We finally get to fix something!

Taming is the act of actually trying to solve the problem. As we've suggested, the typical path will be highly unique to the problem type. The way we'd tame a Dispute is quite distinct from the way we'd tame a Complexity. So the comments here are purposefully rather vague and abstract. In fact, we are carrying over the description of the problem solving process from the classic model, which recognizes 3 phases:

Exploring the Problem
Testing our perceptions and assumptions about the problem. Crafting a clear statement of the problem independent of any possible solutions. Analyzing the problem as objectively as possible. Although this phase re-visits many elements of earlier work, it is crucial to do so with the deeper analysis and broader participation possible in this step.
Considering Options
Once there is sufficient consensus on the nature of the problem, it is appropriate to explore options. The process is both creative and analytical.
Implementing Solutions
With clear support for a leading candidate, the process moves to implementation. Although project planning is a key dimension of this phase, it also involves reflection and learning, and anticipating the next round of problems that are likely to emerge from the change effort.

To demonstrate this flow, the dramatic script below takes you through the discussions that exemplify each phase. Ideally our players would all share the conceptual framework we'll develop later, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. So for the sake of this example, we'll let people stick with just colloquial English. (The manager, however, is fluent in the framework and is using it surreptitiously in his own thoughts to guide the discussion; if you would like to jump directly to that framework, click here.)

In this situation, Abe (a manager) is bringing a potential problem to the attention of his staff. His goal is not to solve it, but just to find out whether it really is a problem worthy of time and effort. The commentary on the right side highlights some of the key steps Abe is taking to guide the group.

Exploring the Situation
ABE: It seems that our on-time performance on our client projects is slipping. Any thoughts on what's going on?
BOB: I wouldn't worry about it; it's just normal variance.
CHARLIE: I think it's disgraceful! We're making promises to customers and we're not following through!
DON: Are the customers complaining? Let's not make a mountain out of a molehill here.
ABE: Customers complain no matter what we do. I'm more interested in what we think.
BOB: I always thought it was just the cost of getting bigger. We've done well, we've grown, and we're naturally a little more sluggish.
ABE: With all this experience, why aren't we getting better?
CHARLIE: Well, I'm worried. "Sluggish" hardly seems like a step forward.

It's typical that people aren't even sure if there is a problem, much less how big it is. Such discussion are critical, even if they are occasionally rather loopy.

Abe is wise to pull the group back to their own thoughts before letting them reach out for some external definition of the situation. He asks questions that are meant to provoke new ideas rather than signaling his agreement or disagreement with the thoughts offered so far.

ABE: Charlie, what worries you?
CHARLIE: Well, if we get any worse, I think it would tarnish our reputation. If customers start to doubt our word on delivery schedules, why wouldn't they also doubt our word on quality?
DON: See, this is what I meant by "making a mountain out of a molehill"; we slip on a few schedules and you've got us turning into sleazy businessmen selling shoddy products.
ABE: Don, let's not decide whether Charlie's right or wrong, let's just hear the different opinions among us. What's your thought?
DON: I think our customers understand that delivery dates are a "best guess" and there's a lot of variables that could easily change the date.
ABE: So one thought is that we're damaging our reputation by being so late in deliveries, and a different perspective is that our customers are neither surprised nor bothered by a slipped delivery date because they understand it's a complex matter. Any other perspectives?

It is easy for these conversations to turn into debates. Abe is careful to keep the group from coming to consensus before the full range of opinion is out in the open.

Notice that he uses occasional summaries to both acknowledge peoples' contributions, and to distance the person from the position taken. This is not a case of "Charlie vs. Don".

ESTHER: I've been listening to you guys and I think you're all nuts.
ABE: You don't have to be shy, Esther. Tell us what you really think.
ESTHER: Well, I don't think our on-time performance — which is clearly slipping — is worth any time at all. Those of us in Legal are watching younger sales people going up against less sophisticated purchasing agents, and it's the contracting process that's eroding, not any internal delivery capability.
ABE: So a third perspective is that slipping on-time delivery is a distant symptom of a problem much farther up stream. Let's talk a little longer, and then I'll ask each of you to reflect on the ideas we've expressed and we'll revisit the topic at our next meeting.

Abe's attempt at humor is more than just stylistic. These early discussions can be frustrating, even conflicted. There are lots of different viewpoints; and openness of the agenda invites everyone to bring in their favorite concern. A little humor works like social grease, helping keep the tone light enough to be fluid and nimble.

Abe also puts some structure around the discussion. It is not important to come to closure; it is more important to explore and reflect.

Considering Options

The group has finally settled on a clear definition of their problem and the manager, Abe, is guiding them through the second phase. The initial symptom was poor on-time performance on customized client project schedules. Their work in the exploring phase moved away from a simplistic skill training assumption to greater focus on poor process design and a culture that rewards the cowboy rather than the systemic leader.

ABE: So we're pretty clear that the fundamental issue is a poorly designed project management process and, secondarily, a culture that really suppresses leading "by the book" and rewards "fire fighting" and "performing miracles" instead. Let's brainstorm for a bit — just throw out some ideas and let's get the creative juices flowing. Who's first?
JUAN: Let's take a good project management system from the last Baldridge Award winner
JUDY: Let's just take our "best run" project and use it as a template for a new process.
GEORGE: We've got some project managers who recently came over from some much bigger companies. Let's ask them to merge their experience into a class on project management.
ABE: These are great ... keep 'em coming.
JOHN: Let's give an award for the most uneventful project of the year.
[ lots more ideas are surfaced; perhaps 20 minutes worth ]

This would be a common opening. The group is sparking each other with any idea, no matter whether foolish or fabulous. Abe is just recording the ideas on a flip chart and encouraging people to keep going. If someone were to criticize an idea, Abe might stop them and redirect their participation to making contributions rather than judgments.

ABE: We've got a lot of options here. Rather than just vote for our favorites, spend a moment and see if you can identify the reasons behind your preferences. Find the option you like the best, and then tell us why you like it.
JUDY: I like options that we can implement quickly; we haven't got a lot of time to do our own development.
JUAN: I like the Baldridge winner idea. Why don't we just go with that one?
ABE: We might end up there, but first tell me what you like about it.
JUAN: I'd like something tried and true, something well tested. We take enough risks with the products we design; let's not take risks with how we bring 'em to market.
JUDY: I'd also like to see something with low cost; I think that would make it more palatable to the senior team.
ABE: This is a good list of criteria, people. Now's the hard work. We want to use these to slice 'n dice the options, recombine 'em, until we get something that optimizes as many criteria as possible.

Once again Abe is simply recording ideas and keeping the group on track. When Juan jumps ahead and throws his support behind one of the options, Abe brings him back to the reason behind his preference rather than arguing for or against it.

Like the first segment, this discussion could easily take 20-40 minutes. Undoubtedly other criteria would surface, such as customized for our company, easy to swallow, quick to launch, and so on.

JOE: I've just been listening so far, but I see a possibility. If we got a template from a Baldridge Award winner, we'd have something "tried 'n true", and if we had our most experienced project managers translate it into a class, we'd also get the customization we'd want.
JUDY: I like the idea of combining our own "best case" project with an informal series of Brown Bag lunches with Project Managers. I like it because it would something we could launch immediately, and it would also satisfy the criteria of being palatable.

The role of the facilitator here is to help people go back and forth between options and criteria. The criteria can be used to highlight certain features of an option and make it clear what needs to be retained and what can be supplanted with an alternative. And new options created in this fashion will sharpen the understanding of the criteria.

ABE: Let me see if I can summarize the combination we seem to like the most. We get a project management model from a Baldridge Award winner, and we have 2 of our best project managers translate it into a course. We pick one manager who's known as a "by-the-book" kind of guy, and a second one who's more of a cowboy...or cowgirl. Then we have them "test it out" through a series of brown bag lunches with our newer project managers. Is that about it?
JUDY: Right, that's it. And we have two of us sitting in on the lunches to listen for skill deficits vs. process design issues.
JOHN: And, Abe, you get to facilitate the two project managers so they don't kill each other. We're deliberately mixing oil and water here, so we need to give 'em some support.
ABE: Does everyone believe we're ready to do this? That the company will support this?
GEORGE: I think it'll go. My only concern is whether we can afford the time away from project work for these top two managers. Whose going to keep their projects going?
ABE: Good point. We'll have to juggle some resources and some people.

Eventually an option will surface that just strikes everyone as "the one" and that will highlight the relative importance of criteria and the completeness of the set.

The facilitator switches to checking both for consensus and also for confidence.

He also anticipates problems in implementation by asking where the proposal might stumble.

Implementing the Solution

Our intrepid problem solvers have settled on a strategy and they are now meeting to review the early feedback. They have sponsored six brown-bag luncheons (most of which went over two hours) as a way to test out a revised approach to project management. The model had been developed by two project managers (one who advocated for a strict system with accountability, and another who thought "guidelines" were sufficient).

ABE: OK, we've started to get some clear reactions from our project managers. It's time to pool our impressions and see how we're doing. Keep in mind that nothing of this magnitude is likely to go smoothly. And we'll probably learn as much about the problem now as we thought we knew at the beginning. Who wants to start?
JOAN: I'll start out. I'm really disappointed. I thought our project managers would love this program, and they just spit up all over it.
ABE: It certainly wasn't the positive response we were hoping for. So let's see if we can figure out what's going on. Who else?

The facilitator's first task is to normalize stumbling. Failures in implementation should not warrant either "giving up" or "turning up the heat". They should be opportunities to learn, to deepen our understanding of the problem, and to refine the solution.

GEORGE: I was also taken aback by the negativity. But I don't think they were mad at us; I think we just gave them the first chance they've had to vent, and they took full advantage of it! We just happened to be in the room, so we were the easy targets.
JOHN: Were we in the same meeting?! They were practically yelling!
ABE: Did anyone else have a response like George's?
BOB: I agree with George. If you think of what they said, it wasn't that our program was so bad, it was that it was so naive. They basically said that if the VP of Sales isn't re-trained or replaced or drugged, it won't matter how much we redesign the process. They were telling us that a good project management process only works if you have reasonable client contracts in the first place.
JOHN: And you think anyone's going to confront the VP of Sales?! He's always going on and on about how he's the only one making us profitable...and I think the CEO believes him.

The group is beginning to make some sense out of their initial efforts. Like any complex problem, doing something -- doing anything -- is likely to expose new subtleties that were missed initially.

And it is not unusual that the new facets of the problem involve political constraints, personal agendas, or "sacred cows" in the company's structure or history.

ABE: Before we answer your question, John, let me ask another one. If -- and I grant that it's a big "if" -- the VP of Sales somehow "saw the light" and changed his behavior, would that take care of it? Would there be any residual issues to address?
JOHN: Yeah, I also heard something else. I heard a lot of despair, as if they had given up on the senior team. They just don't believe that any real change is possible with our current leadership in place.
GEORGE: I'd have to agree. If we're going to get any motivation out of people's dissatisfaction, we're going to have to have some clear demonstration of senior support.

The facilitator's job now is to re-direct attention to how we need to modify the program. Typically the discussion of learnings and issues might go on for a while, but for the sake of your printer cartridge, we'll jump ahead to bringing things around to modifications.

ABE: So what have we learned? What do we need to change?
JOHN: I don't know why we didn't think of it before, but we need to have someone from Sales on our task force. We need more visibility into the flow of work from Sales into the Project Management Office
JOAN: And we need someone from the senior executive group to be more visible in this effort. We can tell 'em what we've learned, but they're going to have to decide if they're willing to support it wholeheartedly or not.
ABE: And if we did those two things successfully, would that take care of it? Are there other changes to make?
BOB: I think we might need to think through the kind of information technology we need to manage this new process, but I'd be afraid to throw that onto the pile until we see more senior support and more positive support from the Proj Management Office.
ABE: So stick with these two modifications and then see how it fares?

The process of implementation is just that: a process. The facilitator keeps people in tune with the need to repeatedly revisit their experience and consider new adjustments.

Bob's suggestion is a good one, but his idea to wait is also appropriate. Good problem solving is not a linear sequence, but rather a cyclical process that goes from improvement effort to greater understanding to redesigning the intervention to a revised implementation, and so on.

While the group may come up with a solid solution eventually, it is equally valuable that they are creating a new mechanism in the company for self-reflection and continuous improvement.