Make Sure it’s a Problem before Solving the Problem

Confused Businessman Looking at a Maze on a Wall

It’s easy to fall into the trap of fixing a problem as soon as you see it. The issue arises when you’re solving the wrong problem. You’re much better off getting clarity on what the real problem is – if’ it’s even a problem at all! – before you rush off into problem solving.

Today’s post is by Maxine Harris, PhD. She’s the co-author of Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

All organizations face problems. No matter how hard you try and how many solutions you attempt, there are always barriers to running a smooth sailing ship. One of the biggest barriers is when you find yourself trying to solve the wrong problem or in some cases a “non-problem.” So before you spend your time and commit your organization’s resources, make sure it is the right problem to solve. Sometimes, it helps to take a step back and gain a different perspective. Getting a bird’s eye view can be a wonderful tool in looking at problems, or in running a business for that matter.

Take, for example, company X, a mid-sized non-profit operating in a large urban center that experienced a high rate of staff turnover. Where the industry standard was roughly 30%, company X posted a turnover rate of almost 40% among its front line staff. Leaders postulated that this high turnover rate was responsible for low rates of productivity, inefficiencies in the human resources department, and organizational malaise. Note, there was no data to back up any of these assumptions.

Leaders struggled to solve the turnover problem, and they approached it from a variety of different angles. Perhaps they were hiring the wrong people in the first place; perhaps, salaries were too low; perhaps the organizational culture worked against staff enjoying coming to work, and perhaps employees were not provided with enough opportunities for training that might allow them to move up within the organization.

Leaders set out to solve these problems on the assumption that if they were successful, people would want to stay longer.

The first and perhaps the most obvious solution was to hire people who would fit better with the culture of the organization. Leaders instituted an interview process that involved longer and more in depth questions as well as room for unstructured conversation. Prospective employees were given a chance to see what the job was really like by giving them an opportunity to “ride along” with current employees. They also had some private time to ask those employees off the record questions in order to get the “real scoop” on working for the company.

When leaders began assuming that employees were not staying because the pay was too low, they found ways for employees to make more money. Within the parameters of a limited non-profit budget, the company instituted a plan for employees to win productivity bonuses, have the opportunity to work overtime or to undertake new projects, and to be nominated by their colleagues for outstanding performance that came with a bonus.

Senior staff at company X then moved to designing strategies for making it more fun to come to work. They set up and empowered a group to plan a whole range of team building and culture enhancing events. There were opportunities to attend local sporting events, enjoy potluck lunches, plan holiday parties, and design tee shirts that staff could wear to demonstrate unity and team spirit.

And finally, leaders at company X set about tackling the issue of training staff for advancement and personal growth. They provided training sessions with experts from within and outside the agency. They gave all new staff at least one hour of individual supervision per week and they sent several employees to a local university to obtain certification in management and to learn specialized skills appropriate to their jobs.

And what did all of these strategies have in common? None of them worked. After 18 months the company still had a high rate of staff turnover. In fact, the rate had actually crept up by about 5%!

This outcome, which felt like a colossal failure and demoralized the leadership of company X, caused them to take a giant step back. There were certainly problems at company X, but none of them had to do with staff turnover. The leadership of company X had mistakenly taken one fact – staff turned over at a high rate – and linked that fact in a causal way to other concerns: productivity was low, the HR department was overworked, and many people felt that the organization had stalled in accomplishing its mission.

Once they realized what the real problems they should be directly tackling were, they were able to take steps to solve those problems. For example, it was easy to solve the problem of HR’s being overworked by just hiring a temp worker in the short term and designing new procedures for bringing staff on board in the longer term so that the whole process required less time.

The leaders of company made one commonly encountered error. They mistook temporal contiguity for causality. Just because two phenomena are occurring at the same time does not mean that one causes the other. Just because high turnover rates exist in the same space as poor productivity or organizational malaise does not mean that one necessarily causes the other.

The other big mistake the leaders made was to assume that staff turnover was, in and of itself, a problem. Staff leave within the first two years of employment. So what! If there are no or relatively few consequences to that turnover, leaders can make the error of turning a fact into a problem.

Leaders at company X should have anticipated high turnover. Most of their front line staff were millennials. In general, these employees were at a time of major life transitions. Some were going back to school; some were getting married or breaking up with partners; and because they lived in a big city there were plenty of jobs they could test out before settling on one they liked.

The best advice for leaders is to make sure something is a problem before you spend time and effort trying to solve it!

Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders

Maxine Harris, PhD is the founder and current CEO of the Community Connections, the largest non-profit behavioral health agency in the District of Columbia, with a mission to provide a broad range of services to those who have traditionally been underserved ( Dr. Harris is the co-author of Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

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