I recently had an electrician come out to fix a lighting problem in my kitchen. In the process I learned some lessons that are important for anyone who gets paid to solve problems – and that’s pretty much all of us, right?
You see, what should have been a 15-minute service call turned out to be a 2-hour one. I’ll spare you the details (although I do have to relay a few in my points below). The short story is the guy spent about an hour trying to determine what was causing the problem but ended up having to call in his partner to help. After the second guy arrived, it took them another 45 minutes before they stumbled across the real source of the problem and then they were able to fix it right away.
As I reflected on what happened, I realized the ways they went about trying to fix the problem were all wrong – and yet, if I’m really honest with myself, I find that I’m probably guilty of using the same methods to address my clients’ challenges. Perhaps some of these will sound familiar to you:
1. Jumping to conclusions
What happened: To demonstrate the problem to the electrician, I used a dimmer switch that happens to be one of those newer dual-function ones (dimmer and on/off.) The unusual nature of the switch caught the guy’s attention and he immediately pronounced that the problem was probably caused by the switch. While it soon became clear the switch was not the problem, his initial reaction seemed to bias his perspective for the remainder of his visit. He kept on returning to the switch, convinced there had to be something wrong with it.
Lesson learned: Avoid the temptation to think we have the answer right away.
Psychologists use the term “the primacy effect” to refer to the cognitive bias that results from the disproportionate salience of initial stimuli or observations. For example, we are more likely to remember words we’ve read toward the beginning of a long list, for example, than words we’ve read in the middle. As problem solvers, we might be guilty of allowing the primacy effect to cloud our judgment and lead us down the wrong path.
Instead of jumping to conclusions, we should exercise discipline and conduct a thorough analysis before we offer a diagnosis.
2. Allowing others to bias our opinion
What happened: When the electrician’s partner arrived on the scene, the first guy briefed him on what he had been looking at and the conclusions he had developed. He talked a lot about the switch and so his partner focused his attention there. After exhausting all the possibilities with the switch, they eventually made their way to the junction box in the attic – and, what do you know? The problem actually originated there.
Lesson learned: Analyze inputs independently.
Thorough briefings from others – including our clients – are important inputs in the data-gathering stage of any problem-solving approach. But we should always maintain our objectivity and be careful to discern between fact and opinion.
Peter Drucker, the famous author who is widely considered to be the father of modern management in business, asserted that “detachment” is crucial to the role consultants play. A consultant needs to remain detached, he explained, so that she can serve her clients as a “professional diagnostician in management, a professional therapist and a true scholar.”
Instead of allowing others’ analysis bias us, we should carefully apply a filter of objectivity when collecting inputs.
3. Getting distracted by what was previously done wrong
What happened: Apparently the electrical wiring in my kitchen has an unusual set-up (something about commons vs. transfers). The electricians clearly thought the set-up was all wrong and were incredulous that another knowledgeable electrician would have done such a poor job. They seemed to be more interested in finding all the things the previous electrician had done wrong than in determining whether any of them were actual cause of the problem. And as it turned out, the problem had nothing to do with the “incorrect” wiring.
Lesson learned: Stay focused on solving the problem.
We may think we’re establishing our credibility by talking about the superiority of our approach or by dissecting what others might have done to cause the problem – but the truth is, the client simply wants us to fix it. If we’re being asked to solve a problem that others could not, we shouldn’t get distracted by pointing out why previous attempts didn’t work – or by criticizing the missteps of others. It’s important to analyze the past, but we shouldn’t dwell on it.
Instead, we should stay focused on solving the problem – and let our work speak for the wisdom of our ways.
As the electricians drove away in their truck, I found myself questioning their competence. Had they found the problem right away and fixed it, the result would have been the same but I would have held them in much higher esteem. But because their problem-solving methods were all wrong, I question their expertise – and I won’t be calling on them again.
Perhaps I judge them too harshly — but as I recognize the lessons learned from the experience and the application they have to us as service providers, I realize just how important the right approach to problem-solving is. I hope you find these insights as illuminating as the light bulbs in my kitchen now are.
Thanks to Denise Lee Yohn, brand as businessTM consulting partner, based in San Diego CA. Check out her blog here: http://deniseleeyohn.com/bites/