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Albrecht Enders

IMD

Professor of Strategy and Innovation

Read more about Albrecht Enders

Master your dragons: How to solve complex problems in five minutes

Learn how reframing your challenges can lead to effective solutions.
effective_reframing_for_expert_problem_solving

My International Institute for Management Development (IMD) colleague Professor Arnaud Chevallier and I depict HR obstacles as dragons that obscure our quest and can prevent us from reaching the treasure at the end (our goal).

Like the mythical beasts in fairy tales, our workday dragons are often intimidating.

But unless we learn to overcome them, the treasure – a happy staff and thriving company – will remain out of reach.

How to train your dragon

People who can solve problems – master dragons – command a premium in all sectors of the economy. HR is no exception.

During the research for our new book Solvable Professor Chevallier and I discovered that effective problem-solvers are uncommon across every key business function – HR included – even at the most senior levels.

Like the mythical beasts in fairy tales, our workday dragons are often intimidating

Effective dragon masters are hard to find

Given their key role in business success, many might wonder why effective dragon masters are hard to find.

The answer is simple: executives find problem solving difficult.

During a three-year study at IMD, we asked more than 1,200 senior managers and executives to cite the key issues they observed in their organisations during problem solving.

We unearthed numerous factors, but one major issue prevailed: executives often struggle to properly define their problem at the outset.

Never underestimate the dragon

To master a dragon, you first need to understand it.

Yet our research found that many executives either misconceive their problems, poorly assess their complexity or – in some cases – fail to recognise them as problems at all.

Inadequacy in this ‘framing’ of problems is endemic. More than half of respondents – around 55% – reported framing issues.

Poor framing = poor business outcomes

The results of this framing failure are severe.

Poor framing typically predicts poor business outcomes: if you are unclear whether your high staff turnover is down to uncompetitive salaries, toxic individuals, or dissatisfaction with company culture, it is unlikely that you will rectify it.

Yet, conversely, if you know how to frame problems, even the most complex problems can be solved in just a few minutes.

Many executives either misconceive their problems, poorly assess their complexity or – in some cases – fail to recognise them as problems at all

Three, two, one…lift off!

Imagine you are responsible for the annual project that strikes fear into the hearts of some HR professionals – the staff survey.

Your company is housed over several floors in a skyscraper. The survey reveals that the number one gripe among employees at the company are the lifts.

The staff report that the lifts are too slow. Their sluggishness is frustrating, wastes staff time, and breaks the momentum of their day, respondents to the survey complain.

The wrong framing leads to the wrong solutions

Your HR team liaises with the facilities department on solving the problem. The problem is framed like this: “How can we speed up the lifts?”

This frame leads to a host of potential solutions:

• Installing newer, faster lifts

• Retrofitting the existing elevators with more powerful motors

• Doors that open for shorter periods when they visit each floor

• Fewer floors served by each lift

Poor framing typically predicts poor business outcomes: if you are unclear whether your high staff turnover is down to uncompetitive salaries, toxic individuals, or dissatisfaction with company culture, it is unlikely that you will rectify it

Suboptimal solutions

Yet none of these solutions is ideal.

The procurement department warns that installing or even retrofitting the lifts will be prohibitively expensive, hitting the company’s profits with unplanned expenditure.

The facilities department warns that opening the doors for shorter periods risks injury and could make their use harder for disabled employees.

A focus group of employees reports that each lift serving fewer floors will be overly complex and frustrating for clients and suppliers visiting the company.

So suboptimal are the solutions, the facilities manager proposes a working group that will require hundreds of person-hours of labour and take several weeks to recommend a solution – if indeed a mutually acceptable solution can be found.

Meanwhile, employees are growing ever more frustrated with the lifts.

Reframe to gain

Now, imagine that, faced with the prospect of a lengthy, labour-intensive inquiry, your HR team thinks again.

This time it reframes the problem thus: “How can we make the lifts appear faster?”

HR and recruitment is awash with problems that at first assessment appear tough to resolve but can in fact be solved by effective reframing

This prompts several different solutions:

Add WiFi and cellular boosters to the lifts so employees and visitors can call and email while ascending or descending

Install video displays showing important company updates in the lifts, to save employees time reading internal newsletters at their desks

• Allow staff on higher floors five minutes extra ‘lift travel time’ to arrive at the office

• Add full-length mirrors and good lighting to the lifts so visitors can check their hair and outfits before important meetings

• Launch an internal ‘Boost Your Steps’ poster campaign extolling the health benefits of taking the stairs

When the problem is reframed, suddenly a vast array of solutions present themselves, most of them at a fraction of the cost and disruption of mechanical upgrades to the lifts.

Fix your frame

HR and recruitment is awash with problems that at first assessment appear tough to resolve but can in fact be solved by effective reframing.

Solvable provides a framework to solve virtually any HR problem quickly.

Some of our dragons may appear indestructible. But they can all be mastered – if you know how.

Albrecht Enders is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at The International Institute for Management Development (IMD). His new book with co-author and IMD colleague Professor Arnaud Chevallier Solvable is out now.

If you enjoyed this, read: HR’s newest problem: Managing leadership burnout

 

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Albrecht Enders

Professor of Strategy and Innovation

Read more from Albrecht Enders
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