There are many great tools and techniques a leader can use to make them better leaders.

Consider the following leadership case.

Janet, a program manager, comes to see her boss, Sophie, on a Friday afternoon.  Sophie is Director of Corporate Projects. Janet, a customer service manager, is a little subdued and exhibits a look of disdain, frustration and concern as she slips into the chair in front of Sophie’s desk.  Sophie puts down her pen and asks, “What’s on your mind, Janet?”

Janet responds curtly, “We lost another customer today.  It’s ACME.  Our process with handling customer complaints is absurd, outdated and based on antiquated technology. That’s five customers we’ve lost this quarter. I’m upset about it. Technology sucks.” Janet piped up and stewed in the chair, face reddened and nostrils flaring.

And we’ll stop right there for a second.  Let’s look at two leadership response perspectives: the problem solving method and the appreciative inquiry method.

The problem solving method

Sophie: “So what do you think the problem is, Janet?”
Janet: “I don’t know.  Our software sucks. I’ve been asking for it to be replaced for the last two years.”
Sophie: “Why do you think our software sucks?”
Janet: “I don’t know. I’m not an expert in it.  I just use it.”
Sophie: “Who do you think you should talk to so we can get answers about the software?”
Janet: “John, in IT, is a good friend of mine. I can ask him.”
Sophie: “Sounds good.  Talk to him. Let me know what he says.  I’ll call ACME and see what the issues are. I hope they’ll answer my call.”
Janet:  “OK.”

The appreciative inquiry method

Sophie: “What if we had a better system for handling complaints?”
Janet: “I could have communicated with ACME better.”
Sophie: “What if you had the right communication tools?”
Janet: “I could have contacted ACME right away and headed off delays. It was delays that cause the frustration with ACME.”
Sophie: “How would you improve the process of handling complaints?”
Janet: “I would talk with our staff and get their opinion and come up with a plan.”
Sophie: “What if IT was involved in that process?”
Janet: “It would get the right people in the room. John, in IT, is a good friend of mine. I can ask him to participate in any brainstorming.”
Sophie: “Sounds good. Talk to him. Let me call ACME.  It might be a challenge but I will see what comes out of it and get back to you.  In the meantime, I see that you are motivated to take on this new task to improving things. Do you need help?”
Janet: “I can bring in Patricia to help with the requirements.  She’s more than capable.”
Sophie: “Let’s do it.”

In the traditional problem solving method, which is ideal and comes up with good solutions in some situations, you can see that no real solutions were put forward.  In the least, the focus wasn’t on the real problem but merely that the software was the perceived problem.  “Technology sucks” could have been the focus of the conversation.  When the leader focuses on this problem, in this example, there is still a focus on the negative.  Talking to John in IT may be a positive solution, but it only represents part of the solution. Janet would most likely leave the meeting continuing to feel frustrated and angry.  Sophie is providing support and is willing to help, but there is doubt in her delivery a little bit.  In this case, I wouldn’t consider this to be an ideal leadership response.

In the appreciative inquiry method, Sophie is taking a positive approach to finding real solutions to an array of perceived problems and genuinely demonstrating a leadership approach to helping users help themselves and get to the bottom of things.  Technology is not the only focus.  The entire complaint process is brought into the conversation.  In addition, Sophie is using Janet’s motivation as an indicator to empower her to lead as change agent.  Sophie asks good questions, using a leadership approach that inspires creativity in solution development.

Use of traditional problem solving methods have their place. Asking questions that focuses on the negative aspect of a problem can limit the solution spectrum, though.

AI can open up the solution spectrum by focusing on a more positive approach to lines of questioning about problems.

More on this topic will appear on our site in future.

I’d love to hear from you about how you approach problem solving at work.  How do you approach your lines of questioning when trying to get to the root cause of a problem?








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