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  • Writer's pictureColleen Nelson

Take It One Step at A Time

When an issue is identified, most leaders jump into action pushing for a quick turnaround to solve the problem. In taking this reactive approach, steps are skipped resulting in partial solutions, instability, or pushing the issue to another team. Often, the symptoms are addressed without consideration of the root cause. To solve problems holistically with sustainability for all teams, it is important to understand the root cause and take one step at a time to solve the problem.

Henry Ford is attributed for saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The problem was not how fast the horses could run. The problem was how long it took to get between two places. Companies have a constant demand for more output with less cost. There are workflows that break. There are processes that change. When solving these problems, it is critical to first fully define the problem.

Define the problem. Start with the symptoms. Make a list of what is not working well. Once you have the full list ask, “Why?” This step may seem tedious but to get to the real root cause of the problem you need to understand five layers of why for each symptom.

Symptom: It takes too long to get from one place to another.

Why: Why does it take too long?

Answer: Because horses can only go so fast.

Why: Why do you uses horses?

Answer: Because trains can only follow a specific track.

Why: Why trains?

Answer: Because those are the two fastest modes of transportation.

Why: Why aren’t their other forms of faster transportation?

Answer: Because nothing else has been created.

Why: Why hasn’t anything been created that can move faster without a track?

Answer: Because we have not tried.

Not only does the line of questioning define the problem it can build out the requirements for your ultimate solution. In this example we know we want to create something that can move faster than a horse and not have the limitations of a train.

Identify the stakeholders. Start to make a list of the people and teams that will benefit from the problem being solved. Add the people you will need to help solve the problem. Consider others who may need to be aware of the changes in systems or processes once the problem is solved. Each of these people will serve as subject matter experts and an advisory board as you build out and test solutions. It is important to stay in constant (weekly) communication with your stakeholders. This will allow them to be a part of the evolution, provide guidance, and accelerate your adoption of changes.

Collaborative brainstorming. When trying to move quickly, it is common to make the mistake of implementing the first solution that came to a leader’s mind; faster horses. However, it is more effective for a sustainable solution to brainstorm. Gathering your stakeholders who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences will allow a better variety of ideas. During a brainstorming session, the key word is, yes. Encourage abstract idea. Let every idea be placed on the table. Do not evaluate ideas at this stage. Let the free flow of ideas come to the surface. Faster Horses. Flying carpets. Trains without tracks. More train tracks. A carriage with an engine like a train.

Prioritize the solutions. Not all the solutions are going to be viable. After you have run out of steam in the brainstorming session it is time to prioritize. Rather than shooting down an idea that seems out of the box ask, “What would it take to make this possible?” If the stakeholders cannot solve it or the solution is beyond the teams limits those solutions move to the bottom of the list. If the stakeholders can put actions and resources to a solution it moves up on the list. Go through every item creating a list of what items are most actionable. Then, start to number them in order of which ones best solve your problem. The three that best solve the problem and can be implemented become your recommendation.

Summarize recommendations. When making a recommendation you will need to summarize the reason the team is presenting this specific list of solutions. Your stakeholders need an understanding of how the solutions addresses the problem. It will be critical to explain resources needed along with the team members needed to take on specific tasks. Being able to explain this level of detail in a concise summary will help to garner stakeholder support.

We are going to put an engine on the front of a carriage where the horse would normally be. The engine will drive the carriage as the engine on a locomotive propels a train of cars. The carriage will be able to travel on all roads the horses take today. We will need engineers to help us build the engine and mount it to the carriage.

Assign action. Once you have compiled the feedback from your stakeholders and obtained their approval to start work, it is time to assign actions. This is where ideas become results. Assign tasks to people with the best knowledge and experience. Often, we get hung-up on roles and titles. The best work is done by the people who are experts and capable of completing the work. When assigning actions break the work down into small parts with a clear explanation, tangible output, and due date.

Follow-up. Make sure you schedule regular touchpoints with the team doing the work. They may be running into roadblocks that need your attention. They may have mis-interpreted the task and need to be redirected. They may have other work that is taking a priority and could put them behind on their due dates. Staying engaged through regular follow-ups are critical to your solution being implemented. Continue to report out the progress to your stakeholders to keep them informed of progress and risks.

These steps can happen quickly to support leaderships request for a quick turnaround while providing a more comprehensive solution to your stakeholders. By enlisting the broader group, you will have better ideas, more resources to help build the solution, and faster adoption rate when changes are implemented. Take it one step at a time.

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