December 27, 2018

Make small changes and solve the problems you have

Two frustrating things that can happen in an organization are 1) big changes and 2) changes that aren’t clearly associated with a known problem. It’s even worse in that order.

These situations tend to happen when a problem remain unaddressed for too long. These situations tend to happen when there is not a strong enough emphasis on respect for all employees -- their experience, ideas, and feelings.

I try to avoid these issues in teams I run by starting early with a problem statement. Specifically when there’s a problem I’d like to solve, I’ll mention it in our fortnightly team retro. If there’s general agreement a problem exists, we begin looking for the least invasive/least effort way to fix the problem. More on that later.

If the problem is not well understand or widely-enough shared, I’ll table the discussion until I can talk with more people to better articulate the problem. Or maybe there isn’t a problem after all.

This process of clarifying and agreeing a problem exists is the only appropriate first step when making a change. It is important to provide sufficient context to affected employees.

After the problem is understood I begin to suggest possible solutions -- soliciting feedback and alternatives. But making sure a problem is well understand is not the same thing as making sure that potential solutions could reasonably solve the problem. Throughout the discussion of solutions I try to repeatedly make sure that proposed solutions could actually address the problem.

From there I try to steer discussion of solutions to ones that are easiest to make and least invasive. Small changes are easier to make. There is little room for disagreement when there is little changing.

Making small changes among a small group of people is even easier. The few disagreements that you find when making small changes among a small group of people give you a chance to prove or improve the solution before introducing it to a larger group.

Communicating frequently and effectively should be a clear theme here.

At this point if there is a single most reasonable solution, I’ll pick it unless there is serious disagreement. Most of the time folks are amenable to the need for a solution to be chosen to solve a problem they agreed existed, even if they don’t love the solution.

If there is no clear solution or there is serious disagreement, go back a few paragraphs and start over to understand the problem and solicit feedback and alternative for solutions. Or take the heat of serious disagreement.

This is a philosophy. It’s difficult to prove the effectiveness one way or the other -- especially over the mid-to-long-term. But the logic makes sense to me, it agrees with what I’ve read on management, and has worked effectively in teams I’ve run so far.

Further reading: