The anatomy of opportunity – three key practices to unleash progress

Problem solving practices

Here’s three key practices, drawn from years of practical experience, which can shift the way you perceive and solve problems, unleashing real progress.

Let’s quickly recap

In my previous two articles (here and here) I explained why growth and value creation need to come from innovation, investment and improved workplace practices. It’s a formula that public and private sector leaders now agree upon.

I also explained that I’d refine this formula for growth a little. While business has a key and expanding role alongside government to grow productivity (more outputs), both should deliver different and better social outcomes. This is particularly true for the large investments we make in public and private infrastructure and services.

Unfortunately, too little investment is occurring, into projects that are failing to engage strong support, without much innovation in design, financing, delivery and operational methods. It’s a bit like repeating business-as-usual in a lacklustre way when greater activity and different outcomes are required. Of course there are exceptions to this general statement, but overall I’d argue it’s a fair assessment. What do you think?

Don’t despair!

What I don’t feel is lacking is the inherent ambition or capability to do better. We are an educated nation with a history of achievement in a little bit of a form slump. Which brings me to my second refinement to the formula for growth, being the order of the contributing factors. My sense is that improved workplace practices can catalyse practical innovation that in turn attracts and secures the necessary investment.

How does this occur? What needs to change? Here’s the anatomy of the problem – and opportunity – as I observe it.

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What problem are we trying to solve?

My observation is that often we’re not really sure. Think about the work you’re doing right now. Are you 100% satisfied your effort is productive and will deliver not just the outputs but also the outcomes people want? Is there a chance you’re working on an insufficiently diagnosed problem?

I’m sure you also see what I routinely see: vaguely defined problems emerging from limited analysis by a narrow cross-section of people. People jumping to conclusions, armed with solutions looking for problems. Mechanistic technical solutions for messy human problems. Sound familiar?

When this is the case – and it’s often – then we’re systemically building risk and cost into our projects and organisations despite our good intentions to do this opposite.

What can we do about it? Well, developing some competencies in complex problem solving, including systems and design thinking and collaboration, will be really useful. There’s evidence to suggest these skills are in short supply though, but of course they can be accessed along with some terrific tools and methods. Indeed, these skills and methods are becoming a focus not in progressive organisations but also in education.

But there is an action you can take today: engage people from a wider range of disciplines or business functions in a deeper conversation to unpack the real causality of the issue you want to resolve. Doing this, if nothing else, will make a material difference.

Stop repeating used solutions

The tendency to jump to solutions based on past practice is what I identify as a second, prevailing performance impediment. Why should “what we did last time” be an appropriate, even expedient solution when each project, set of stakeholders and circumstances differ?

Often, mainly for cognitive ease and assumed efficiency, we operate on auto-pilot and a sort of ideological lock-in about how things are, how things will be, how things work, and how things get delivered. We actually allow ourselves and others to operate with a sort of blindness.

Reflect for a moment. When was the last time you were genuinely encouraged to challenge and innovate? Do the people around you view constraints as depressing restrictions or engaging challenges? What does success – as an outcome, not an output – look like on your current project? Are you fervently pursuing that outcome?

Again, some quick and effective methods exist to catalyse a shift from the prevailing “solution adoption” behaviours and mindsets. (To make the shift stick, however, ongoing coaching is useful to overcome the psychological and organisational inertia.)

The key action I recommend is this: solve problems by designing solutions. With a very clear picture of what success looks like, create and shape an integrated suite of commercial, technical and behavioural measures to deliver that success. Deliberately design your way to success.

Bring the solution to life

At the end of the day a great strategy or design solution counts for nothing if not well executed. A terrific regulatory change is worthless if not enforced. An asset isn’t valuable if it can’t be developed.

This is when the benefits of better problem definition and solution design can be realised. It’s also when people can again revert to auto-pilot, frenetically undertaking tasks, producing deliverables, and losing sight of the bigger picture. The breakdown can also be magnified as tasks change hands or when variations shift a scope of work.

Structure, roles, tasks, timelines, deliverables – they’re all important. But ultimately it’s peoples’ behaviours that, individually and collectively, make a team or organisation highly successful.

So the third focus for practice improvement is this – help your people take achievable steps and exhibit the behaviours that ensure success. Focus on your people. Define realistic steps along a pathway that they can follow. Only then change business systems, processes, structures and controls if they help your people take these steps and do their job more easily.

The multiplier effect

What’s the cost of poor practice to your agency, business and the economy? It’s seems that a poorly defined problem and a sub-optimal solution that’s badly executed is carries a substantial cost, not only in dollar terms but also in terms of lost sales or damaged reputations.

Conversely, the multiplicative effect of a well understood problem with a carefully designed solution and engaged people succeeding in its implementation is equally large and positive.

Clearly the difference between these two situations is substantial.

This can and should be your work today

The shifts in practice I’ve outlined above are not difficult or time consuming. They don’t require new technology and they’re relevant to any industry. They’re all on-task activities – about getting the job done, better.

Indeed, it’s always been rewarding to work with people to apply these ‘reframes’ to their work, to watch their ‘aha’ moments and the transformative results that emerge without upheaval or a lot more effort.

So if you’re developing a policy or strategy, program or project, the question is: How will you exploit the anatomy of opportunity and realise the positive multiplier effect?

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Nicholas Fleming

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