Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part VI

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach


After you have established empathic rapport, and convinced the prospect that you wish to defend the desireable aspects of the current state of affairs, it will be possible to bring up the stick (threats to the current state of affairs) or the carrot (comparable people in superior situations) as a shared problem to be solved. Indeed, the prospect may raise the problem on their own. It is important not to bring up the stick prematurely, or the prospect is likely to “kill the messenger,” perceive you as the source of bad news, the killjoy.

If the prospect has not raised the problem, one way to get them to admit the necessity for change is to express an unrealized potential: “Now that you have accomplished lofty goals X, Y, and Z, you must be ready to take on U, right?” This question can yield multiple benefits. If the answer is “No,” but trust has been established, then the prospect is likely to describe an alternate end-state to what you described or describe barriers to achieving the unrealized potential. If the answer is “Yes,” then you and the prospect have a shared vision and you can begin asking about plans to achieve it. As Stephen R. Covey writes, “begin with the end in mind.”

One tactic that I employed successfully was asking, “What is your biggest challenge at this time?” After some basic trust was established, the prospects answered this question honestly in the form of, “Well, if we could only overcome X, then the result would be Y.” This gave me both legitimate threats to the status quo (X) as well as a desired end-state (Y).

One type of prospect to watch out for is the one who is managing by crisis: exaggerating the severity and ill consequences of a problem in order to enlist help.

You may find the prospect does not even want to solve the problem you observed. One frequent, legitimate reason for not solving one problem is that it distracts the prospect from solving a larger problem. However, a larger problem means a larger opportunity to add or unlock value. Other reasons for not wanting to solve the problem are best understood before you have invested too much time or energy:

  • The prospect might not want a solution is because they want nothing more than to vent frustration or irritation. For some people, complaining is a way to pass the time or converse. If the problem is solved, then what will they have to complain about?
  • The prospect might not want a solution because the problem is a scapegoat on which a number of failures can be blamed. If the problem is solved, then the person will have no excuse for these failures.
  • As a friend of mine suggested, the prospect might not want a solution because they fear the change the solution must entail.

However, if you are lucky enough that the prospect has trusted you with a problem that they actually want solved, then empathy remains important. Feel the prospect’s pain, acknowledging all the forces that are behind the problem. Assume the prospect is blameless and has done everything they can to solve the problem. Assume that people don’t produce (problematic) outcomes, systems produce outcomes. The problem is likely systemic anyway. This form of empathy strengthens your position on the prospect’s side. This also externalizes the problem to forces outside the prospect’s control and responsibility, easing their feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Until these feelings are eased or shared, the prospect’s mind will remain closed to your solution.

Just as you got on the prospect’s side by expressing empathy, it is important to stay on the prospect’s side by expressing a desire for achieving a shared vision. I believe it is particularly important to describe how the vision would benefit you as well as others you might think of. This is a way to build moral support in the prospect’s mind.

The prospect frequently has an end-state in mind that differs from yours. The two of you may agree that the current state of affairs must be changed, but you don’t agree that the prospect’s vision is better than yours. In fact, you may believe it is worse than the current state of affairs. Indeed, the more experience and expertise you have, in comparison with the prospect, the more likely it is that the prospect will make naive mistakes—mistakes you have seen before and that you know how to avoid. At this point, it is tempting to argue that the prospect’s vision be replaced by yours. After all, you are not just pooh-poohing their idea because it isn’t yours. You are earnestly trying to help them avoid mistakes. You aren’t simply being negative. You have an superior alternative to propose, and your proposition is supported by experience and expertise. Your argument may even be presented discreetly to avoid publicly embarrassing the prospect. However, the following are directly proportional to the power and past success of the prospect:

  • their level of personal commitment to their own vision, and their confidence in the correctness of their methods
  • their suspicion of alternative visions
  • the number of resources they have already marshalled in pursuit of their own vision
  • the amount of trust that must be built to divert them from their vision

The more powerful the prospect is, and the more successful they have been, the more you must do what they want, in order to build that trust. Hence, it is very difficult to get such a prospect to change their mind. For this reason, and in the interests of delaying proposal of your solution as long as possible, I suggest not bothering to argue for a superior alternative.

If you feel you must argue for a superior alternative, then consider one of the greatest cultural institutions at Intel Corporation—the practice known as disagree-and-commit. In the spirit of that practice, if you do disagree, then

do your homework, choose a favorable private setting in advance, and present the argument as clearly and briefly as possible. Explain how your vision encompasses the best features of the prospect’s and also avoids problems. If you try to make the prospect feel stupid about their vision, or if you try to force your vision upon them, then the prospect will entrench more deeply, ignore you, and certainly never turn to you for help or advice. If you find yourself wanting to repeat your argument, then you are likely at an impasse and should cease your efforts.

After you are done, commit to the prospect’s decision, whatever it is. Sincerely and happily express full support for the prospect’s decision. Do not expect an immediate decision, much less one in your favor. A successful and powerful prospect is more likely to adopt your vision if they have time to “make it their own” by modifying and adapting it. Indeed, it may be helpful to introduce flaws or gaps into your vision during your presentation (without materially changing it). The prospect is more likely to adopt it if they feel they have repaired or completed it themselves.

Other options for situations in which your vision differs from the prospect’s:

  1. If you have the advantage of power, especially through organizational hierarchy, then you can simply exercise it in demanding your vision. This is possible and might even be expected if you are in a leadership position or under time pressure. However, if this is not the case, then it is likely to create more negative feelings in the prospect. The prospect may withhold their best efforts from pursuing your vision, and may even try to sabotage your plans. If and when the power structure shifts to their favor, the prospect will certainly exercise power mercilessly against you.
  2. If you don't have the advantage of power, then you can withhold your best efforts from pursuing the prospect's vision, or even try to sabotage their plans.
  3. You can part ways with the prospect.

Ultimately, if the relationship is to be maintained in good standing, you must give your best effort in pursuing the prospect’s vision. If you don’t, then you risk any chance you have of influencing or truly helping them.

This approach frequently dismays me because it may not be the best use of my time and energy, especially if I firmly believe that the solution is doomed to fail. However, I do use it with my children as a way of teaching them that it’s perfectly fine to fail as long as you learn from your failures. You certainly don’t want to set them up for failure, but if they are already “set up” then you want to embrace the failure as a learning opportunity.

When you are confident of failure, it is frequently beneficial to fail fast, before all of your resources have been expended. This is a classic project management technique for mitigating the largest project risks as soon as possible. It is the spirit behind the idea of real options.

Once you and the prospect have committed to a shared vision, it is important to share an understanding of the actions required to achieve it. This will be discussed in Part VII.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 9 December 2006 12:12 AM