From the Coach's Diary: Proactive Problem-Solving

From the Coach's Diary: Proactive Problem-Solving

Too much time and energy are wasted because we are naturally reactionary and defensive. Being reactive and defensive is ingrained in us. It’s a bit like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

From the time we are old enough to talk, we naturally default to reactive blame-assignment: 

Parent:  Careful! You are spilling your drink.

Child: I didn’t do it!  You filled it up too full.

We’ve been doing it since the dawn of time:

God:  Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat”

Adam: The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate. 

God (to Eve): What is this that you have done?

Eve:  The serpent deceived me . . .

The blame game keeps us from moving forward. It redirects our feelings of inadequacy temporarily, but those feelings come back with even more credibility because we have actually helped spread the problem but have done nothing to solve it.  

A coaching client shared the following scenario during one of this month’s coaching sessions (of course, identifying markers have been fictionalized to honor confidentiality).

On the last day of the month, a company’s net profit for the month dropped almost $30,000 from the prior day. The owner asked the General Manager about the change, but the General Manager didn’t have a ready answer. The General Manager went to the bookkeeper who told him that a $30,000 expense had come through on the last day with an approved PO and within budget, so she had paid it. The General Manager said, “You should have told me about that expense hitting the account on the last day of the month! The owner thought we were going to have a better-than-expected net income this month. I need to know when something like that is going to hit at the end of the month.”  The bookkeeper responded, “The Operations Manager knew I paid it.” 

Then the General Manager went to the Operations Manager and said, “Did you know we paid a bill for $30,000 yesterday, on the last day of the month?”

“Yea, Sarah told me that bill finally got processed,” the Ops Manager responded. “She was having a time getting the vendor to send an invoice that matched the PO, so I asked her to let me know when it finally got paid.”

YOU need to tell ME when a big expense like that is going to hit around the end of the month,” the General Manager retorted.  

The Ops Manager, a little stunned for being chastised for a bill getting paid that was in the approved budget, said, “I don’t normally even know when an expense gets paid, I just happened to know on this one because the vendor was complaining he hadn’t gotten it yet.”

“Well, when you do know about a big expense like that coming through at month-end, you need to let me know,” the General manager replied as he headed out the door. “Consider this a lesson learned.”

The Operations manager stewed for a while about why he got “called out” about an approved, within-budget expense. Next, he went to the bookkeeper to be sure that it was paid in compliance with Policies and Procedures. She told him she always did her job according to P&P and didn’t appreciate all the questions. The bookkeeper went home early with a headache. The receptionist had to field the bookkeeper’s calls which aggravated the receptionist. The Ops Manager uncharacteristically snapped at a few people on the production team who then spent some part of their afternoon venting to co-workers about the Ops Manager’s bad mood. 

Bottom line? No one had done anything wrong related to the $30,000 expense. If the owner wants to look at the P&L before month-end activities are finalized, she has a right to do that. If she wants to know why it changes significantly, she has a right to know that. If the General Manager wants to know when big expenses are going to hit close to month-end, he has a right to know that. However, all the reactive blaming did not make sure any of that will happen next time. No problem was solved but, at least 7 people were negatively impacted & productivity certainly slowed.

Reactive blame is destructive and a complete time-suck. At the end of the day, several people are upset about a problem that will likely recur; no one knows enough to keep it from happening again. No one knows how big an expense merits a notification. No one knows who is responsible for the notification. In fact, more time is likely to be wasted because the bookkeeper may feel compelled to tell the Ops Manager and the General Manager about every five-figure expense that comes across her desk now. The Ops Manager will feel compelled to tell the General Manager about every expense the bookkeeper brings to his attention and start tracking when the bookkeeper pays every expense.

My advice to the Ops Manager who called me? 

Be a proactive problem-solver. Go back to the General Manager with a recommendation to address the concerns that arose at month end. Since the bookkeeper doesn’t work for the Ops Manager, the General Manager will have to be part of the discussion of the solution. He and the owner may need to discuss dates when each month will be “closed” and further changes won’t be made. They will need to define what expense amount is “significant” enough to warrant a notice to the owner even when it is within the approved budget and spending Policies and Procedures. They could consider creating a policy that the bookkeeper will email the General manager and/or owner anytime an expense over that amount is paid. Since the Ops Manager doesn’t feel a need to know so long as the bookkeeper is paying expense based on current P&P and the bookkeeper is the first person to know when expenses hit the account, she is the best person to provide that notice.  If the Ops Manager or, better yet, General Manager had been focused on proactive problem-solving rather than reactive blaming, how much time (and energy and productivity) might have been saved?  

Think of the last time you brought a problem to someone else’s attention and how they reacted. Unless that person was the rare exception, my guess is that they reacted somewhat defensively and probably tried to shift blame. Imagine that the person had listened carefully, confirmed that what she understood was what you meant, told you how she would correct it (if possible), and what would be done to fix or mitigate the problem going forward. How would you feel about that person and the situation—whether or not the problem was her fault? 

When we focus on proactive problem-solving, we really listen. When we focus on proactive problem-solving, we ask questions to get to the root. Just a few minutes spent asking fact finding questions often helps the person voicing the complaint or criticism to resolve it for themselves. Sometimes, without us saying a word to defend ourselves or blame others, fact-finding questions help clarify that we were not the source of the problem but that we are willing to initiate a solution. Focusing on proactive problem-solving almost always brings a sense of control and takes us out of the victim role. 

Time is saved. 

Problems are addressed.  

Collateral damage is minimized. 

You gain a reputation for being a trusted problem-solver.

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