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All May Not Be What it Seems…
By Enda Larkin
“There’s never enough cabs in this town,” I said, as I climbed – soaking wet – into the back of the taxi.
“What’s wrong with you, buddy?”
Now, unless I’ve had a few drinks, when I could probably chat to myself, then I usually avoid striking up conversations with taxi drivers. No offence meant by that, no reflection on their character intended, but I find that once you get many of them going, it’s hard to get them to stop; which on longer journeys can be a bit head-wrecking. But recently I made an exception – I needed to get something off my chest. And, I learned something in the process.
“What’s wrong with me?” I replied. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong, there’s never enough damn taxis in this town, that’s what. Every time it rains, you simply can’t get one. I’ve been trying to hail one for the last twenty minutes until you pulled in. Now, as you can see, I am totally soaked.”
“Yea, buddy, sorry about that,” he said handing me a single Kleenex from a box on the dashboard. Okay, it was a nice gesture, but I probably needed a beach towel as wet as I was. “And, you’re wrong about the ‘no cabs’ thing,” he continued. Oh, here we go, I thought…now I’m gonna’ have to listen to a load of nonsense for the next twenty minutes. Should have kept my mouth shut.
“You see, buddy, there are more than enough taxis in this town. Actually, if you really want to know, there’s too many…”
“Then why can you never get one, especially when it rains,” I asked.
“Aha,” he said suddenly getting excited and straightening in his seat – and slowing down too, which is never what you want. “You see, buddy, there is a reason for that…most taxi drivers have a daily target in mind when they come out to work, you know, for how much they want to earn on any given shift, I mean. And on rainy days, they naturally get more fares and hit their target more quickly, so they go home early – which means as the day goes on, there’s less taxi drivers out and about…”
He sort of stumped me with that one. Hate that.
But, having made a valid and interesting point, he couldn’t leave it at that. No, he kept going and I was treated to a full analysis of the taxi business in the city: current trends, issues and problems and of course the mandatory rant about how ‘foreigners’ are destroying the industry. He banged on about it for the whole ride home too. Soaking wet and with a drill going through my temple. Worth every penny. Not.
Anyway, turns out, he wasn’t winding me up because, being the total nerd that I am, I did a bit of searching on the issue afterwards and there have been several studies in cities like London and New York which show that he was actually right – cab drivers do tend to have daily targets and reach them more quickly on rainy days.
Yes, the obvious answer isn’t always the right one. And that got me thinking about problem-solving in general; and particularly how we all have unintentional ‘blinkers’ which prevent us from making effective decisions. Some of these blinkers include:
Sometimes we see only what we want to see
Now, regular readers amongst you will likely think, based on a number of articles I have written, that I have some form of personal vendetta against cabbies, which is not the case at all. But I will admit that I may be somewhat blinkered where taxi drivers are concerned which naturally influences how I would view problems in that sector.
Sometimes we see the wrong problem
On occasion, we frame the problem incorrectly, so naturally our solutions are likely to be ineffective. My solution of ‘having more taxis’ was incorrect, because of how I had framed the problem. ‘How to have more taxis out and about later on rainy days’ would be a better framing of the issue.
Sometimes we allow the person to cloud the problem
This issue can happen quite frequently in a work setting and particularly in relation to addressing people related problems. If, for example, an employee whom you dislike is underperforming, you are likely to one, notice it more quickly, and two, you will possibly jump more quickly to conclusions such as they are lazy or slacking, which might not be the case at all. Yet for someone you had a better relationship with, you would be less likely to jump to such conclusions when they underperform.
Sometimes we are lazy or impatient in how we view problems
Problem solving – of the effective variety – can be time consuming, may require us to collaborate with others, undertake analysis and research or other tasks we may not like. Therefore, when faced with certain problems, rather than get a real handle on the matter, it is often easier for us to define the problem in narrower, more manageable terms, or deal with symptoms rather than root causes.
Sometimes we fear being overshadowed if we widen participation in problem solving
Certain managers mistakenly believe that they must always be the ones to identify problems and define solutions, which of course is complete nonsense in this day-and-age. Yet, for those who believe this, they are not comfortable in opening up the problem solving process in case they are over-shadowed.
Sometimes we are afraid to take risks
A major cause of this blinker is simply our desire for security or certainty. As a result, we accept known solutions in preference to the new, because their outcomes are certain.
Sometimes we are simply unskilled in problem solving
By not really understanding how to effectively solve problems, this can also be a blinker of sorts because it means we are working from a very narrow frame of reference in terms of how we address the issue confronting us.
Sometimes we are conditioned to act in certain ways when problem solving
Past experiences, or things like organization culture can condition us in how we problem solve and this can create unintentional blinkers. For example, if the culture in your business is very ‘top-down’, and you know that the boss continuously wants to be the ‘decision-maker’, then that will naturally constrain how you analyse and resolve problems.
To avoid being overly influenced by any blinkers you might have, consider the following simple framework for problem solving and decision making.
1. Identify the real problem
Okay, this sounds fairly obvious I know, but it is vital to ensure that you haven’t framed the problem incorrectly, or that your blinkers aren’t affecting you here. If it is a very complex problem, try to break it down into its constituent parts and prioritise those elements based on how big a contributor they are to the overall difficulty. In addition, always get help with the issue; seek other perspectives, collaborate.
2. Establish all the facts
Having defined the problem, you then need to explore it in detail and learn as much about it as you can – i.e. root causes. This will require you to, depending upon the problem of course, consult, investigate, research and analyse it from all angles until you have the full picture.
3. Consider all the options
When the facts are known, you can then shift your focus to defining an appropriate solution. This stage provides an ideal opportunity to remove the blinkers and depending upon what the problem is, a range of potential solutions should be identified. You should, in collaboration with others, brainstorm all possibilities.
4. Evaluate the effects of each option
For each potential solution identified, it is then necessary to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages associated with each. As you weigh alternatives:
5. Select and implement the best option
Having evaluated all the alternatives you then need to select one and plan the implementation of the agreed solution. Once implemented, you do of course need to monitor progress and ensure that any blockages to implementation are dealt with effectively.
Clearly, it is always much easier to write about how to solve a problem than it is to tackle one in practice, but I have tried to highlight today that we are all blinkered – often unintentionally - in how we approach problems and it is worth bearing that in mind as you confront problems in future. It is also important that you follow a structured and collaborative approach to addressing problems in order to minimize the impact of blinkers. And remember, what seems obvious may not always be so – either in relation to problem definition, or when it comes to selecting solutions.
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