Frank Discussion of Problems

Lately I’ve been thinking about the failures in NASA’s 30-year-long Space Shuttle program (1981-2011). There were many, but of course the two biggest were the fatalities associated with Challenger and Columbia.

In both cases, the problems that ultimately brought down the shuttle orbiters (a leak in one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters and a chink in Columbia’s heat shield) were topics that most of the people involved simply did not want to face.

This brings up a major element in continuing productivity and success: the need to be open and honest about problems and potential problems before they bring down the project or the entire organization.

After a potential problem becomes a real one, and after it has inflicted a large part of its damage, it’s usually easy to see what went wrong and why. But by then it’s too late.

Far better – and practically speaking, more important – is the ability to recognize problems and potential problems early enough to fix them, or at least to alter course sufficiently to avoid their largest negative effects. And the key to this recognition, of course, is the willingness to face unpleasant facts.

Great Difficulties

For a variety of reasons, recognizing and resolving problems in their early stages can be extremely difficult. These reasons include:

  • The complications inherent in anticipating and recognizing potential problems, as well as any negative impacts these problems may later produce. Many problematic situations are ambiguous. Their consequences can be slow to appear. Information about the problems or their potential impacts may be incomplete.
  • The human tendency to avoid being the first person to point out a problem. Paul Revere became a hero for bringing an early warning of danger. But most of us are very inhibited about playing that role, particularly when relying on only our own judgment.
  • The difficulty of accurately and fully explaining to others what you have identified as a potential problem.
  • The reluctance to accept the existence of problems that may compromise your reputation, create extra work, or jeopardize achievement of a highly desired goal.
  • The possibly primacy of interpersonal politics or power struggles over productivity and success. These kinds of priorities may create obstacles to looking for, recognizing, or making changes to solve potential problems.
  • The negative power of “taboo” topics, which pretty much all of us live with. If a problem or potential problem falls within a person’s set of “taboo” topics, s/he simply may not want to explore it.

What’s more, people may turn their attention away from a problem they accurately recognize, simply because they believe it’s someone else’s responsibility, or that if left alone it will take care of itself.

Finally, people who attempt to raise an alarm or resolve a problem may encounter negative reactions from key people. They may face accusations of disloyalty, disobedience, selfish motivations, or something worse.

Deny Denial

One of the most important lessons from the long and varied history of unaddressed problems is that frank discussion of all concerns is nearly always a net positive for productivity and success.

First, frank discussion of problems and potential problems greatly reduces the possibility that something foolishly swept under the rug will come back to bite you.

Equally important, frank discussions among everyone working on a team or toward a goal tend to eliminate secrets, hidden concerns, conflicting motivations, internal power plays, and other factors that derail motivation and sap energy from legitimately goal-oriented activities.

In addition, it’s helpful to establish metrics, procedures, and incentives to track progress toward the goal. These approaches will help to uncover problems and potential problems before they can actually wreak havoc in your work and life.

Perhaps most important, of course, is to continuously cultivate a willingness to respect and respond to the facts of the matter at hand. If you don’t want to know about a problem, for whatever reason, your ignorance won’t make it go away. All it will do is support an environment in which the problem can build up, unimpeded, and potentially do considerably more damage than if you had tackled it squarely when it first arose.

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