Tackling Problems ~ How Big is Your “O”?

Problems.  Whether we choose to call them that or, (in the interests of putting a more positive spin on them), refer to them as ‘challenges’ they are part of life.  In the workplace, where time is of the essence, there are many problems to be solved.  And yet, much of that time can be wasted when people spend it working on the wrong problem.  It happens.

I think it happens because of the very human tendency to jump right into action without employing the critical thinking required to ensure it will lead to a good solution.

For example, 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 thatEdgar 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.

We React emotionally to our understanding of what’s happening.

We Judge, and draw conclusions based on our understanding and how it makes us feel, and then:

We 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”

Having said that, 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 a move to action long enough to establish that the information we are working with is accurate.

Gather factual data about the nature and scope of the problem

This means suspending 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 and wider asking questions of people who are, or will be, affected by it.

Determine what we might be assuming about the 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.


I guess the bottom line is this. We are always going to experience problems.  Spending a little more time in “O”bservation will help us to address them in a way that provides the best chance of coming up with the best solution.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?



Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Tackling Problems ~ How Big is Your “O”?

  1. Eduardo

    Interesting observation. imho – there has to be balance. While jumping into action can lead to failure, searching for perfect information can lead to inactivity. Finding that comfortable balance where you believe you have enough information to act on is the key. Deciding which course of action to take and commiting to it is critical. How to get there? Let me contemplate that while I do the ‘grand study’. I’ll get back to you on that. 😉

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Eduardo ~ You make an important point. Staying in observation too long is as unproductive as jumping into action without thought. And, I suspect the hunt for “perfect information” is a fruitless journey. So yes! Finding the balance between planning and execution is vital. Thanks for that.

  2. Great post. Timely. I am writing next week about problem of reacting to “soundbites.” I plan to link back to this. Observation… so vital, and yet it’s tough when we feel the pressure to move quickly.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Karin ~ Yes, I think the pressure to move quickly is also part of our Western Culture. Those who spend a little more time in observation and reflection can be easily judged as non-participative, uninterested or even lazy. And so to avoid that stigma the temptation is to be doing something even if that something is going to contribute little or nothing to solving the problem or achieving the goal.

  3. Gwyn,

    Western culture leaders are definitely swimming upstream on this one. The pressure to “be decisive” and act is never-ending. I especially like your suggestion for “go wider and deeper” if the question at hand is especially perplexing.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Jennifer ~ Thank you! “Swimming upstream” provides the perfect image of the feeling of resistance we experience when we try to step back and observe just long enough to find out what’s really going on. I think ‘decisiveness’ or even the appearance of it, brings a measure of comfort that ‘observation’ does not. And, observation mode is often mistaken for navel-gazing and dithering and so it takes on negative connotations. On the other hand, some people would be happy to stay in observation for a very long time which is as unproductive as jumping into action before they know what they’re doing. So, to Eduardo’s point getting the right balance is key.

  4. Pingback: Tackling Problems ~ How Big is Your “O”? | digitalNow | Scoop.it

  5. I tried to post a comment on this from my phone when it was published, but I see it’s not here. My comment was much along the lines of what Eduardo said. My problem is employing so much critical thinking at times that action is delayed (or even never happens!). I could use a little more “look before you leap” on occasion.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Leslie ~ Yes, it is the ‘balance thing’ again. I think the term ‘analysis paralysis’ or something like that might apply. When I do that, (and I do) it is often because I want to get everything right all of the time (the prissyperfection gremlin). So perhaps taking a ‘flyer’ on something would be good for the soul as long as one is prepared to accept a failure (refer next post) should it not work out. 🙂 Thanks for coming by! I’m always glad when you do.

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