One of the primary tasks of any leader is to solve problems. No matter what your current experience is with handling issues, it is inevitable you will see something new that tests your capabilities in this area. Many problem-solving tools exist, so go with the one that works for you. Here is another one to consider:
Problems usually come to us in the form of an event. For example, we promised our client we would hit his end of month deadline, but we missed it by two weeks.
Except for preventing this missed deadline in the first place, now is the best time to resolve this issue. That may take the form of a CEO call to the client to offer his apologies, extend additional resources to work with the client to make up the lost time in the next phase, or a partial refund of the fees paid. Mostly, anything that can be done to restore the client’s confidence in your company is worth trying at this stage.
What often happens, instead, is that leaders immediately tell a story about the event. It goes from being a missed deadline to a search for someone to blame. Why did we miss the deadline? Why was I unaware that we had any risk here? Who screwed this up for the company? Who did this to me? Where can I find him? Why is this client so unreasonable? What did they do to cause the delay?
You get the picture. Our reptilian brains triggered by a big shot of stress hormone cortisol become our worst enemy. We drive ourselves and our team into a vicious circle of blame-filled accusations, undermining our ability to think straight and solve the problem.
This is the next best time to solve the problem. If we can check our emotions with some deep breaths (early in my career I walked around the parking lot), we have a fair shot at getting back to the event. We can then begin to brainstorm a response to the client that restores his confidence in us.
If we allow the story about what happened to control us, we may arrive at a pattern of events caused by a particular person. This continues the blame cycle filled with villains and victims (you, in this example) and does nothing to resolve the client’s problems and, in fact, ends up not only wasting time but creating lower trust in your team. If you arrive here, recognize that this has happened multiple times, you chose not to deal with it previously, and place the responsibility squarely on your shoulders. Once the client is back on track, discuss the repeated pattern with your project manager (assuming he is the person in the villain costume here) and consider possible solutions to break the harmful habit and get him back on track.
The next place we may stop if we haven’t sorted the answer to our client is whether we are going to confront the problem(s) head on or avoid them. This step is listed fourth, but the model is not linear. At any point along the continuum, we have the choice to confront the facts before us and attempt a resolution. It merely gets tougher to do so the longer we wait and the more villains we add to our circle of blame. Rest assured, however, that at any point along the way we choose to avoid the issue, we are sure to make the problem, a relative dot on the piece of paper, into a page-filling sea of monsters that we are too overwhelmed to deal with adequately. And, not least significant, is the fact that leaders are paid to solve problems and get results, and avoiding the issue is decidedly not doing our jobs.
If we allow things to fester and spin out of control, our relationships within our team and company and with the client will be damaged or destroyed. It is possible to come back from that damage and destruction in some cases, but the real question is why would any of us want to do that if given a choice?
In this simple example, a missed deadline devolved into a damaged or lost relationship. And that happened because we couldn’t get our egos out of the way, we didn’t manage our emotions at any point, we failed to confront reality, and we made a manageable situation worse.
Takeaways: Confront any issues early and often, remembering to focus on the event and to manage your own stories about it. Don’t place blame. Collaborate to serve your team and client and hold an after-action review after the project is complete or the client satisfied that helps you learn from the breakdown. You can choose to look at an issue as tuition paid to help you and your team get better. Don’t waste it by making the issue undiscussable or placing blame on one or more people, because that destroys relationships – the very relationships that serve our clients and keep the company alive.