The art of problem-solving in business – Part II

second iceberg
September 25, 2021
Welcome back. If you have yet to read Part I of this series of The Art of Problem Solving In Business, please head over to Part I. I can wait. I am here 24/7 waiting for you when you are ready.
We are now picking up after we have completed the initial observation and interview stage of problem identification. There are nineteen questions to consider asking all of the people who are part of a system. Remember that we are looking to understand the system of activity and interactivity that makes up the process that is experiencing symptoms. The Iceberg diagram depicts them as events. Notice I said a “system of activity,” not just a “system.” That is because most of us relate the word system to a computer system and not to a series of steps, procedures, or an overall process. In this context, the definition of a system is: “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method.”1

systems thinking iceberg

Source: Adaptec by Systems Thinking inSchools, Waters Foundation from Innovation Associates, Inc. and Pontiflex Consulting. 2009
The iceberg diagram shows the system’s aspects that hold hidden, unseen influence over how a system functions, producing events we don’t desire. The litany of questions has a method to its apparent madness. I hope the questions from part I are new to you. That would be good if that were true because asking different kinds of questions is foundational to the art of problem-solving.
From reaction to anticipation
To get off the treadmill-to-nowhere of symptom-solving, one has to go a bit deeper into what can be observed. Do this by observing patterns of behavior and measuring what those patterns are. Look at what changes you see happening over time to find patterns. These changes are the variables. Do trends emerge in these variables over time? By identifying problems with this level of thinking, future behavior can be anticipated, which can be solved to address undesirable events and create more of what is desirable. Anticipating is better than reacting to the unwanted of what just happened or is happening now. The key aspect here is “over time.” Patterns reveal themselves by observation over time. The “system” needs to have data collected from it more than just over a single period of time. Some form of ongoing tracking of information is necessary to weave together the moments in time to form an events movie. A movie is a collection of individual snapshots taken rapidly, one after the other and placed together in sequence when run back to show a dynamic image. Just like one photograph cannot make a movie, information taken from a single event cannot give you any insight into patterns of change, and therefore, not into better problem-solving.
Exposing changes over time and trends is a form of leverage in problem-solving. Because it can give you insight into what you can anticipate happening based on the patterns. Shifting away from reacting to the events in problem-solving to anticipating events is a skill that takes time to develop. You will know you are getting the hang of it when your ears perk up when someone states that they think the problem is more or less of this or that, like more sales staff or more revenue. You will naturally redirect the conversation when others say these types of generic-desired outcomes are the problem. Knowing these comments are reactive in nature, devoid of any analysis, and full of a particular point of view from a specific vantage point is a good sign in your progress expanding beyond reaction into anticipation.
From anticipation to design
Further down the iceberg is the structure of the system. Before, we were looking at patterns. At this level, we ask what is causing the patterns to emerge? The design of the structures influences the patterns. Addressing the system’s design can unlock better patterns emerging from the structure, which leads to better or less variable results. At this point, you may find people using this phrase. Something like, “but this is how we have always done it” when you call out the system structure itself as a source of the problem. The actual infrastructure of the system gets questioned at this level of problem-solving. I have failed to mention so far that the deeper you go below the surface of a problem, the greater the resistance you will experience from people to the idea of getting into these depths. Nothing worth doing is easy. It is funny how that works.
From design to transformation
At the deepest layer in a system is the mental model. Assumptions, beliefs, values, attitudes, and perceptions about the system itself are what constitute a mental model. These are the things that keep the system in place, on the one hand, and functioning the way it does, on the other. At this stage in the iceberg, it is an exercise in making the implicit explicit. All of this is unspoken and most often not in people’s awareness. It takes even more skill and practice to identify and expose the implicit base drivers of the system. The base drivers of the system are where the most significant leverage is. It resides in the transformation of the mental model. To do that, expose what does not get spoken but implied, what individually and collectively held beliefs exist, and what values are at play. Uncovering this is the superpower that opens up the source of where root cause change can occur. Reveal the mental model, then see how assumptions, beliefs, and values are incongruent with the desired results. Upgrade the mental model and watch a better system structure emerge and events appear that are congruent with desired results.
More effective problem solving comes by going further down from the surface to deeper sections of the iceberg. The initial depths below the surface of symptoms offer better problem-solving than the usual solving for what is seen and collected above the surface. With greater depth into the system comes greater leverage for effective change, which takes time and effort. Here is the stark reality. The significant problems in business persist because of superficial analysis and quick fixes. Hence many problems grow and become more complex. Issues of this kind don’t come about overnight. Neither can the actual root cause be solved overnight. Quick fixes are quicker to fail. Quick fixes have their place but only in unison with deeper analysis and work to get to the source from where the problem is emerging. Buy a little time with the quick fix and invest the time and effort plowing into the patterns, the structure, and the mindsets that perpetuate the organizational mental model that generates the problem from the core.
Systems Thinking
Shifting from the usual symptom solving to the actual root cause, problem-solving has a specific term. It’s called systems thinking. It’s called that because you need to think systemically. Holistically and in multiple dimensions. Thinking in multiple dimensions exposes the three dimensions of the iceberg. We’ll end this post with a short video of Peter Senge from MIT Sloan School of Management, talking about what Systems Thinking is from his perspective.

Source: YouTube https://youtu. be/eXdzKBWDraM

Christian Grieco


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