Have you ever worked on a project and quickly realized there were significant obstacles in your path that would make the normal course of delivery impossible?
If you answered yes, how would you describe the team dynamics at play and the types of discussions that followed this realization?
As someone who works with a variety of clients on a number of different projects, I’ve noticed that this unfortunate scenario is presenting itself more frequently than in previous years, and it’s not always easy to move forward. So, I’m always curious about why folks get stuck on projects and how some are able to push through more easily than others.
I attribute the ability to push through significant obstacles to a high degree of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It seems that it would be simple enough just to ask people to put these skills to work — after all, we’re all seasoned business professionals with years of experience, right?
In my experience, though, it’s not, and research backs this up. Studies have found deficits in the critical thinking skills of college students (and the working professionals they eventually become). It’s actually a problem, though, long before college. Parents and academic institutions have emphasized the importance of knowing things (i.e. teaching to tests, memorization, knowing the right answer) — but not necessarily on how to come to know the right answer or learn things (i.e. the process by which you can break down a problem and determine the steps to solve it).
There are probably a million reasons that could be cited as causing a systemic lack of critical thinking skills, but I am less interested in the cause and more interested in how to foster more critical thinking and problem-solving on project teams.
What’s holding us back?
So, how do we get the people in our world to dig deeper, think critically, and be more creative when faced with challenges?
To get to the answer, I think we need to look first at the barriers to successful problem-solving. I brought this subject up with some of my peers. I asked them what gets them wrapped around the axel or stuck on a project, and why they feel folks have problems finding creative solutions.
Some of the feedback they shared is below:
- Mental block or lack of creativity
- A preconceived idea that prevents us from seeing another way
- Poor communication and collaboration skills
- An inability to make decisions due to a perceived lack of authority
- Company culture and politics (“It’s not the way things are done”)
- Fear of failure
There was an overwhelming consensus that fear of failure is often the root cause. Not to mention, some folks just feel more comfortable following a tried-and-true process, while others feel it’s not their job to solve the problem or contribute — just produce the solution once someone else solves it.
How can we move forward?
Once we’ve identified some of the blockers, we can look at how we can remove some of these obstacles and begin to develop an organizational culture that encourages critical thinking skills.
First, when on a project and we bump into an obstacle, we need to acknowledge that there is an issue and be completely transparent about where we are in the project and what obstacles we face. Then, we need to be able to define what the obstacles are— and determine why they are obstacles in the first place.
Toyota developed the 5 Whys methodology to uncover the root cause of an issue and drive to a solution. I often use this approach for problem-solving. It’s fairly straightforward: ask why five times to understand the nature of the problem and come up with a solution.
Here is a simple example of the 5 Whys:
- Why did the API connection fail?
The connection timed out, so the process couldn’t continue.
- Why did the connection time out?
Other processes were running at the same time, and they seemed to conflict with this process.
- Why do other processes need to run at the same time?
Because backups run at night, and other parts of the business have processes that also run.
- Why do we need to run our process overnight?
We don’t have to run it overnight; we were just trying to follow current protocols that the rest of the company uses.
- Why do we have to follow the same process as the rest of the company?
We don’t, we just need to work with the COE team and IT team to adjust the order of operations and figure out when we can run our process so that it won’t time out.
The 5 Whys helps to ensure that you are thinking deeper about a problem and not fixing things in a quick manner (which often only serves as a temporary band-aid and comes back to haunt you later).
Once you’ve identified an issue and determined the root cause, it’s time to collaborate on ways to solve it. Try using the 5 Whys or a similar technique to really dig into the problem. Then, create an action plan, see what happens, and detail out what’s next.
Foster an environment that encourages problem-solving instead of quick fixes
To be effective, though, you have to create an environment where risk-taking is appreciated and fostered, and everyone feels their contribution will be valued.
When I asked some of my team members what the biggest contributions to success on tough projects were for them, they offered up the following:
- Making sure the right people are on the team — be sure to include everyone impacted by the issue
- Being open and communicative
- Identifying and clearly defining a problem early in the project, so you can face it head on
- Allowing folks to speak candidly, but thoughtfully
- Collaborating with folks who have different strengths is important
- Being comfortable with being uncomfortable
- Not being afraid to fail and start again
Doug Sechrist, a thought leader who’s also an expert on building successful teams, often talks about hiring the right mix of people. He refers to them as experts, athletes, musicians, and martial artists. This methodology is also good for project teams, because it allows for a mix of perspectives and experience.
A culture of optimism and openness goes a long way in terms of making everyone feel safe to share their ideas. So does allowing for failure. When you consistently show your colleagues that obstacles are an opportunity to work together to find solutions, you can encourage folks to step out of their comfort zone and stretch.
Become a team of problem solvers
Failure serves as one of the greatest lessons in business and in life. We see kids fail all the time, and yet we instinctively recognize that’s how they learn. When we grow up, though, failure is not encouraged as much. As adults, we just don’t have an opportunity to exercise our critical thinking skills as often.
Learning doesn’t end after we finish school. It doesn’t even end after we’ve been in the workforce for a decade or more. Hitting a roadblock just means we have come to the end of what we already know — and that’s okay. It just means we need to learn something new and come up with a plan B. None of us knows everything about everything (and if someone thinks they do, I encourage them to sign up to be a contestant on Jeopardy!).
As long as we continue to develop and hone our critical thinking skills, we can continue to learn and grow. Knowledge isn’t finite, and it never will be. It’s just waiting for the right people to ask the right questions. So, let’s reframe obstacles as an opportunity to learn something new and come up with a better way of doing things — not a roadblock that stops us in our tracks.
Shauna Wager As Senior Client Engagement Manager, I work directly with DemandGen’s clients to understand their objectives, needs and challenges, and build and maintain relationships with key stakeholders across the organization. I help guide clients’ projects to successful completion, build client satisfaction and advocacy, identify opportunities among accounts and develop comprehensive account plans.