In economic development it is quite common to find yourself in a situation where you need to work with multiple Organizations that have differing missions, but are key to successful deployment of a community’s strategic growth plan. In the private sector, the analogy is working with cross-functional teams to achieve a specific business goal. Even though they are part of the same company, success measures will vary between functions and often conflict. For example, the Finance function may drive for maximizing near-term shareholder return while the Marketing function may drive for increased near-term investment to drive long-term market share growth. Whether we talk about economic development or the private sector, it is clear that understanding how to effectively manage differing missions in a win:win way is important to progress.
But, sometimes, despite our best efforts, things just don’t go the way we hoped they would. As a result, we get ourselves in the middle of a classic “hot mess” with everybody looking to us for effective leadership. These are the moments our actions either lead to a workable solution and a stronger team or they weaken team dynamics making it even harder to deal with the next, maybe even more challenging, problem.
So, as a leader, how can you constructively deal with a problem?
5 Steps To Handling Project Problems
STEP #1: Take a Deep Breath – Resist the natural impulse you will have to shoot from the hip. Fast solutions are not necessarily the best solutions. They may make everybody feel better at first, but the unintended consequences of a poorly conceived fast solution can be devastating to success and team confidence when manifested. It is far better to understand and frame the actual problem in a way that provides clarity and makes it easier to address. Writing effective problem statements is a skill. There is some good guidance in Six Sigma literature that describes what a good problem statement looks like. Here are some links you may find helpful.
Armed with a well-crafted statement of the problem, you are well on your way to resolving it. The importance of the discussion involved in writing the problem statement should not be overlooked. It is a great opportunity to align on the facts and the implications of not finding a workable solution. That alignment is key because it builds both understanding and confidence among team members.
STEP #2: Admit Mistakes – Figure out what part of the problem you are responsible for and own up to it. This helps you improve as a leader by learning from your mistake. But, it also sends a strong signal to your team that personal accountability is important. When people are confident that you will not be playing the “blame game” or be looking for a scapegoat, they are more willing to share concerns before they reach the stage of becoming big problems for the team to resolve.
STEP #3: Look to Others For Help – Most problems can’t be solved alone. You need to ask yourself what help is required and who can provide it. Often, this may involve reaching out to people outside your working team who may have a particular expertise you need to address the problem. The game isn’t to pretend to be the person with the answer, it is to be the leader who can secure the resources required to get the problem resolved satisfactorily.
STEP #4: See the Humor in the Situation – Keeping a sense of perspective and being able to laugh at your personal shortcomings keeps your mind open to developing creative solutions. If you are too intense in your approach you will stifle out-of-the-box thinking and likely miss truly breakthrough solutions. Lighten up. The problem just handed you a perfect to exercise your leadership skills and to strengthen your team’s capabilities. Seize the opportunity and try to enjoy the journey.
STEP #5: Accept Uncertainty – You simply can’t control life. Life unfolds and, while you can certainly prepare for the expected outcomes, there will always be the proverbial “curve balls” that get thrown at you. How you deal with them will define the quality of leader you become. Just for fun, check out the mathematical study of chaos theory. It will help you understand why every project is at risk of being impacted by a butterfly named Murphy. You will drive yourself crazy if you try to eliminate the risk. Your team is far better served by trying to minimize it and have processes in place to deal with the butterfly effect when it occurs.
A big part of being an effective leader is your ability to deal with uncertainty in a way that delivers a workable solution and doesn’t destroy relationships. Panic is contagious. If, as the leader, you panic then your team will revert to being self-protective and will become intransient placing their personal performance measures above project success. When that happens, you have failed as the leader.
Dealing with challenges is … well … challenging. But learning to deal with them effectively will allow you to better manage across Organizations (or Functions), and achieve meaningful objectives. As an economic development professional or a manager in the private sector, this is a skill you should make a priority to master. Here are some other posts on leadership you might find helpful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share your insights and/or stories as a comment to this post. Thanks in advance.
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