Organizational Problem Solving

Finding & Solving
The RIGHT Problems

from Dr. Kenneth D. Mackenzie's The Practitioner's Guide to Organizing Organizations

organizational problem solving

Organizational problem solving goes beyond merely making a decision. It also includes finding and formulating the problem, implementing the decision, and an audit and review of the results produced. Deciding what to do when improving an organization is like the offense reaching the line of scrimmage in football. To make any progress and to score one must go farther.

The process of organizational problem solving can take a long time. Given that each stage depends upon the prior stages, it should be obvious that by spending relatively more effort on the earlier stages, time and money should be saved on the later stages. Unfortunately, busy executives often spend too little effort on the problem finding and formulation stages in their generally commendable but often misguided belief in the benefits of acting quickly and decisively. For example, the response to a drop in sales might yield the decision to develop an elaborate incentive system for the sales force. The real problem might be caused by the poor pricing strategy or by administrative problems which create excessive delays in fulfilling an order.

There are five main stages in the organizational problem solving process:

  1. Finding the Problem
  2. Formulating the Problem
  3. Making the Choice of the Solution
  4. Implementation of the Solution
  5. Audit & Review of Results of the Implementation

Organizational problem solving begins with the process of finding the problem. This is the most difficult stage because things are often not what they seem. What one sees as a problem depends on what ideas one has about organizations. Symptoms can both illuminate and mask underlying organizational problems. Finding the problem is a detective game in which the critical clue is sometimes obvious and other times subtle and intuitive, emerging only after a long process of search and elimination. Organizational problems, once found, are generally obvious and self–evident but they do not appear so at the beginning. What one wants to avoid is called a Type III error; the error of working on the wrong problem. There are usually many problems but which are really critical?

The second stage is problem formulation. This is difficult because it always involves values which need to be surfaced and dealt with in order to create a shared understanding about what is going on and how to improve. Organizations have many stakeholders with differing objectives and values. For example, stockholders seek greater dividends and profits. Management wants control, wealth, and increased growth. The workers demand more security, pay, and health benefits. Government needs tax revenues produced by the organization. Bankers and creditors want to get repaid. Environmentalists may want the organization to invest more in pollution abatement. Suppliers want continued business. Customers demand more services, greater quality, and lower prices. These competing values and objectives need to be factored in when formulating the problem to be solved.

The third stage in organizational problem solving is making the decision. This stage is relatively simple. When the two previous stages have been completed competently, the third stage involves selecting the best available alternative given the specific circumstances and constraints surrounding the problem. The new paradigm provides new insights for creating new solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

The fourth stage is implementing the solution. This involves implementation planning as well as the actual implementation of the solution as it is deployed throughout the organization. This is the stage during which the "rubber meets the road".

There are always problems in the implementation of a solution designed to improve an organization. This is where grand sounding concepts and theories smash up against the rocks of reality. While attention to details is important, what matters is the match between the solutions and reality. The fourth stage, if done right, improves the shared understandings required for making significant progress in becoming and remaining well–organized.

The fifth stage is the audit and review of the results of the solution deployment. The idea here is to actively monitor what is happening against the stated objectives. Always, the audit and review stage produces facts and suggestions for improving some or all of the four earlier stages. It is always valuable to verify that solutions have, in fact, worked.

These five stages are interdependent. Each is important. Bear in mind that implementation begins the day the organizational improvement process is started and not just when a solution has been agreed upon. How the assignment is approached, who has a say in the process, and the practitioner’s own deportment and character affect implementation. Clearly, the primary goal should be successful implementation which improves organizational effectiveness and the worth of the organization. The quality of the solution is generally less decisive than the process of reaching the solution and the way in which it is implemented. Of course, a quality solution is usually easier to implement because it is more acceptable. A solution which is not implementable is never a good solution.

Another feature of organizational problem solving is that there are no final solutions. All solutions lead to new problems and then to new solutions. Organizational problem solving is an on–going process as long as the organization survives.

Is your business well-organized for improvement and success?

The Practitioner's Guide for Organizing an Organization

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