Someone once told me, “Many people don’t work to succeed. Rather, they work not to fail.”

 

What he meant is that many employees play it safe. They are terrified of making mistakes and being criticized by their bosses. So they do the bare minimum in their jobs and keep their mouths shut. However, they stunt their professional growth and limit their career enhancement.

 

In contrast, “working to succeed” means taking initiative and delivering more than expected. They tackle their jobs with passion. They welcome new assignments as opportunities to stretch and flourish. When their boss gives them a “sermon,” they don’t take it personally. Rather they consider this as valuable feedback to learn the ropes and, more importantly, learn how to improve themselves.
What makes the difference between “working not to fail” versus “working to succeed”?

 

One basic reason is that the former is dominated by fear. Specifically, fear of failure.

Based on personal experience and those of others, I can tell you that working out of fear is a terrible way to live. It makes one dread to get up in the morning, sucks the gusto at the workplace and kills rapport with co-workers.

 

I think it is normal to be afraid of failing, especially if those blunders can cost the company lots of money and time. But there is a healthy fear which acknowledges the risk of failure and takes steps to minimize the risk. Beyond that is a pathological fear that paralyzes one from doing anything at all.

 

The antidote to fear of failure is thorough preparation. We do our homework, ask a lot of questions, clarify our objectives, double or triple check our data, and challenge our assumptions.

 

One more thing: most people neglect the valuable resource of seasoned and trustworthy mentors who can alert you of what mistakes to avoid. They will share things you won’t learn from books and guide you on how to maximize your chances of success.

 

Let’s face it: nobody really knows everything, let alone absorbing them all at once. It takes humility, curiosity, resourcefulness, initiative and, most of all, time to learn.

May you work out of courage and no longer with a twinge of fear.

Photo credit from Knowledge@Wharton

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Which do you think is worse: having bias or having limits?

 

Bias is about what you think should be. Limits are about what you think cannot be. There are people who immediately think how a problem cannot be solved, such as no budget, no manpower, no capacity, and so on.

 

Given that logic, I would rather be saddled with bias because, at least, I would still try to solve a problem, although imperfectly. If I were obsessed with limits, I would probably shut down.

 

Therefore, the third “no” is: no limits.

 

The technique is to ask, “What needs to be done to solve this problem?” Notice the possibility language presupposes no limits. For example, if I have a machine problem, I don’t say, “What’s the use? Chances are the machine needs a new part and I don’t have the budget for it.” The correct thinking is, “I will pretend money is no object. Now, what needs to be done with the machine?” It may be or may not be to buy that new part.

 

Of course, there are limits in the real world. Money is one of them. But I always tell my technical people, “Don’t be afraid of issuing purchase requisitions because you think the item is expensive and higher management won’t approve it. Get the PR out if you think that leads to the solution. Let higher management worry about where they will get the money.” Then after they issue the PR, we work together on a business case to persuade that very higher management to release the money.

 

Time is another obvious limit. I once asked a problem-solving trainer, “When can you say that a problem is unsolvable? You’re doing your very best to solve a problem. But how would you know if the problem really has no solution at all, versus there is indeed a solution but you just have to persevere until you discover it?” The trainer said something like, “When there is a deadline and you just missed it.”

 

Hmmm. Actually, it depends whether the deadline can be negotiated or not. If it’s a government mandate – “file your taxes by April 30” or “observe the curfew of 8 pm to 5 am” – then I suppose there’s not much you can do about it. But if, say, I am to finish something by October 1 and I’m behind by September 28, I may ask for an extension.

 

My take is that a problem is unsolvable when it calls for violating the laws of chemistry and physics. For example, if I have a machine already running 24/7 and I want it to produce more, I can’t feed it with 100 tons of raw material and expect 150 tons of output. That’s creating something out of nothing. I have to find some other ways, such as increase machine speed or reduce rejection rates.

 

So there you have it. To be an excellent problem-solver, remember the Three Noes: no fear, no bias, no limits. Pretty soon, you’ll say, “No problem!”

 

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Doesn’t it frustrate you when you are talking to someone and he cuts you off, saying, “I know what you’re thinking”? It gets more vexing when he’s wrong.

 

Similarly, beware that when you are given a problem, you have an idea of what’s wrong and what needs to be done. But you can be wrong, even expensive wrong.

 

That’s why my second “no” for problem solving is: no bias.


Bias is tricky because you may not even be aware you have them. Just recently, I was discussing a pesky problem with my production head. There were certain raw materials that kept jamming up a machine, costing us recurring downtime.

 

Bias is tricky because you may not even be aware you have them. Just recently, I was discussing a pesky problem with my production head. There were certain raw materials that kept jamming up a machine, costing us recurring downtime.

 

I couldn’t understand the head’s explanation until I realized something: I was visualizing the jamming to be happening at the start of the production process, whereas it was really towards the end. Correcting that bias freed me to move forward towards an action plan.

​Bias is tricky because you may not even be aware you have them.

 

Beware of confirmation bias which can lead you cherry-pick data that supports your suspicions or opinions. Conversely, it can make you blind to data that challenges your beliefs and may very well lead to the true solution.

 

A simple example is to think of a politician and a newspaper that contains both positive and negative reports about him. If you believe he is a good leader, you will devour the positive reports and disdain the negative ones, perhaps even branding them as fake news. If you believe he is a bad leader, you will relish the negative reports and view the positive ones with incredulity.

 

In counselling, there is a useful concept called “not knowing.” It’s a mental discipline, almost Zen-like, when a counselor pretends he knows absolutely nothing about a patient whom he is meeting for the first time. That way, he suspends judgment and advice until he draws enough information from the patient himself. Approach the problem with an attitude of “not knowing.”

 

Another tip is to write down every assumption you can think of, which may surface those that you had in your subconscious. Call me a college nerd, but my favorite part of engineering exams was writing down “data and assumptions” before I went on with my calculations. If my professor saw that I made even one wrong assumption from the very start, he didn’t need to read the rest of my paper before giving me an “F”.

 

When you expose your biases, you are free to park them, examine the problem from fresh perspectives, and come up with innovative solutions. Another safeguard is to explain your problem-solving analysis with a neutral party and ask for his critique. He may spot an assumption you had left unspoken.

 

If you practice no bias, you will be able to identify the right problems and arrive at the best solutions possible. I don’t have to spell out how it will advance your career, because I know what you’re thinking… oops!

 

Note: This article is excerpted from my signature module Creating a Problem-Solving Culture, which seeks to empower both leaders and followers tap their reservoir of creativity and wisdom. For queries, please feel free to message me.

 

Photo by Markus Winkler. from Unsplash

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What makes a great problem-solver? Actually, it is not knowing everything about a subject.

 

One executive coach told me, “Let’s say I have a technical director as my client. I don’t need to know every detail of his production process. But I need to know how to ask the right questions so that he can have clarity. From there, he can arrive at the best possible decisions.”

 

Being a great problem-solver does not mean you have the answers, but knowing where to find the answers. For that, you would need the three noes. Here’s the first.

 

No fear. From my experience, the number one obstacle is emotional, not intellectual. For example, the problem-solver is afraid that his ideas will be shot down or that people will not cooperate.

No fear. From my experience, the number one obstacle is emotional, not intellectual

 

Another is the insidious psychology called group think. If you value the approval of your peers to the point of saying what they want to hear – there is no problem, the problem is not that serious, there is a problem but no solution – then the battle is lost before it even began. You will drag your heels, refuse to step on toes, or offer a “political” solution.

 

That’s why I wrote earlier that an organization must first have a safe environment. People should be able to talk about problems, openly, without fear of shame or blame. However, if this is not your workplace culture, you will need to marshal the courage to ask the tough questions, no matter where they lead to or whom they will offend. If you are still met with stiff resistance, then you may want to reconsider if you’d want to stay in that organization.

 

It helps to pretend that you are a spy. Deep in the bowels of your organization is a solution that is so secret that not even the CEO knows about it. Your job is to snoop around, rifle through documents, earn the confidence of your sources, and digest the “intel”. This role-play encourages you to set your fears aside. After all, is there such a thing as a risk-free spy mission? Then transmit your report to S.H.I.E.L.D…. um, I mean to your superiors.

 

Rise above your fears about problem-solving. Follow the data, even if they will lead to unpopular conclusions. Propose the solutions, even if they are bitter pills to swallow. Remember to focus on issues, not personalities. Your loyalty is to your employer, not to nay-sayers. Make the tough call. Bite the bullet.

 

Who knows? Your courage may be the very change the organization needs.

 

Note: This article is excerpted from my signature module Creating a Problem-Solving Culture, which seeks to empower both leaders and followers tap their reservoir of creativity and wisdom. For queries, please feel free to message me.

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From my experience, here are a few pitfalls in problem-solving:

  1. Not identifying the correct problem.
  2. Being distracted by the by-product or side issue of the real problem.
  3. Deciding on an easy-to-do solution which does not really address the problem.

 

Consider this real-life example:

We make carton boards that require surfaces of paper being glued to each other. One day, we had problems of poor gluing: the paper layers kept separating. The presenter gave the usual fishbone: man, machine, materials, methods, and so on. He said that the root cause was that the nozzles (which discharges the glue onto the paper) kept on clogging. Therefore, preventive action was to keep the nozzles clean.

 

But the true root cause was that the machine was not formulating the glue properly. The glue became too viscous, thereby clogging the nozzles. The true solution was to open up the machine and painstakingly test every mechanism.

 

True enough, we found some defective sensors and replaced them. The machine weighed and mixed the ingredients according to an approved recipe. Sure, we still had to clean the nozzles. But if we didn’t address the machine, clogging will soon recur. We will have an endless (not to mention, expensive) cycle of clog-shutdown-and-clean, clog-shutdown-and-clean. Preventive action was to have regular audits of the gluing machine.

 

The presenter (1) missed the real problem (saying it lies with the nozzles), (2) distracted by the by-product of the problem (the clogged nozzles) and (3) deciding on a solution because it was the easiest to do (clean the nozzles).

 

Here’s a guide for solution-checking:

How do I know this is the real problem? Answer: If you believe you have identified the problem and applied the solution, but the problem recurs, then it means you have attacked the symptom but not the disease.

How do I know I have covered all grounds? Answers: Look at the whole process. Do not assume. Always verify. Ask the “what if’s”.

Would my analysis and conclusion violate any logic, such as non-sequitors or false dichotomy? Tip: Have a peer (or better, SME) critique your work.

 

We all heard that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But that is not enough. That first step must be in the correct direction and that we do not stray along the way. Problem-solving is like that. Define the right problem and don’t stray from the process. Then you will reach your destination: a headache-free environment.

 

Note: This article is excerpted from my signature module Creating a Problem-Solving Culture, which seeks to empower both leaders and followers tap their reservoir of creativity and wisdom. For queries, please feel free to message me.

 

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It seems every office has the resident gossiper who flitters from cubicle to cubicle spreading tidbits of information.

What do you do?

A wise friend gave me a piece of advice which spared me from a lot of potential trouble: Don’t play switchboard.

Resist the lure of false intimacy. We know it’s wrong. But why does gossip feel so goooood? Because it creates the illusion that we belong to an inner, privileged circle. Gossipers approach you with a pretext of, “I know I shouldn’t be telling you this, but since you’re my friend…”

 

If we are not getting any juicy morsels from the grapevine, then we feel like outsiders. We are simply not “in.” Hence, rather than coping with an awkward feeling of rejection, we are likely to open our ears to the switchboard.

 

It works both ways. We want to please other people, so we release rumors of our own. The sad part is that if we succumb to this temptation, we have sacrificed our integrity on the altar of fickle popularity. Worse, we will be branded as someone who can’t keep a secret. Our bosses will think twice before entrusting us with sensitive information.

 

The best antidote is to be secure in yourself such that if you want friendships, it has to be based on integrity and on mutual trust. If they won’t like you because you clam up on office secrets, well, that’s their problem.

 

Direct the gossiper to the person he is talking about. Suppose someone comes to you and begins to gripe or whine about somebody else (usually the boss). Rather than gasp, “Really? He did that?” and spread the tale around with embellishments of your own, nip it in the bud.

 

When you smell a gossip brewing, don’t let the tattler drone on before you suggest, “That sounds serious. Why don’t you bring the matter directly to that person?” If the gossiper is not comfortable with the idea, offer to accompany him to see the source of his problems. (Warning: Be sure he is not manipulating you to fight his battles for him.) If the gossiper still refuses, then decline to hear more from him.

 

At the very least, act in self-preservation. Those whom you consider as friends but keep feeding you with gossip are not really your friends at all. What is to prevent them from gossiping to others about you?

 

Conversely, if you are talking against somebody behind his back, your listener may be thinking “Hmmm… and I wonder what you are saying about me behind my back?” Brought to its logical conclusion, trust is gone, paranoia and cynicism reign, and teamwork goes down the tubes.

 

Being trusted is one of the prime requisites for career success. But you cannot do that by being a tattle-tale. So take the long view and the high road. Don’t entertain gossip and don’t pass on gossip yourself.


The switchboard stops with you. This week.

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How could a tender shoot burst out of solid concrete? It actually didn’t. But if we find ourselves in a difficult situation, it teaches us three valuable lessons.

 

First, bloom where we are planted.
Can you imagine the shoot moaning, “How I wish I were planted in a lush field instead”? Of course, it can’t do that. But it still kept on growing. It had to. That’s how botany works.
If you can improve your situation, then by all means do so. But if you can’t for now, then the best response is to accept your circumstances and keep on growing. Decide never to curl up and die. Instead, strive to make the best of what is happening to you. That’s how life works.
Here’s how.

 

Second, grow through the cracks.
A closer look shows that the concrete block had some fissures packed with dirt. Somehow a seed found its way into the dirt and germinated. Drawn to the sunlight, the shoot eventually peeked out of the crack and pushed its leaves outward.

 

You may be in a hard place, but there may be cracks of opportunity. Look for those cracks, then dig in and start growing. For example, your boss made a passing mention about a chronic problem in the organization. Begin tinkering with the solution. Or you see a possible improvement in the business process. While it may be a sliver of change, the benefits may accrue handsomely over time. Who knows where that small start will lead you to?

 

Third, the harder the place, the more beautiful the sight.
The photo is real. I was making my rounds at work when the shoot stopped me in my tracks. It seemed to be in an act of defiance: even on a piece of rock, I will flourish! The message took my breath away.

 

I know someone who had a falling out with his boss. So the boss dumped him in Corporate Siberia. For two shameful years, he was stuck to his desk with nothing much to do. His peers felt sorry for him whenever they passed by. Yet he did not whine, play politics, and most of all, resign.

 

But whatever ad hoc tasks he was given, he gave them his very best. He got the last laugh, however, when that boss retired. The new boss liked his attitude and gave him new assignments. Like the shoot, his career blossomed. He reaped the respect and admiration of his colleagues.

 

Conclusion. Look at the photo again and see yourself in the shoot. Success is more about who you are rather than where you are. Bloom where you are.

​Grow through the cracks of opportunity. And look forward to become a sight to behold.

 

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It’s not necessarily true that people are an organization’s greatest assets. If that were true, the organization with the biggest head count would automatically win.

 

Your real assets are people who know how to solve problems… and solve them better than your competitors!

 

When you think about it, practically every business issue is a problem to be solved. It can be about hiring talent, increasing sales, maximizing cash flow, reducing defects, or leading innovation.

 

Usually, the problem-solver is the executive, the manager, the technology supplier, or the consultant.

 

But what if everyone in that organization pitches in?

 

What if the machine operator, the lobby receptionist, or the accounting clerk can see the problem with fresh eyes and offer solutions that no one has thought of before? Instead of people doing the same old thing or, worse, saying something can’t be done, they are saying
“We can do it. Here’s how…”

 

Early when I took over my first plant, I had this maintenance technician who came to me and said, “Sir Nelson, we have a problem in Machine X”. Then he described the problem, paused, and waited for me to give him the answer from Mount Sinai.

 

Instead, I replied, “So?”

 

I think he was a bit taken aback. As he kept on explaining, I kept pushing back with “So?” At some point, he ran out of words about the problem and began drifting to solutions. “Maybe, Sir, we should try out…”

 

I asked him, “That’s a good idea. What else can we do?” As the technician expressed his ideas, I kept encouraging him with “What else?” until I am satisfied. Finally, I patted him on the shoulder and said, “Good! Go ahead!”

 

After that first encounter, whenever that technician came to me with a problem, he also brought along recommendations.

 

Guess what? Five years later, he has been promoted to Production Head. When an operator went to him with a technical problem, he replied “So what do you think can be done?”
Hmmm… sounds familiar.

 

If I were to solve every problem at the plant, I would quickly burn out. And that’s assuming I have all the answers! But you don’t need to have all the answers. You need to know where to find the best answers.

 

I believe that most people have great ideas just waiting to come out. Therefore, an often overlooked role of the leader is to help his followers come up with solutions better than his.

 

Within an industry, it is likely that the players make commodity products, have access to roughly the same technology, and beat each other on price and promotions. If you are one of those players, you will want to be different, innovative, or cost-efficient. In today’s red-ocean environment, a can-do workforce is your true competitive advantage.

 

In the end, it’s about having people to solve problems, rather than solving them all by yourself. Now that’s a solution worth pursuing!

 

Note: This article is excerpted from my signature module Creating a Problem-Solving Culture, which seeks to empower both leaders and followers tap their reservoir of creativity and wisdom. For queries, please feel free to message me.

 

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

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