Why ill-defined business problems should take longer to solve

Why ill-defined business problems should take longer to solve
4 minutes read

We know it is tempting. A problem comes along and you just have to solve it right there and then. This is particularly acute in the upper echelons of management. Call it an action-oriented persona, a need to justify value or simple impatience, but many leaders like to ‘make the call’ quickly. In part, this may be due to time constraints. Leaders who get sucked into the corporate malaise are much more likely to be time poor. Recurring problems, regular escalation, low accountability and unhappy customers are all time-stealers. Since organisations tend to become more complex the larger they become and the longer that they have existed, it seems obvious. But, since so many of us want to solve a problem quickly and move on, we have to ask if we are solving the right problem. So, today we discuss why ill-defined business problems should take longer to solve.


In the moment decisions

A spur of the moment decision is one that was sudden and unplanned. Similarly, a heat of the moment decision is taken without pausing to think. In the moment decisions tend to be spontaneous and led more by ‘gut’ instinct rather than based on facts. On one hand, those instinctive decisions are based on thousands of hours of experience. In general, those decisions may appear to be reasonable and supported by your own earned credibility. On the other hand, they can be dangerously erroneous with complex or ill-defined problems.

Sometimes, problems are multi-faceted and you do not possess all of the facts to make a fully-informed decision. You can see where the problem herewith lay. If once, twice and thrice your spur of the moment decisions turned out to be correct, you are more likely to believe it works for you. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time credit much of their success to their gut. Success stories from Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey credit intuition for their successes.


Earned dogmatism

Though a relatively new term in business, earned dogmatism refers to a self-perception of expertise that leads to close-mindedness and a failure to recognise personal bias. In layman’s terms, it means that when you are recognised as an experienced, authoritative or expert voice on a subject, you are more likely to make positive assertions of your beliefs and less likely to consider alternative points of view. One could also refer to ego at this point, which is our self-perception of ability, intelligence and experience and the associated importance and value of a person.

Now, let’s combine earned dogmatism, ego and in the moment decision-making. In an emergency, such a combination of cognitive styles is likely to lead to rapid, directive action. This authoritative leadership style gets things done quickly. It also gives everyone in the vicinity a crystal-clear clarity on a decision from someone who believes that they are the most qualified to make it. For example, if there was a fire in the workplace, you would be grateful to the person who evacuated people quickly. In this scenario, you don’t want decision by consensus, a thorough risk analysis or a decision tree. That assumes that the fire is not extinguishable without substantial risk of physical harm. Now, let’s look at more ill-defined business problems.


Solving ill-defined business problems

An ill-defined business problem is one which is relatively unique, subjective and for which the scope is unclear. These are real-world, intangible and multi-disciplinary situations where you neither possess all of the facts nor are likely to make an instant, perfect decision. In business parlance, you might refer to these as ‘gnarly’ or complex problems. A quick fix doesn’t exist for such situations, though many senior leaders decree it to be so. Any instant fix is likely to be risky and lacking the analysis, understanding and facts to support it.

An example of an ill-defined problem is climate change. We all know that there is no quick fix to it. We also know that people expect to see the effort go in and the plans and solutions unfold along the way. Unfortunately, an ill-defined problem is not always compatible with time and money. A spur of the moment instruction saves a heap of time. A tactical ‘sticking plaster’ saves a heap of money. Neither of them is likely to work out.


Ill-defined business problems take longer

We are not suggesting that intuition cannot or should not play a part. Much of the time, those instincts are correct and based on education, experience and past successes. With small issues, emergencies and routines, the intuitive and direct approach works. With highly complex problems, organisations may find that a quick fix is not enough and the problem persists – often for years. The leaders tried and they certainly didn’t let fear hold them back – it was an intuitive and rapid response from a time poor director. Sure, it won’t always work in the same way that strategic gambles don’t always pay off. Some do and some don’t.

In conclusion, open-minded leaders who set aside their ego and listen to others could get things right more of the time. An ill-defined problem is ill-suited to in the moment decisions and takes longer to solve. Earned dogmatism can lead to a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach and a failure to recognise the depth of a problem, consider valid alternatives or deviate from what you know. To solve it once and for all, you need to have all of the facts, figures and analysis to hand. That could result in a need for more research, a project plan or dedicated resources.


Why not Think Beyond?

If you have gnarly, ill-defined business problems, let us do the heavy lifting. Why not call to speak to a consultant, drop us a quick email or request a call back?

Alternatively, why not read a little more about closed-mindedness and how to make good decisions when things are changing.

Finally, why not read some of our troubleshooting tips or about planning to do things differently.