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The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem. Theodore Rubin
Yesterday I was reading an excerpt from the book “What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen”, published at Knowledge@Wharton. In it, the writer Michael A. Roberto advocates that a big part of leadership is about preventing problems before they occur. The book starts with an example from the engineering world. This is how it is recapped:
These two stories provide a stark contrast in the handling of information suggesting that a potential problem exists. The managers in the Kansas City hotel case dismissed the concerns of others and reaffirmed their belief in prior judgments by experts. Who were these construction workers to suggest that engineering experts might have made an error? William LeMessurier approached his situation with far more intellectual curiosity. Intrigued by the questions posed by a young engineering student far less knowledgeable than he, LeMessurier chose to perform additional analysis. In time, he began to question his earlier assumptions and judgments. He chose to pursue his concerns and obtain the perspective of unbiased experts. LeMessurier represents the quintessential problem-finder. He did not simply assume that his expert judgments were correct. When he detected trouble, he dug deeper. He wanted to understand the nature of the potential problem. He did not seek to assign blame to others, nor did he let the possibility of a disturbing answer suppress his investigation. LeMessurier clearly approached his situation with a very different mindset than the people involved in the Kansas City hotel tragedy.
This passage immediately reminded me of what I wrote about in this blog yesterday – the “Toxic Tandem“. People in positions of power tend to be oblivious to the needs and actions of the people who have less power than them. Look at the bolded sentence in the quoted paragraph. “These construction workers” are the people who actually do the job. They are the people who walk the walk every day. They might be wrong, but ignoring them is not only dangerous, it is just bad management. But more importantly, you need to go out and seek them out. To hear them. To listen to what they are saying. Because they don’t always come to you. In yesterday’s post I emphasized this from managers’ perspective. Because people are the managers’ job. This excerpt actually gives a different reasoning: “You do not discover problems by sitting in your office waiting for the bad news to arrive at your door”.
The second paragraph that appealed to me was dealt with assigning blame:
Successful problem-finders not only exhibit a curious mindset, but they also embrace systemic thinking. They recognize that small problems often do not occur due to the negligence or misconduct of an individual. Instead, small errors frequently serve as indicators of broader systemic issues in the organization. Effective problem-finders do not rush to find fault and assign blame when they spot a mistake being made. They step back and question why that error occurred. They ask whether more fundamental organizational problems have created the conditions that make that small error more likely to occur.
In Hebrew we have a term called “תחקיר” (Thachkir). The official translation into English is the word “debrief”, but this word means other things as well. In Hebrew it only stands for a discussion of an event after it occurred. The Israeli Air-force is known around the world for its implementation of after the event debriefing. I actually used to teach about it while I was serving in the Air-force. The main idea is that the recipient of this debriefing is the system and that blame is not part of the process. The blame is part of a different process. This is done in order to eliminate the fear of the consequences. You try to understand what happened, why, and how to prevent it, without asking who is responsible for what happened on a personal or organizational level (“the marketing department”). In the Israeli Air-force this is done regularly after every event, accident, exercise, etc. This is something I think should be, in some senses, better implemented in the business world. Stopping and thinking about why things happened without questioning the specifics of this case and who is to blame but by thinking about the process and the future. About the bigger fundamental organizational problems. This is hard to do in the day to day mess we are handling. But doing so, helps prevent problems instead of solving problems.