Think Leadership Ideas

Resolving Issues

Does your team incessantly talk about the same issues? Does it seem that too many issues never get resolved?

I find that most groups get stuck in one or more of three areas, discernment, design, or discipline - i.e understanding what is going on, crafting a satisfying response, and following through with meaningful action.

Following are twelve questions leaders can use to stimulate progress on those persistent issues that plague your team or organization.

Discern - Understanding the Situation

What do we want?
Too much of the time people get stuck on what they don’t want, and fail to articulate what is desired. If discussion of an issue is dominated by complaining and whining, “what do we want?” is the question to bring forward. Stop talking about what is unfair, and start talking about what ‘fairness’ would look like in specific terms.

Is it really a problem?
Once something is defined as a problem, a solution is inferred. However many difficulties are solution-less predicaments, a proper response mitigates the issue but does not eliminate it (for example, co-workers who simply dislike each other). Some predicaments simply must be endured. Let go and move on. Continuing to seek a ‘solution’ when what you have is a predicament generally misleads and wastes effort.

If there is conflict, is it over values or means?
A disagreement over means should be resolved logically based on analysis of which means best addresses the issue. If conflict is persistent, however, it may be because analytical discussion over means does not address differing values. Addressing a values conflict relies less on objective analysis, rather it requires focus on empathy and understanding of different interests, dialogue to find common values, and building respect and trust.

Is a specific or systemic response appropriate?
Some issues can be resolved by themselves, even if it requires an exception to standard approaches. Other issues point to a larger system issue, requiring a change in organizational practices. Do you change your processes because of complaints from one customer, or simply handle that customer differently?

Design - Crafting Solutions That Will Work

What are criteria for results?
You know what you want, but efforts seem to create more problems. Have the parameters of what will work and what won’t been articulated? Consider the specific financial, time, quality, aesthetic, and human interface requirements that will be important.

What constraints are negotiable and what are non-negotiable?
Once parameters have been established, where can they be flexible? Perhaps the deadline can be pushed back, but the budget is firm. Perhaps monetary risks can be tolerated, but not illegal actions. (Had only Enron executives paid more attention to this question!)

How does this benefit the customer?
Too often well intentioned people work hard to address organizational issues, but fail to directly connect their efforts to how the customer is impacted. For example, I’ve often been engaged to help companies that are struggling to figure out how staff could be better team players. Typically I find that ‘teamwork’ is assumed to be beneficial, but how or why has not been addressed.
When the real question is asked, “how to best serve customers?”, then improved teamwork becomes meaningful.

What disincentives must be addressed?
Many organizations try to encourage certain desired behavior, but fail to recognize or address deeper disincentives built into their practices. For example, wanting employees to act more like entrepreneurs but punishing any idea that fails.

Discipline - Ensuring Action and Execution

Do we have the information we need for a decision?
Will additional information make a difference to any decision or action we take? If so, what info do we need. If not...what are we waiting for? The answers to this line of questioning can help avoid paralysis by analysis.

In what way can we test or prototype a solution?
Ideas that work - whether a business model, product design, or operational process - usually emerge from a succession of trials. Savvy innovators know success favors those who rapidly test, prototype, or pilot ideas, and keep shaping a design from experience, over those who spend too much time on getting it right the first time.

How do we monitor outcomes?
Are measures of results in place, and are they the right measures?

How do we create real accountability?
Who will step up if things go off track? Is it the leader’s responsibility, or can anybody point out what is and isn’t working? What happens when they do? Too often people fall into an unspoken collaboration of avoiding holding others accountable so their own shortcomings will not be pointed out.

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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