In the introduction to this series, I explained the importance of understanding three definitions of a problem and that potential problems can be lurking in a negative workplace environment.  Here is an explanation of the first of five steps in an effective problem-solving strategy: detecting/identifying the problem.

It’s easy to detect something that has already blown up into a crisis. In a business setting, that crisis might be terrible turnover, a tragic on-the-job accident, or hemorrhaging financial losses. It’s more difficult to detect the subtle indicators of a problem coming down the road or a condition that’s likely to produce a problem even if things are going well now. Often the subtle indicators are the lack of something. I call this skill of detecting the subtle indicators and problem-producing environments nuanced noticing. The people who can do that have a huge advantage, because they can course-correct before they ever get to that thing that we call a problem. Are your hackles rising soon enough in response to the precursors to a problem? Are people behaving in ways that are likely to produce problems? Are you no longer seeing people smile in the office, or infrequent use of safety processes? Detecting subtle environmental changes and precursors to problems makes you a much better problem solver because it starts the process early and gives you more solution options to avoid bigger negative outcomes and cascading issues.  

Let’s say a leader, supervisor, manager, or business owner recognizes a lack of communication between people that should be communicating frequently and effectively. Perhaps the leader notices that the communication frequency or communication style changes: “I used to get e-mail from you four to six times a week and now all of a sudden, it’s once every other week.” Why is that?

A valued employee is taking a lot of time off; a direct report seems to have less work to do or suddenly seems to have a whole lot of work to do. Maybe someone is underperforming due to a distraction in their home life or a change in their job and their job satisfaction is dropping. If there’s not a clearly evident reason why these changes are occurring, that reason still exists and needs to be identified and targeted before negative outcomes occur. Those subtle changes indicate that there’s a problem for someone somewhere, and eventually someone will behave in a way that produces problems for others. As a leader or manager, if I notice and respond effectively to these subtle signs of discontent, I don’t have to worry about somebody suddenly quitting, leaving me in the lurch and desperate to replace them. If I notice and respond early, I won’t have to discover that an employee has completed tasks incorrectly leading to lost income, an unsatisfied customer, or an on-the-job injury. These kinds of insightful observations or nuanced noticing are likely correlated with other behaviors of great leaders that keep something that is “starting to be a problem” from ever becoming a big problem.

Great leaders also create systems and environments that readily detect and report the small problems up the line so that the big ones never develop. The optimal environment is one in which employees recognize subtle things that could become problems and report them and never hide problems that are already occurring.  So a great leader detects subtle changes and also teaches people below them in the system to detect those changes and to feel good about reporting situations rather than fearing that they’re going to be labeled a complainer. This step involves teaching other people to detect small changes and identify things and behaviors that are missing. Think of it as a yellow alert system cueing you to investigate further. Importantly, that leader has to reinforce and praise people for noticing those things and coach them on how to report them positively like “Hey, I think I found something interesting that we should think about” rather than negatively “I hate that these people are doing this.” These reports up to a leader give the leader the opportunity to help others determine the right questions to ask to ferret out potential or existing problems. Many times leaders punish the behavior of pointing out problems, because they view it is as “now I have one more problem to solve.” But the reality is that they already have that problem and knowing about it means that they can avoid ten more large problems that they would have if people aren’t bringing them the small ones early.

In summary, the best leaders do two things really well in this first step of problem solving: they notice the subtle and they create an environment where bringing precursors to a problem or an existent problem to the boss’s attention is reinforced.

The next section in this series will discuss the second step of problem solving: defining the problem.