, this means dealing with the challenge of filtering and finding ways to connect straight to the source.
Roberto shared three basic techniques for developing yourself as a problem finder:
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It’s important for executives and managers to remember that gatekeepers are trying to do their best to boil down information into simple sound bites and talking points for the sake of time. But that often means blowing over small, peculating issues. To combat this, Roberto recommends that every so often executives and managers carve out time to review the raw data of their organization.
The idea is to break away from the standard routine of briefings and reports that have become stale and predictable. Take a look at data you don’t normally review, or read some of the reports that your direct reports receive.
Also, changeup who is getting in front of you by requesting that your direct reports have their new and more junior staffers conduct some routine briefings. Often, younger team members will be less constrained in what they are willing to tell you, says Roberto.
Be an Anthropologist
All too often, executives and managers are surprised to learn what really goes on at the front lines when problems and issues finally get exposed.
Engagement surveys and focus groups are a good start in helping identify potential troubles, but they provide nothing more than top-line aggregated data articulated in a language that may be foreign to the culture of your company, says Roberto.
You must get out there and talking to your people in a meaningful way to help foster a psychological and emotional connection. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, getting out on the shop floor and letting your people know you are genuinely interested in what they have to offer.
Encourage Useful Failures
The most successful leaders started out by failing, but they were willing to take a shot, and then another, and another… until they made it. Sometimes you have to do a little experimentation before you figure out the right answer.
Thomas Edison was fired twice and failed at his first 1,000 attempts to create a working light bulb. Oprah Winfrey was fired from an early job as a Baltimore TV reporter because she was deemed unfit for TV news.
When it comes to failure, Roberto advises not to wait for a failure to create a learning opportunity, but instead create opportunities to fail. In other words, create experiments and pilots to test ideas in an environment that is safe. This encourages employees to acknowledge and address failure in a positive way they can learn from, and will lead to a more open culture where employees will be more willing to share little errors before they erupt into major problems.
Bottom line, creating a genuinely strong connection to your business requires a willingness to go beyond just being a great problem solver by also becoming a great problem finder.