Tom Collins, author of the well-respected More Partner Income blog has written a must-read post titled “A Problem Solving Policy for the Law Firm.” (Post is no longer available)
He describes the ordinary approach to problem-solving as the process of identifying and closing the gap between how things are and how they should be, which treats the symptom but not the ultimate cause of the problem. Tom recommends focusing on opportunities, not problems:
If management is going to concentrate on opportunities, it must avoid problems. That means when you do have to tackle a problem, you should do so with a no-return policy. Look for the conditions that permitted the problem to occur and take steps to prevent reoccurrence.
I’d like to tag onto Tom’s post and to discuss the same approach within the context of individual problem-solving and development.
Suppose you’ve decided that your marketing isn’t producing the results you want. You assume that the amount of your effort will determine your results: more is better. Based on that assumption, the simple solution would be to redouble the marketing efforts you’re making now, so you attend two networking events a month, arrange to take a potential client to lunch twice a week rather than just once, and so on. And that might help you to develop more business — but it also might not, or you might not devote the time to following through on your plans. Instead, perhaps you might pause to evaluate the effectiveness of your current efforts and discover that every time you attend the [relevant industry] meeting, you walk away with valuable new contacts that bring in business 40% of the time. Rather than increasing your efforts in marketing generally, perhaps it would make sense to deepen your contacts within that group — perhaps dropping another group altogether. To find that solution, though, you’d have to examine your assumption that more efforts leads to better results.
Likewise, suppose you decide that you want to communicate more effectively with your assistant to correct a problem that’s developed in which he or she doesn’t deliver things you request ASAP in what you consider to be a timely manner. You conclude that your assistant doesn’t pay attention when you say ASAP, so you tailor your solution to that issue. You might emphasize that you need the work “ASAP, really, as soon you can get it done.” You might express disappointment when work isn’t delivered as quickly as you’d hoped. You might even sit down with your assistant and explain the problem and ask how the two of you might solve it together. But the problem might well continue until you discover that when you say ASAP, your assistant interprets that to mean “as soon as conveniently possible” rather than “drop everything and do this now.” Or perhaps the real issue is that you practice as if you were working in an emergency room, running from crisis to crisis so that everything is on an ASAP basis — which means that nothing is a priority. A shift in your perspective is the only thing that will truly solve the problem here.
What we’re discussing here is single-loop learning, in which we tinker with our strategies in reaction to our results, as compared with double-loop learning, in which we examine the assumptions and perspectives that underlie the problem and, if needed, create new assumptions and perspectives to support a new set of strategies to solve the problem. For an excellent explanation of single- and double-loop learning, visit Ed Batista’s post Double-Loop Learning and Executive Coaching on his Executive Coaching & Change Management blog.
In short, the task is to stop climbing the same tree harder, faster, or smarter and instead to pause and ask whether this is the tree to be climbing at all and if so, why. This isn’t navel-gazing; it’s careful analysis of the entire situation at issue and strategizing to meet the actual problem rather than the apparent problem. Although lawyers tend to be very good at performing this task for our clients, we tend not to take the time to do it for ourselves.
Effective problem solving requires effective diagnosis of the problem, not just the symptoms. Identifying and challenging our assumptions and expectations is key to creating meaningful and lasting change, whether personal or professional. Each of us has the ability to do this. However, recognizing the frame that we use to perceive the world may be difficult simply because we’re so accustomed to it. That’s why it may be easier to engage in this process with someone who can help with the task of self-observation and challenging perspectives.
Coaching provides assistance and support in finding the truth that underlies a situation and creating the changes necessary to improve performance and results. By working with a coach, you engage not only his or her expertise, but also his or her impartiality to the situation (thus opening the opportunity for an unimpeded view of what’s really going on and why) and dedication in service to the client. Coaching has often been recognized as a tool for advancing lawyers’ career success. Is the time right for you to consider hiring a coach?