Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Forget solutions, let’s first get the problem right

Strategic misalignment often results from leaders disagreeing on what to do: Which solutions to adopt, and which ones to forego.

Instead of focusing on solutions, our research indicates that strategically aligned executives first agree on what problems represent priorities. Only when problems have been well defined and priorities established do they start a conversation on what to do.

In this blog post, we explore expert advice on reaching strategic consensus.

What’s your problem?

Strategy meetings often start with someone asking “what should we do?” As if everyone at the table is already on the same page as to the problems facing the organization. That’s rarely the case.

After all, we have little visibility into other teams’ difficulties. So leaders tend to pitch solutions addressing their individual team’s problems with little knowledge on how it will affect others.

Under a lenient CEO, this translates into each team setting its own priorities, regardless of whether they are conflicting to the organizational strategy.

Examples of misaligned organizations abound. We usually hear about them when a company announces it is “going back to its roots” and divests dozens of unprofitable business units.

Why are we so quick to jump to solutions? For one, our business culture doesn’t reward people for taking the time to properly defining and agreeing on problems. We are rewarded for solving them. Fast.

We thus focus much more energy on solving problems than defining them. A professor from the University of Washington in St.Louis shares in an interview that:

“Our business philosophy is to get to the answer quickly. To formulate a strategy quickly. Yet the result is an implementation that takes forever and rarely succeeds.

If we engage in conversation and reach unity, implementation could be achieved much faster. So the need to get to a solution quickly is an impediment. Jumping to solutions only works when the problem is simple. With regard to complex problems, jumping to solutions quickly is the wrong thing to do.”

To better achieve strategic alignment, he advocates for a process where stakeholders first agree on the problems facing the organization:

“The key is to first have unanimity on problem definition. Not talk about any solution. Reason why people have arguments is because each jumps to solutions on what to do, which tend to be different, and fight over them because they have different views.”

In support of that argument, Russell Eisenstat, strategy consultant and former faculty at Harvard Business School, notes in a HBR article how we can:

“Mobilize commitment to change through joint diagnosis of business problems. As the term task alignment suggests, the starting point of any effective change effort is a clearly defined business problem. By helping people develop a shared diagnosis of what is wrong in an organization and what can and must be improved, a general manager mobilizes the initial commitment that is necessary to begin the change process.”

Aside from successfully reaching alignment, discussing problems without mentioning solutions also decreases the chances of conflict during the strategy process. Jackson Nickerson, a strategy researcher, shares in Microfoundations of Strategic Problem Formulation that:

“By first focusing on identifying relevant symptoms and prohibiting solutions prior to formulating the problem, …it is unlikely that discussions of symptoms will trigger political reactions the way that deriving solutions can (discussing symptoms has fewer direct implications for which actions need to be taken and whom such actions may benefit)…”

Can we agree on the important problems?

Now let’s assume the strategy team has successfully identified the problems facing the organization, how do we decide on which ones to focus on?

Russel L. Ackoff, former Management Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, proposes in Idealized Design to start:

“…with an illustration of all problems facing the company today and foreseeing what would kill the company if we did nothing. What problems would you want to focus on if the survival of the company was at risk?”

Looking at this from a different angle, Prof. Nickerson suggests in The “Problem” of Creating and Capturing Value:

“In selecting problems managers must decide not only which questions represent design challenges to create value but also which problems their organizations have a reasonable likelihood of solving at a low enough cost to create and capture value.”

Prioritizing initiatives that keep a company alive, competitive and profitable sounds elementary. Yet how many activities at our organizations fail this test? Too many in my opinion. For example, why did Instagram change logos?

Stronger together

In the end, the main goal of agreeing on problems is to work together as one unit. As one company. One community. Never letting differences of opinion divide the team.

That’s why the best leaders work to strengthen the organizational bond. Quoting Arie De Geus, former strategist at Shell, in The Living Company:

“A manager of a living company… must let people grow within a community that is held together by clearly stated values. The manager, therefore, must place commitment to people before assets, respect for innovation before devotion to policy, the messiness of learning before orderly procedures, and the perpetuation of community before all other concerns…

The feeling of belonging to an organization and identifying with its achievements is often dismissed as soft. But case histories repeatedly show that a sense of community is essential for long-term survival.”

Because “Working together always works.” – Alan Mulally, former CEO @Ford

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