I’ve now spent over thirty years in and out of roles that are about fixing what’s broken in global businesses. From Fortune 500s to startups, I’ve seen it all. As I look back over my notes from these experiences, a number of very important things pop out. Patterns, let’s say, that unless you’re standing back and looking for them you don’t see; you don’t see them because you’re standing too close, you need to step back from the daily, tactical grind.
I guarantee many of you that read this article will say “I knew that”. No, no you didn’t know that. You may know that things don’t feel right and you may even know that the pattern exists, but understanding and seeing the effect on your goals and objectives, that I guarantee you don’t see. Why am I so bold to make this claim? Because I have spoken to so many executives, clients, boards of directors, and other purveyors of control or leadership over corporations and I’ve seen how they are all behaving. I’ve been literally asked to be the “adult supervision” in so many enterprise projects, transformations, initiatives, etc. that I know what everyone is thinking about, why they’re thinking about it, and what stands in the way of thinking something different.
The Closer You Look, The Less You’ll Actually See
I’ve been called to step back into communicating these learnings by a number of colleagues. Customers and associates whom I’ve come to respect over the years are calling on me to speak up. Specifically, a conversation this past week in which I was asked “Why do CX initiatives continue to disappoint me?” The question as it was posted was purely rhetorical, but I choose to answer anyway and in doing so revealed that these initiatives are fundamentally the same as any other poorly organized corporate initiative in which all parties believe they have it “under control”, but who are subjected to a number of common corporate behavioral patterns that I’ve become all too familiar with.
So join me, for a series of posts in which I explore the fundamental problems that doom many enterprise projects to failure. These posts will step back and view the forest for what it is and will challenge you to see what you didn’t see before. We will cover the wisdom gained from thirty-plus years of fixing, and although they can be applied to any part of your life, they are purely intended to drive insightful thinking by employees of any level that are called to do just one thing; deliver on goals and objectives for their employer.
Topic 1: Let’s Talk About The “Problem” Problem
In most of life, getting things wrong, lack of success, failure, all come down to one fact; people approach problem resolution without actually knowing what the problem is. That is, they pursue resolutions to problems that they do not have a clear understanding, definition, or root cause for, or said differently, what is causing the problem to begin with. I call this The “Problem” Problem.
How do you know when you’re facing The “Problem” Problem? Well, this problem is easier to spot than you may think. It can be identified simply by listening to the words that people use; because, words mean things. You know you are facing The “Problem” Problem when communication is brimming with phrases such as “I think so”, “probably”, “I believe so”, etc. These phrases indicate that the communicating party has some doubt in their minds of what they are communicating. “I think so” is a proxy for “I don’t know or I’m not sure” and this is commonplace in business and life, but it is especially apparent when professionals are answering questions in corporate discussions.
Ask yourself, how can you solve a problem when your premise for communication around the subject is “I don’t know or I’m not sure?”
Merriam-Webster defines “I think so” as follows:
- —used to say that one believes that something is true, that a particular situation exists, that something will happen, etc. “Has she accepted the job?” “I think so.”
- —used to express a positive opinion about a question one has just asked. Is this a good use of our tax dollars? I think so.
I expect that if one is looking through the lens of grammar and traditional language, you may argue the merits of Merriam’s definition as indicating a positive affirmation of knowledge and therefore communication of factual understanding of a subject when one is using these types of phrases in daily corporate or other conversation.
The Urban Dictionary definition of “I think so” is as follows:
A way of saying that you don’t know but want to make it look like you might know. Similar to saying “I’m pretty sure,” but could also mean “I’m not totally sure.”
- — Soldad: Did you do your homework? Sonia: I think so.
- — Jeff: Is the final tomorrow? Lola: I think so.
- — Chris: Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?! Jackie: I think so. Chris: Is that a yes or a no?
Decades of corporate problem solving, turnarounds, and just plain fixing companies, departments, and their processes, have shown me that the Urban Dictionary definition is the correct one.
When someone says “I think so or I believe so” they actually have no idea of the factual basis for their statement.
In your next conversation, listen closely to the words that are being used. You will be startled at how often these statements are used.
The Root Cause of The “Problem” Problem
To stay true to the story, let’s define the root cause of the problem behind The “Problem” Problem. Taking a bullet point approach for the reasons people behave this way surfaces the following:
- In our culture, it is NOT ok to be wrong about anything
- It is NOT ok to not know something
- If you’re NOT speaking, you’re not contributing
- The need to control
This list, although partial, provides examples that lead back to the same root cause. People are insecure, and they fill that insecurity with useless statements in which they are risking little. This unwritten cultural idea that it is ok to fill conversations with statements that are both not fact and also not mistruths is accepted almost 100% of the time. What is being offered is “what people want to share that they know”, which is not enough or very little, and in turn this culturally boosts their position in a conversation while offering very little in terms of value.
How to Kill The “Problem” Problem
To kill it, you need to focus. Focus on the facts and understanding the root cause and follow these steps:
- Stick to the facts and ask “So what?” to examine all the possible consequences of those facts.
- Continue to iterate on “Why?” until you get to the root of the problem.
- Break down a problem into small, detailed parts to better see what is behind it.
A few ridiculous but relatively helpful examples show how this happens:
- User: “The printer isn’t working, we need a new printer!” Root cause: There is no paper, you need paper.
- User: “I can’t log in, the website is down!” Root cause: Someone made a change to the implementation of Active Directory.
- User: “Why is our website slow, we need more hardware to handle the user load!” Root cause: Poor software quality. Poorly architected or written.
The “Problem” Problem is present in all your projects, all your discussions, and all your daily interactions. You are trained not to see it. Change your perspective and when you hear “I think…” ask questions and get to the root cause, it will fundamentally change the operations of your organization.
We are all trained not to see The “Problem” Problem, but it is crucial in the upcoming discussions on why corporate initiatives continue to disappoint us.
So What’s Next:
As outlined above, I will be writing a series of articles from my experiences that in addition to The “Problem” Problem, will cover topics including:
- The Risk of Fear – how the status quo is rewarded and prevents companies from changing,
- Hidden in Plain Sight – The Big Picture – how corporations routinely look past the forest for the trees,
- Employees, Paid to Do What You Don’t Want – Routinely, when changes of any size, local to enterprise transformation are undertaken, employees are still incented to do things the old way,
- Fire Drills – Reactionary approach to operations and problem-solving.
- Ignoring the Obvious – Why even when faced with the obviousness of their failures, they believe they know better.
- And likely a few others…
If you are interested in learning how to successfully spot patterns that drive failure, follow my series and reach out with questions and feedback. As this series unfolds, it is sure to evolve and cover broader topics and the nuances behind each piece of experience.
If you liked this article and found it helpful, please consider sharing it so others can benefit from it and what I’m writing about as well. Click Follow in my profile to be notified of the continuing series on the subject and learn from what I’ve learned from over thirty years of being the adult in the room.
Tim Myers is Vice President of Strategic Alliances & Partnerships at Pointillist.
This article originally appeared in Medium and was adapted from an earlier post in 2017. Photo by Crawford Jolly on Unsplash.