How to Solve Problems in a One-on-One: Part V

Problem-Solving Guide Part 5

I know, I know, the urge is enormous to finally tell your employee what you would do to solve the problem and move right away to the Act stage. But ask yourself: Do you want a sustainable action plan, or do you just want to have something written on paper? Keep on reading this chapter if you prefer the first, move forward to Act the act if you want the latter.

The solution becomes quite clear in many of the cases if you were able to get to the problem’s core. Well defined goals and actions that are all pointing into the direction of solving the initial problem are an excellent base. However, there is another relevant factor that drives the success of your initiatives: Motivation

You can define the best action plan in the world — without motivation, it is not worth the paper they are written on. On the contrary, high motivation can cover-up imprecise and incomplete action. In the Solve state, you are trying to frame a solution together with your employee that comes along with the highest motivation possible. How can you achieve this? There are several factors that facilitate high motivation:

  1. Knowing the why: Why did the problem appear in the first place?
  2. Transparency and context: Where did the factors that drove the problem come from?
  3. Consequences: What are the consequences for reaching (solving the problem) and not reaching the goal (e.g., team morale is worn down)?
  4. Source of ownership: Own ideas are usually followed by higher motivation and ownership than ideas from others.

Having a clear understanding of why certain steps, also unliked ones, are necessary to solve a problem will support the likelihood of success. Imagine your employee needed to excuse himself from a disliked person he/she had hurt during a meeting. He/she might not like this action, but if he/she understands that this is crucial for your team morale and part of your company culture, then you will have a better outcome than without. So enabling your employee to understand the “why” of the actions is essential (I strongly recommend reading Simon Sinek: “Start with the why”). Moreover, allowing your employee to define a solution by him-/herself will increase the intrinsic motivation significantly. Thus, instead of proposing solutions, you should guide him/her with supporting questions that point into a productive direction. This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to share your thoughts (in some cases, e.g., when talking to employees in a junior position, you might provide more support in comparison to a person with higher seniority), but you should continue to guide through questions instead of giving solutions. Although this seems to come with a lot of investment on your end, you should consider another essential side-effect: Your employee learns to solve future problems on his/her own. By providing him/her with a predefined solution, you are taking away this learning, and you won’t see strong progress for the next time when this happens.

Coming up with a solution to the problem depends on many factors, such as its complexity, the seniority of your employee, your skills in leading a One-on-One, and your connection to your employee. In some cases, you might just get stuck: The problem is at hand, but you do not know how to continue. I am going to introduce you to three methods that will help you out of this situation.

  1. What would you do?
  2. Miracle Questions
  3. Switch Positions

What would you do?

This method is pretty straight forward. Instead of giving a direct answer or response to a problem, you play the ball back to your employee. What would he/she do in the given situation? What would be the effect on the team? How long do you think it will take? Do you think this is possible within this time window? What would you do if you see that you won’t be able to achieve it? How would you monitor it?

Miracle Questions

The main purpose of miracle questions is to change the situation in a way that enables your employee to re-evaluate the situation and look at it from a different angle. They draw an imaginary situation that changes the modalities of a real situation significantly. The method consists of removing (“Imagine you could only finish three tasks per day, on which would you focus?”) or adding possible actions (“Imagine we could hire an additional student, what would change?”, or changing situational parameters (“What would happen if you were the only person in the team?”).

The information you receive will be manyfold, and it is difficult to give clear advice on how to continue. In some cases, you will get very clear insights into the motivation of your employee (“If I could pick only three tasks, I would pick the easiest three” or “If we could hire a working student I could double the outcome of the team because I had more time to focus on the most relevant topics.”). In other situations, you can literally observe how a question can change the employee’s perception of a situation (“If I was the only person in the team the outcome would be close to zero because we need at least two people to function properly. I think I actually do have an important position in the team.”).

The strongest advice I can provide is that all answers should be treated with respect, and I’ve always got additional and helpful information to continue working with.

Here are some further examples:

  1. Imagine the problem would be solved immediately, what would happen?
  2. What would you do if all the tasks would be done before the weekend?
  3. Imagine you had a miracle wand and could change one thing — what would it be?
  4. Where would you focus on if you had only one instead of five working days?
  5. What would change if the team size would double overnight?
  6. Imagine you had all the needed software and tools today, what would change tomorrow?
  7. If the deadline would be postponed by three months, how would you rearrange the tasks and the team?

Switch Positions

The goal of switching positions is similar to miracle questions. The only difference is that this situation might happen in the future (“Imagine you had my position.”). I’ve decided to split this method from the miracle questions because it really depends on the context. Imagine you had to let a team member go, and you are asking this question during your One-on-One with a friend of that person. Depending on the overall situation, this can be either helpful (your employee realizes that there was no other option) or harmful (opinion hardens that you just didn’t like the person). As with all of the introduced methods, you should pay attention when exactly to use them.

  1. Imagine you just started working here instead of being a core member of the team for five years, how would you perceive the situation?
  2. If you were working in the data team, what could be the most important information for a task?
  3. If you were in my role/position, what would you do to change the situation?
  4. What would you decide if you had founded the company and were responsible for 500 people?

Employee: “I will need to think about this later at home but right now this seems to sound right.”

You: “Ok. If you could do anything you want, from rearranging the team, giving new tasks to everybody — everything. What would you do?” [Working towards a solution using a miracle question]

Employee: “I would put myself into the position to teach the working-students some of my simple tasks. I could monitor them and would get my first small experience in leading or helping others. This would give me more time. There are some open tickets from the product team that I could pick up instead. This is a new field and I would learn a lot and could also support the team because I know they are understaffed right now.”

You: “This sounds like a fruitful approach and I can see a couple of these things doable. However, I have one question: If you were in my position as a leader, do you think it would be a good decision to delegate some repetitive but very important tasks such as the C-level reporting to working-students?” [Trying to shift the perspective that not all changes are possible; working is not always fun, sometimes you have to do what is necessary irrespective if you like it or not]

Employee: “Hm, yes, you are right. I think that would bother me that much in the future if I see a progression on the other hand.”

You: “Do you have the feeling that we covered the topic completely? Are we missing something?”

Employee: “I think we covered it quite well.”

You: “Ok, then let’s work on how a solution could look like.”


>> Proceed to Part VI: Act

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