Guest Post by Nat Greene
Think of any process in your business: a physical asset, a management process, a product development cycle, etc. As a leader, part of your role is helping your business get the most out of each process–that is, helping every part of your business deliver the most value it can to your customers.
You know intuitively or explicitly that each process increases its delivery (or output) when it works at greater speed or effort… to a point. Early on, there is a linear relationship: greater speed or effort means greater output. At some point, greater speed or effort leads to diminishing returns and even reduced total output. Imagine an employee working so hard they’re too stressed to do their best work, or a physical process whose speed is too high and starts creating low quality products.
Focusing on Optimization
Many leaders spend a lot of effort attempting to optimize their business; to reach a peak of output based on speed or effort.
Such optimization efforts are worthwhile: you don’t want a business that is running “soft,” nor one that is running itself into the ground.
However, many leaders fall far short of helping their business run at its best, because they don’t focus on the problems that occur at higher speed and effort, which are the cause of the diminishing or negative returns on higher effort.
Unfortunately, the behaviors they encourage in their business are those focusing on finding and tuning the business to these optimization points. At some point, your business has become close to optimized, and your improvement efforts will stall.
Focusing on Solving Problems
What happens if you begin focusing on the problems, instead?
Many people accept that problems at higher speeds or levels of effort are inevitable. You might hear things like, “this process just can’t go any faster,” or, “this person can only do so much.” As a leader, you can help them re-frame their thinking by asking, “what would need to change in order to do more?”
When you start asking this question, you start challenging your team to understand and solve the problems that are holding a process or person back from providing more value. Instead of simply trying to identify the point at which output is greatest in the midst of current problems, your team can tackle these limiting problems and change the curve completely.
Because the diminishing and negative returns on greater speed or output are caused by problems that the process or person is experiencing, solving them will lengthen the straight line of higher output for higher speed or effort.
Imagine the stressed employee: currently, their manager is limiting the amount of responsibility they’re taking on, in order to help them do their best work.
What if, instead, their manager helped the employee dig into understanding what stresses them out about greater responsibility? What is triggered psychologically that causes them to reel back? What emotions do they experience when taking on greater responsibility, and what associated thoughts are they having?
Rather than taking time to optimize the workload for the employee, your manager can help the employee solve the underlying problem, helping them take on greater responsibility, return more value to the business, and grow professionally.
At the root of helping your business change from optimizing to solving problems is helping them change their behaviors. If you can help lead them to adopt powerful problem-solving behaviors and apply them to their day-to-day work, you’ll find previously-”optimized” parts of the business break through to new levels of performance.
Nathaniel Greene is the co-founder and current CEO of Stroud International, and author of Stop Guessing: The 9 Behaviors of Great Problem-Solvers. Nat has a Masters of Engineering from Oxford University and studied design, manufacturing and management at Cambridge University, in addition to executive education coursework in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program.