How not to screw things up like a politician

Grouch Marx once said “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies”.

At the moment, there’s no finer example of this phenomenon than the UK’s Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling. .

On top of a less-than-impressive few months in this role, yesterday he blamed the wage demands by rail unions for this year’s annual price rise in train tickets (BBC News report here).

Yet what the UK rail industry calls “regulated fares”, such as the season tickets which were at the heart of many of yesterday’s protests, are set according to a government formula agreed back in 2003 which has no connection whatsoever to wage rises in the railway industry (more details on the rail fare formula here).

This is important because once you’ve diagnosed the problem, rail unions in this case, that tends to be the problem you’ll set out to “fix”.

That’s not to say rail unions are blameless, or that they are tireless champions of anything other than their own members’ interests…it’s just to recognise that the Department of Transport’s ticket price formula can be in no way related to the wage rates of people working in the railway industry, as it’s not even part of the publicly-available formula for calculating ticket prices.

It’s hard to imagine that the interests of the UK’s long-suffering rail travellers would be improved by the Transport Secretary picking a fight with rail unions due to his lack of understanding of the pricing mechanism put in place by his own department.

Unless Chris Grayling was just playing politics to enhance his own standing within the Conservative Party, of course, which is probably several orders of magnitude worse than just being ignorant about pricing mechanisms for which he is the responsible cabinet minister.

By now, even if you weren’t sure before, I think we can probably agree that if you want something screwing up far more comprehensively than any mere mortal could hope for, the thing to do is to get a politician involved.

The question is how can business people like you and me you avoid screwing things up quite as badly as the average politician?

Groucho Marx was right – the diagnosis of a problem is key. Once you’ve decided what the problem is, that’s probably what you’ll do your best to solve. Get that wrong and the likelihood is that not only won’t you solve your original problem, you’ll probably have created another problem you didn’t have before in the process.

Albert Einstein said that if he was given an hour to save the plant, he’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.

That may be a little extreme, but you can’t hope to find a good solution unless you’re solving the right problem. That’s where most politicians get it wrong – they’re taken in by their own political philosophies and see everything through those distorting lenses.

And, I’m sorry to say, business leaders, including myself, have distorting lenses of our own. Having a preferred view of the world distort our own perception of reality is a natural human characteristic. Everybody has it to at least some extent.

But there are things you can do to find better solutions. And that starts by how well you define the problem, as Albert Einstein said.

That depends in turn on how good you are at asking questions, and that’s a skill you can work on and improve, however good or bad you are at it now.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review set out a four-stage process for learning to ask better questions. In summary, this involves:

  • Establish the problem in as simple terms as possible – “We are looking for X in order to achieve Z as measured by W” is the format the article uses.
  • Secondly, you need to be clear how solving the problem contributes towards achieving a strategic organisational objective. You might think this was self-evident, but I’ve sat in plenty of meeting rooms where people thrashed out how to “solve” problems that, even if they were solved, would be unlikely to have any major impact on the organisation one way or the other.
  • Next, take a look at what your organisation has tried in the past and, if relevant, how other people in your industry have attempted to solve the same, or a similar, problem.
  • Finally, write a problem statement which defines the problem, its proposed solution and the requirements you’re trying to achieve, taking account of everything you’ve learned through the earlier stages in the process.

For the UK rail industry, it seems we haven’t even got past the first stage of defining the problem terribly well yet, but you can do better within your own business quite easily.

The HBR article has some great questions to ask during each stage of the process, but the key to solving any problem is always to cast your net as widely as possible when looking for answers.

If all important decisions are only made by senior executives in a conference room, I can guarantee a substantial proportion of those decisions will turn out to be wrong, or at least sub-optimal.

That’s not the executives’ fault – generally they come up with the best solutions that make sense to them, based on their qualifications and experience.

But usually they don’t have current experience of being a front-line sales person trying to sell whatever the company’s new business model is to a potential customer, or someone in the factory trying to produce against a revised product spec with tools that haven’t been properly designed for the purpose, or a call centre operator who handles the irate customers that call in when the revised product or service doesn’t work properly.

Of course, if it’s a strategic decision involving a large financial investment, senior executives have to make the final decision. To do otherwise would be to abdicate their responsibilities to the business.

But during the problem solving process, and especially the question-asking parts of it, involving as many people as possible, especially from the front-line can make a huge difference to the quality of the eventual solution and the cost-effectiveness with which it’s implemented.

If you want to screw things up like a politician, by all means sit in your conference room and make all the decisions amongst the senior executive team.

But I can guarantee that if your business learns to ask better questions, and involves a wider cross-section of staff than just your senior management team in solving them, even quite big issues for your business can be solved quickly and cost-effectively.

Let’s just hope that one day this might be the way we run our railways too.

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