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Biggest problem for leaders: figuring out the problem Add to ...


Know What You

Don't Know

By Michael Roberto,

Wharton School Publishing,

202 pages, $33.99

How Successful

People Think

By John Maxwell,

Center Street, 127 pages, $10.99

Shortly before Bryant University professor Michael Roberto released his first book on decision-making - Why Great Leaders Don't Take No For An Answer, which made my top 10 list for 2005 - a chance encounter led him to wonder whether he had missed the boat.

Former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara had come to speak to his students. As they chatted, Mr. McNamara argued that the biggest problem for leaders was not making decisions but figuring out what problem must be solved.

The result of that chance conversation is his latest book, on problem-finding. Organizational breakdowns and collapses don't occur in a flash; they build over time. "The sooner leaders can identify and surface problems, the more likely they can prevent a major catastrophe. If leaders spot the threats early, they have more time to take corrective action. They can interrupt a chain of events before it spirals out of control," he writes in Know What You Don't Know.

He identifies seven skills that leaders need to become effective problem finders:

Circumvent the gatekeepers

Remove the information filters designed to help protect you, and go directly to the source to see and hear the raw data. Keep in touch with what is happening at the periphery of your business, not just at the core. When Anne Mulcahy took over as chief executive officer of Xerox Corp. in 2001, she assigned each of the company's top 500 customers to a member of the top management team. She also created a program whereby each member of that team served as "customer officer of the day" once a month at corporate headquarters, fielding unvarnished comments from customers having problems with the company's products.

Become an ethnographer

Don't simply ask people how things are going. Go out and observe employees, customers and suppliers as if you were an anthropologist studying some isolated tribe in its natural setting. Kimberly-Clark Corp., producer of the Huggies brand of diapers and related baby-care products, watched moms and dads struggling to hold their babies still while reaching for diapers, wipes and articles of clothing in a diaper change. The result was new packaging for the travel pack of Huggies Baby Wipes, allowing them to be removed with one hand.

Hunt for patterns

Through their intuition, nurses sense a troublesome pattern of signals and so, time after time, they spot trouble before a patient's vital signs become abnormal. Leaders need to refine their pattern recognition skills while, at the same time, being alert to faulty analogies that can lead them astray. Managers at online payment company PayPal can notice these patterns through weekly reports from teams that outline progress, problems and plans.

Connect the dots

Recognize that large-scale failures are often preceded by small problems that occur unnoticed in different units of an organization, therefore requiring information-sharing and mechanisms to help people integrate critical data and knowledge. The failure of security agencies to connect the dots prior to the 9/11 attacks led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Encourage useful failures

Help people in your organization to understand the difference between excusable and inexcusable mistakes, so they will be more willing to admit when things are going wrong and you can address problems. Maxine Clark, chief executive of Build-A-Bear Workshop, which seeks to bring the teddy bear to life for children and families, hands out a Red Pencil Award to people who have made a mistake and discovered a better way of doing business as a result of learning from that failure. But like her grade school teacher, who had a similar award, she holds people accountable for making the same mistake repeatedly.

Teach how to talk, listen

Give groups of front-line employees training in communication techniques that help them to discover and discuss problems and concerns in an effective manner.

The commercial aviation industry has accomplished that with its crew resource management program, which helps crew members to identify potential problems and discuss them candidly.

Senior managers should receive training in encouraging staff to speak up and how to handle their comments appropriately.

Watch the game films

Like a coach or sports star who studies films of previous games, you need to take time to reflect systematically on your organization's conduct and performance, as well as the behaviour and performance of your competitor.

The U.S. Army does this with its after-action reviews, holding a postmortem after a skirmish that looks at what they set out to do, what actually happened, why it happened, and what they will do next time.

In How Successful People Think, consultant John Maxwell delves into another important aspect of managerial oversight: thinking.

"Good thinkers are always in demand," he writes. "Good thinkers solve problems, they never lack for ideas that can build an organization, and they always have hope for a better future."

After studying successful people for 40 years, he says he found the diversity astounding but did discover one important commonality - they are all alike in how they think.

He outlines 10 types of thinking they engage in: big-picture, focused, creative, realistic, strategic, possibility, reflective, shared, unselfish, and bottom-line. As well, he highlights one type they are wary of: popular thinking.

In short, provocative chapters, he guides you through each type of thinking, with lots of tips for how to improve your performance. It's a small, thin book but packs a surprising amount of insight into its pages.

As for Prof. Roberto's book, it's solid and wide-ranging, integrating ideas from many public-sector and private- sector workplaces into a primer on an aspect of management that gets little attention.



In Extreme Dreams Depend On Teams (Center Street, 315 pages, $21.99), co-authored with writer Jim Denney, Pat Williams, the co-founder and senior vice-president of the Orlando Magic basketball team, offers advice on teamwork.

In IT Savvy (Harvard Business Press, 182 pages, $35.15), Peter Weill and Jeanne Ross of MIT Sloan School of Management's Center for Information Systems Research deal with what top executives must know to go from pain to gain. Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days (Entrepreneur Press, 303 pages, $27.95), part of the popular series of books on cheap, effective marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenslayer, is out in a second edition.

The Carrot Principle (Free Press, 235 pages, $22.99), by recognition experts Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, first published two years ago and now reissued, offers the results of a 10-year study on employee engagement and concrete steps for developing a recognition program.

Harvey Schachter

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