Workplace Wisdom

The Iceberg School of Problem-Solving

In business, lingering problems rarely have a single or simple solution. That’s why they linger.

Many problems are relatively unambiguous and easily understood by the people who deal with them every day. We solve them without thinking about them too much: Problem X → Action Y → Resolution Z. It’s easy to get used to that level of thinking being sufficient, even if we have to solve the same problem over and over.

In the Shoals and Shallows

People tend to base their judgments on what they can identify above the waterline, so to speak: immediately, and easily. Not surprisingly, once people think they “see” the answer, and it feels straightforward and satisfying, they may neglect looking any deeper. But with a thornier problem, a tougher review is required.

Just as you wouldn’t go to a general practitioner for a complex surgical procedure, the same is true in business. You need a specialist — someone who’s used to your complicated situation — who can review the full array of the problem’s symptoms and consider a broad range of treatments.

When something has been “hurting” for a long time, it’s not enough just to look at that particular spot. You need to step back far enough to view the entire organism and see its underlying conditions and history of symptoms; you also may need to bring multiple viewpoints together.

Before You Put a Hole in the Ship

But keep in mind that merely agreeing on what needs to be right doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. It doesn’t uncover what went wrong or automatically make the situation right. Merely lopping off the tip of the iceberg doesn’t change the mountain of ice floating below the waterline. Agreeing on what needs fixing isn’t the same as designing a plan to achieve a better outcome.

Here are two very different examples of real-life situations that were more complex than the initial resolutions could address:

1. Navigating Rough Waters

What should have been a straightforward migration of email from one server to another became a nightmare.

Multiple technical specialists and providers opined on the matter. Each one assumed that their solution would fix the problem. But each one-note solution was insufficient, leaving the practitioners blaming each other and the employees and their customers increasingly frustrated and dispirited.

After the system’s hardware and software had been switched out in numerous configurations and reconfigurations, a comprehensive and astute review, at significant expense, identified multiple, simultaneous protocol conflicts that had kept the problem — and those emails — locked in place.

In a broken situation, the people who have the greatest need for a solution also often have the least access to — and the smallest perspective on — resolving things. Yet they also feel the most tortured by the problem, especially when the supplier population is going through the motions of one fix after another.

Sometimes, looking out from within a problem, you can’t even see that the kind of fixer you need is one who brings a broader perspective.

2. Bailing Out

It’s a widely accepted truism that people typically leave bosses, not jobs. But when a department has a persistent turnover problem, it’s worth looking into the situation more deeply.

In this case, the manager could have been more skillful. But it was a terrible confluence — of intractable infrastructure problems, lack of corporate direction, outdated communication processes, and an overheated need for skilled labor in the local job market — that caused a constant outflow of employees, even those who actually liked their boss.

In fact, the manager could have been replaced several times with no improvement in staff turnover or morale. Given that no individual was the primary cause of the turnover, no single person could be the answer. What was needed was (1) a thorough review, both broad and deep, performed by an outsider, and (2) talent from throughout the company working collectively to confront the various institutional aspects of the problem and chip away at them.

Make a Titanic Discovery

If your team has been living with a problem for too long, and none of your attempted solutions has brought the hoped-for end to it, stop looking at the tip of the iceberg and churning the surface of the water. Dive deep to look at the problem’s base, formation, and drift — and then choose a better course.

Onward and upward,


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