Beware: Problem solving can be dangerous to your organizational health

Daniel Lock

The default position for organisations - for most of us really - is to identify problems and fix them. But, writes contributor Daniel Lock, this way of this thinking can hold you back from exploiting successes.

Nothing is ever perfect. But, then again, nothing ever will be. We will always have just one more issue or series of issues to tackle.

But when change is upon us, and we feel like things are going wrong all over the place, we need to alter our focus. Instead of honing in on the problems, we need to look for the best practices and the little wins that are already happening all around us. By shifting our focus to look for the little successes we can build on them until they create a momentum of their own.

Consider Marsh & McLennan, a world wide insurance business. They've been around a long time and have overcome industry, global, customer, regulatory and other environmental changes. Like so many organisations, their innovations are serendipitous or in response to an extreme situation. But the company wanted to innovate in a more systematic fashion and across business units.

Is this a problem or an opportunity?

To switch their focus from solving problems to innovation, Marsh employed Ben Allen as their chief information officer and chief innovation officer. How did Allen enable innovation at Marsh?

First, Allen did not focus on immediate problems to solve. Instead, he went looking for best practices. By setting up collaboration platforms within the operating companies Allen fostered an approach of finding out what's working elsewhere. The collaboration platforms helped the communication process to share these initiatives and the pitfalls to watch out for across the organisation.

Shifting the focus

Allen's strategy was to teach the organisation to look for what is already working; to look for "internal best practices." This helped show that despite Marsh being a "traditional" business there were people innovating and improving the business. The fact that there were people somewhere else in the organisation doing innovative projects meant that there was practical, immediate actions they could take to build momentum.

The first thing Allen did to build this process was to capitalise on the capabilities they already had. Marsh had disciplined research abilities to help identify unmet customer needs. They combined this with collaboration platforms across the operating companies and with customers to generate insights.

They also developed a learning and coaching program which built on the good work that product and service delivery teams were already doing in order to foster innovation. Building on what was working and connecting these processes across the group enabled Marsh to dramatically improve its innovation capabilities.

To shift the focus to improvement and innovation is tough because we see problems everywhere. That's why, to make progress on a change, we need to provide crystal-clear direction - show people where to go, how to act, what destination to pursue. That's why looking for the best practices already in use in your organization is so important: they chart the course.

Some organisations, are forced to change. Others, like insurance companies like Marsh & McCellan, have less impetus. Often, struggling with huge complexity and a barrage of compliance and regulations, it's all about solving problems first. This is why looking for internal best practices of innovation is so important: it shows people, just like you, what to do in bight sized digestible format.

What is your organisation systematically looked for and disseminated best practices? Image an organisation that wasn't focused on fire fighting and crisis but opportunities and growth.

To create opportunity in time of change this is needs to be our focus and it requires that organisational systems and processes be built up around it. Otherwise when the whirlwind of day-to-day operations begins your focus will immediately be taken away. Consider this question: In your business, what's the ratio of time spent solving problems versus exploiting successes?