Tackling Problems – How big is your “O”?

In her blog post, The Problem with Problem Solving, Susan Mazza talks about the importance of identifying the real issue when problem solving.  It is a very perceptive post and one that cites a clear example of how time and money can be wasted because people have worked on the wrong problem.

This reminded me of the importance of critical thinking and the role it plays in addressing problems and making good decisions.  It also reminded me of our very human tendency to jump right into action before we have spent any time at all finding out what’s actually going on.

Many moons ago I was part of a team building course in Toronto.  At one point, we were divided into groups and marched outside to tackle a project that involved climbing poles and traversing from one to the other with only the aid of ropes and some safety tackle.  Our goal was to successfully overcome the obstacles and complete the course in the best possible time.

We failed miserably. Not only did we not complete the course, we failed to overcome most of the obstacles as well.

With booby prize shamefully in hand, we reviewed what we might have done differently. And, in thinking about it now, apart from doing just about everything wrong, we simply didn’t spend enough time in “O”..

“O” stands for observation.  It is part of a mental process that Edgar Schein refers to as ORJI in his book Process Consultation- Lessons for Managers and Consultants.

Here’s how it works.

Typically, when faced with a predicament, the human psyche follows a pattern. We:

  • Observe and get a picture of what is going on.
  • React emotionally to our understanding of what’s happening.
  • Judge, and draw conclusions based on our understanding and how it makes us feel and then:
  • Intervene, making decisions and taking action based on what we see, feel and conclude.

In the case of our deplorable “team” effort, we spent perhaps a nano second really looking at the challenge ahead or trying to understand it.  We asked no questions of either the coordinators or each other.  We did not inspect the obstacle course or make any kind of effort to evaluate the resources available to us, human or otherwise. The loudest voice took the lead.  The action oriented ones chomped at the bit to get out in the field and DO something. And, the reflectors, being completely overwhelmed by the noise and confusion registered what can only be described as insipid protests about making a plan first, an offering that, not surprisingly, fell on completely deaf ears

So, instead of looking like this: “ORJI” our process looked more like this: oRJI”

Generally speaking, we rarely give equal time to each stage of the process and that creates distortions in our thinking to the extent that we can indeed end up doing the wrong thing to address the right problem or the right thing to address the wrong problem with varying degrees of those two scenarios in-between.

If the process were to look more like this: Orji”, we might be better able to resist the temptation to pre-judge a situation and leap to conclusion and action before we have all of the facts we need to identify the real problem and fix it.

But, not surprisingly, staying in Observation is hard. When problems are pressing, emotions can work in opposition to rational thought, often wanting to take over at the most inadvisable times.

So, here are a few thoughts about how we might delay our move to action long enough to establish that the information we are working from is accurate.

  • Gather factual data about the nature and scope of the problem

This means suspending, at least initially, our feelings about what’s going on long enough to get some solid information.

  • Ask questions and, when finished asking, ask some more.

If the problem is particularly perplexing it’s important to go deeper asking questions of other people who are, or will be, affected by it.

  • Determine what we might be assuming about this situation and the people involved in it.

Giving some time to validating our assumptions is never a waste.  Assumptions almost always hinder the process of getting at the true nature of a problem.

  • Make room for dissenting views.

This is simply about listening to every voice, be it soft or loud. And, often it is the dissenting view that holds the clue to a solution.

So, how do you stay in “O”?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Leading Teams

4 responses to “Tackling Problems – How big is your “O”?

  1. Great post.

    Often when working with leaders I find that one of the biggest challenges they face is that they have created for themselves the habit of reacting too fast.

    When leaders don’t take time to observe and think, the decision they make is automatically based on internal bias and preconceived notions. If they can stop and delay their need to react, they can look at problems and ideas more objectively and have a chance to create a new perspective about them.

    Leaders who learn to do this consistently make better decisions and open their mind to new solutions they would never have discovered by reacting too fast. It’s often about letting go of the need to have the answer and be focused on the ability to find the solution.

    Good stuff,


  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Randy,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I think too that once this business of stopping to observe and learn more becomes a habit, the time between observation and action could actually become less and less, depending of course on the nature of the issue being contemplated.

    The tricky part is in creating the habit!

    Thanks for coming by and for your comments 🙂

  3. Hi, Gwyn – Great post. If I may add a suggestion, I see a step that is either a part of Observation, or preceeds it: Test. I may encounter a completely unfamiliar situation and may learn nothing from it by observing it without interacting with it and observing the reaction. What do you think?

  4. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Joe,

    Yes, what I think you’re saying is that some things don’t fully reveal themselves unless you kind of “poke” them a bit to see what happens. In other words, it’s not enough just to “look”. You also have to dig and poke and play around with something before you understand it enough to decide what to do about it. I think you’re absolutely right. And to me, it is a vital part of the whole notion of “Observation”

    Thanks so much for your comments Joe. What I like about them is that they add depth to the post. Love it when that happens! 🙂

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