As we become more senior, we are given the gnarly problems. Big challenges that have no clear answer, one that other folks may have already tried and failed to fix.
So what do we do? Have a go? Sometimes fail?
This simple approach is not unreasonable. Your solution could well be different to the previously tried ones. And if you fail fast and cheaply, you are likely to have gained new information.
Sometimes that's not enough. If your problem has to scale, if it needs to live beyond you, and critically, if you need to take folks with you on the journey, you might need to think like a consultant.
Here I offer four lenses of consultant thinking that can help move the unmoveable.
Stop and engage with the problem
"Rarely do we find [people] who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you don't know what the problem is or you aren't helping move towards a solution, something is likely to be wrong.
Many big problems come with distractions. Even as you are asked to solve a problem, you maybe be also passed a whole pile of associated issues, complexity, demands. The best consultants are the ones who look past these and can stare the real problem in the eye.
The key to your challenge might be getting to the heart of the problem, stopping the urgent wanting to outweigh the important, and avoiding analysis paralysis.
Be sure to take a little time to hone in on the root problem. Find some folks who can tell you about it and listen. Then think past that and seek a north star that can drive the solving forward.
Make the invisible visible
"Artmaking is making the invisible, visible."
Knowing the problem is not enough. We don't work in a vacuum. We likely need to take people with us, so that they can share the vision and journey ahead.
This can be done by showing folks something that hasn't been seen clearly before. Even if it's confirming something suspected, folk need to join us in the same conclusions, or at minimum, trust us that we really grok the problem.
Show your thinking. Highlight the roots of the problem, the data we have gathered, or the mechanisms we've used to highlight the troubles. It doesn't have to be rocket science. It might be just sticking pins on a board, collating conversations, or the evidence of repeating anti-patterns.
We can bring our experience to bear here. the show-and-tell can software. Hacked, scraped, just about running. Sometimes there's nothing more compelling than something that feels like the beginning of a solution.
Enable new thinking
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
To solve a gnarly problem we have to challenge the current ways of doing and thinking.
People under pressure do what they can; limited budgets and fixed cultures can result in Hill Climbing to local maxima. To truly solve someone's problem we need to shift the ways of thinking and habits so the problem does not respawn.
This might concern how priorities get set and who owns what. It's getting down to the root cause, and the root cause is always people, behaviors, culture, and attitude and sometimes it's the last thing they want to talk about.
Talk about the future, and change. Looking past, rather than at, past misdemeanors, and showing a path forward can be what's needed to release folk from the traps they find themselves in.
Empathy for change
"Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own."
Empathy is the secret of a great consultant. Without empathy, you won't engage with the problem effectively or with the people whose lives revolve around it. You won't listen and people won't talk. You'll be disconnected from the real problem space.
Empathy is also needed for those honest but fierce conversations that need to happen to drive toward change. Because change is hard. We need to connect with them, and them with us, to bring trust and then honesty, and to find a way forward together.
If you boil everything down, you always get soup
"Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it."
There is a natural tension between solving the problem and empathy for the pain the client might feel in the change that must happen. The plaster has to come off; do we rip it off fast or slow?
There is also a tension between collecting data (to report on what we see) and moving forward with something new. Move too fast, without a complete set of solid facts, or move too slowly and be perceived to be doing nothing to help.
Are there any easy answers to solving hard problems? Of course not.
Gerald Wienberg, the original Super-Consultant, suggests the best starting position is asking people to try something different. And then listen, learn, and iterate.
Turning a supertanker takes much time, and much must cost, the secret is getting to the right place to start quickly enough, so the turn happens in time and safely. The next best time is now.