It's 6:45pm, the morning of my big client presentation. I've rehearsed my talk multiple times, have anticipated likely questions and their responses, and have my PowerPoint on thumb drive, just in case. I pour a cup of Starbucks from the hotel in room coffee maker, confident and comfortable in knowing that I have prepared well for my 8am meeting. While knotting my tie, I notice a small, but quite visible ink stain on the front of my dress shirt pocket. I reach into my pocket and notice that the pen I had placed there has leaked ink. Damn. I don't want my audience to be distracted by this.
Since I have very little time before my presentation, my options are extremely limited. As with any problem solving situation, I have three alternative paths to consider:
- the minimally acceptable solution
- the best available solution
- the best possible solution
In this instance, my minimally acceptable solution seems to be to seek to obscure the stain and hope that no one notices. For instance, I could wear my sport jacket, even though I hadn't planned to and would have preferred not to. I'm not crazy about this option because it is still possible that the stain will be visible as I walk around the room and gesture while presenting, and I will get pretty warm, but it could be minimally acceptable if I am careful.
The best possible solution would be to change into a new, clean shirt. Unfortunately, I didn't bring one with me and I am unaware of any stores located near my hotel that sell dress shirts and that are open at this hour.
So, I am left to consider my best available solution (which should also include my minimally acceptable option). In this instance, I don't have time to launder my shirt. Thinking, I decide to wear the dress shirt I traveled in yesterday. It's pretty wrinkled and slightly worn about the collar, but I will iron it to make it look fresh and I will wear my sport jacket with it. It will look fine even though I won't feel as fresh as I would like. It's not an ideal solution, but it is reasonable, and the best available option under the circumstances.
Obviously, the situation I have described is a relatively minor one, but it is pretty typical of how problem solving can be approached. When faced with a challenge, we often must develop and then choose from among a number of alternatives which vary in terms of their relative attractiveness, suitability, feasibility and availability. We must weigh success probabilities, risks and costs. The choices we make also may vary, depending upon the individual circumstances and how we perceive them. In instances where other stakeholders are involved, they may or may not agree with our rationale or with our choices. Consensus building is also important in organizations where group decisions much be reached.
In the news, we routinely are made aware of instances where executives at large institutions face difficult situations that require decisive action. For instance, consider Florida State University and its approach to investigating criminal accusations involving its athletes, Target's data hacking incident, the list goes on and on... We tend to hear more about poor problem solving approaches and not about companies that make smart choices, like Johnson and Johnson's now classic handling of its Tylenol tampering scare in the 1970's, as those aren't nearly as juicy. Still, how organizations and their leaders approach and deal with difficult problems and tough decisions on tight timing reveals a lot about them, their priorities and their values.
How do you approach problem solving? Do you tend to propose what's most expedient, what's most practical or do you only consider risk free options? How resourceful are you in developing and exploring options? How open are you to others' input? In building consensus? Do you consider effects on other stakeholders? Our problem solving style and decision making approach can reveal a lot about us to those with whom we work and associate. Have you considered this?
What are your thoughts?