That’s the business school student’s default answer to the question that starts nearly every case conversation: “What should the manager do?”
My role as a professor is to teach management students why “fire him” is almost never the correct answer — and to understand what always *could be* the correct answer.
Management students, like most people, want to find a definitive answer to the problems they face. “Fire him” reflects their hope that by eliminating the employee who seems to be causing the problem, they will solve the problem itself.
If only it were that easy.
Finding good solutions to management problems is complicated. There is almost never a situation where “Fire him” is a real solution, because firing an employee eliminates just one expression of the problem.
Most organizational problems show up in many places throughout the organization, because problems have multiple and related causes. The problem could be with a particular employee’s behaviors and attitudes, certainly. And in that case, firing him might make sense. But these problems could also be caused by other employees, the organization’s systems, culture and even its core identity.
When I work with students and clients to help them figure out how to solve their business problems, I break solutions down into four types.
Types of “Solutions”: Band aids, Adjustments, and Revisions
1. Band aids are the quickest and weakest type of solution. Band aids are when you put a stop to the losses, the problematic behavior, the whatever it is that is causing the immediate problem. You do this so that you have some time to figure out a better solution. Which you have to do, since Band Aids are only temporary and they always fall off.
2. Adjustments are solutions that aim to ‘tweak’ rather than change. You look for and find some one thing in the system or the process that you can tweak that will keep this specific problem from happening again. You hope.
And then you realize that in a complex and interconnected organization, there’s never just one tweak that fixes everything. Plus, changing one system and leaving other systems intact means that other systems will be fighting to reverse your ‘adjustment’.
3. Revisions are the third type of solution, a solution that aims to go deeper ‘into the system’ that is causing the problem. Revisions ask us to look for ways that systems affect each other, and ask us to find ways to change the systemS (plural) so that they all incorporate the change and reinforce the change together. Here, students look for ways to revise the systems so that they don’t cause problems for each other.
I like to use the analogy of a kid walking to school who gets a blister on his foot. To solve the problem of his blister, his first step might be to put on a band aid. That takes away the immediate pain but doesn’t prevent the problem. So, the second solution — the tweak– is for him to change the shoes he’s wearing. That adjusts one system.
But maybe the blister is also caused by his shoes, by his socks, and by the fact that he regularly sloshes through puddles, getting his feet wet and inviting blisters? Maybe this kid needs to change his shoes and his socks, and learn to avoid puddles?
Yet all three of these solutions point to one end goal– eliminating the ‘problem’.
These solutions fail to consider that their might be a 4th approach, which would lift the kid off his feet and put him on a bike so he not only no longer got blisters, but also so that he got to school faster, so he could start learning earlier, so he could…
You get the picture. So that he could accomplish whatever it was that had him walking to school in the first place.
That 4th type of solution, my favorite kind, is: Building capacity.
With solutions that Build Capacity, your goal is to figure out a way to make the organization remarkably better at doing whatever it was trying to do when the original problem came up.
Building Capacity requires taking several steps backwards, not only to look at the systems keeping the problem in place, but also to look at the larger set of goals, values, desired outcomes, priorities, and skills that limit the system to creating that particular problem.
When we’ve got a problem we usually try to fix it. Yet, every problem gives us a chance to ask how we can do more than “fix” things.
We can consider how and in which direction to grow.
Problems ask us to Build Capacity.
In class, I’ll often help students work through all four types of solutions, one after another, so that they can learn how the “presenting problem” has complex origins and complicated systems that work together to keep the problem alive. And students almost always get to a place where they can effectively revise a network of systems to bring the problem to a close. But,
It takes a bit of audacious thinking and a little managerial courage to take a step towards building capacity.
To move beyond ‘problem solving’, students and managers need a vision of where the organization can go, where the organization wants to go, where the organization *could* go.
Fixing problems returns us to a steady state, but capacity building amps up the power to go…. where? “Find a way to build capacity” is an answer that turns us towards growth, towards change, towards purpose, towards flourishing.
Leaders see problems as the chance to go further, beyond the problem and beyond the solution. And because I want students to see themselves as leaders — regardless of the scope of their role at any point in time — I hope to teach them that there is really one ‘always correct’ answer from a leader.
When the question is “What should the leader do?” the correct answer is always:
Image: Build Capacity Vandy Creative Campus