How to Solve the Right Problem Every Time

Beverly FlaxingtonBeverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Readers,

In the almost 20 years I have been consulting with financial professionals, there has been a consistent theme in the questions I am asked: confusion about what the “real” issue is. Combine this with the questions I am asked in this column, where many times my readers (and thank you to every single one of you who writes with questions!) pose a question but the real issue is something entirely different.

For these reasons, I want to outline a process I created many years ago (with thanks to Waldemar Kohl who requested that I do this) that I teach to managers, leaders of firms and staff members so they can learn to solve their own problems.

As a college professor watching students struggle to answer case studies, I am also reminded how important it is to teach a clear method for problem solving at any stage in one’s own career. I call this the S.H.I.F.T. ® Model.

  1. S – Specify the desired outcome. When advisors present a problem to me, I always turn it around and ask for what they do want, what outcome are they seeking? In many cases, this first step takes a lot of time because people know what they don’t want, they know what the problem is, or what they are moving away from, but unfortunately they don’t know where they want to get to. What does success look like? What are the quantitative and qualitative measurements that would indicate a successful outcome? Taking the time to define where you are headed and what will it look like when you get there is a crucial first step.
  1. H – Highlight the obstacles and categorize. For as many time as I’ve done, or had someone do, a SWOT over thousands of engagements, I’ll tell you the secret – we really only focus on what needs to be overcome. What’s in the way? What are the obstacles preventing the firm, or person, from reaching their desired outcome? If it’s working, leave it alone. Put your energies on removing the obstacles in the way. But don’t just sit with a list of problems – categorize them: what obstacles can you control, what can you influence and what’s out of your control? Ignore the ones you can’t control – it’s energy wasted. Just focus on those you can control or influence in your planning process.
  1. I – Identify the human factor. External: Who are your stakeholders on the power and interest scale that will need to be included in any decisions you make? Identify these people and figure out how best to include them. Internal: What are your strengths and Achilles heels as a leader/decision-maker/participant? Where can you add value and where might you need to bring in other resources, or shift your own behavior in order to be successful. If you want to get better at time management, but you know you are a procrastinator, and have been since you were a teenager, identify this and be honest about it so you can plan around it. And, yes, “human factors” can often get added to the previous list of obstacles.