07 November 2005

Problem Solving Priorities.

Fifteen years ago, in a library in Auckland, New Zealand, I came across a book on managing that has one of the better problem solving models I’ve seen, although its connection to the communications theory motivation is weak. The premise of the model is that there are six basic kinds of problems that could be keeping people from doing what you want them to be doing, each with a characteristic solution, and that solutions are far more likely to work if you carry them out in the proper order. The solutions are:

1. Provide information.
2. Provide the proper tools.
3. Provide incentives.
4. Find people with the necessary education.
5. Find people with the necessary abilities.
6. Find people with the proper motivation.

The genius of the model is its recognition that easily solved problems are more often at fault than harder to address problems. Moreover, even if there are multiple problems, it is usually futile to address the hard problems until you address the easy one.

For example, often the most important part of getting people out of a burning building is to provide an exit sign, and it takes an immense amount of education to substitute for the absence of one. Even the strongest, most motivated man in the world with a hand ax is not going to be as effective a lumber jack as a man with a chain saw. A person with the right information, proper tools, right incentives and a proper education will usually be more effective than a very intelligent and capable person who lacks those things. If someone isn’t doing their job, lack of personal motivation or drive is the last place you should look for a solution, and not the first. Even people who really want something done will often refuse to do so if they aren’t paid for the work, for example, while people who don’t really care about the people they are serving routinely are very helpful simply because it is their job.

One particularly relevant corollary of this set of priorities is that it is almost always better to put instructions on how to do things on the spot, rather than conducting a training program. The step by step directions that appear when your copier jams or runs out of ink solve far more problems than the copier repair man or someone consulting the manual does. Good instructions on a tax form will solve more problems than training CPAs and tax lawyers. A certified financial planner who didn’t even graduate from college supported by good financial planning software can often provide more through and well justified financial advice for a client than a far more sophisticated broker. Simple paper and pencil tests administered by a paraprofessional can often be better predictors of a convict’s likelihood of violating parole than the opinion of a PhD psychologist or M.D. psychiatrist.


Kyle said...

That is interesting. What were you up to in New Zealand?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I was an exchange student for a year.