Project Practitioners > Problem Solving vs. the Blame Game: PM Skills for All Leaders

Problem Solving vs. the Blame Game: PM Skills for All Leaders

By Laura Erkeneff

As an organization development professional who has designed and implemented leadership programs, training programs and change management efforts for major corporations, I am still amazed when I see very smart people forgetting to problem solve and to concentrate on finding a solution to their problem. It seems that once humans get overwhelmed, our nature often prefers to blame, make assumptions or feel guilty rather than use reason and problem solving to find solutions.

Just this past week this issue came up again. I was having coffee with a person I use to work with a few years ago. Let’s call him Omar. Omar is in a corporate function that reports directly to the VP of Engineering. His customers are 15 Division Heads that all report to the same VP.

When my colleague emailed me to ask if I could meet him for coffee to catch up, I suspected that something was going on that would surface in the course of our visit. After filling me in on getting all the latest news on who was on what project, how the company was doing in this worldwide downturn and who had been promoted or had left for other jobs, my friend turned serious.

Omar stated that the VP of Engineering wanted to know why Omar had not taken up the banner to get the new green product to market.  Omar was stunned and replied to the VP that he didn’t see that as his role. “What do you think?” Omar wanted to know. “ Is it my job?” Then he went on, “ I told him (the VP) that it wasn’t my role and that if he couldn’t  make the division heads implement it, especially after putting out that memo last summer ordering them to start implementing it, then I sure can’t!  After all, I am his technical consultant and functional head. I enforce codes and regulations. Why would they listen to me when they don’t listen to you? ",  Omar recounted.

Not surprisingly the VP was not pleased. And Omar was confused, fearful and somewhat annoyed by the VP’s reaction. He didn’t see why anyone would think it was his job. He didn't ask out loud or to himself what was driving the VP's request. Omar didn't understand that the VP's perception was his perception. Omar forgot about rank. In fact, my bright competent colleague had seemed to have lost his ability to problem solve his situation. Omar was being driving solely by his emotions.

Wow. What a mess. Clearly clarification of basic job roles had not been in place or had shifted without agreement. On top of that, neither the VP or my colleague seemed to be remembering to problem solve this situation for a real solution that would work for both parties, the company and customer. The lines were drawn and the battle begun. I have heard this same story in many companies, especially when times get tough and fear of lay-offs abound. But, what if my colleague approached his problem from the point-of-view of a problem solving project manager? After all, isn’t problem solving one of the most important tools for a PM?  What if Omar had asked the VP to explain more and had drawn him out with problem solving questions? Unfortunately, when dealing with Executives, too many people forget to problem solve and find out what has gone wrong.  And many who have an Executive leadership role do not know how to lead by problem solving! Blame abounds. How many times have you seen this as a major reason for projects failing and products not getting to market?

From an organizational viewpoint; let’s take a look at some of the most common situations seen in companies where leadership problem solving skills are lacking:


Situation: Finding the balance between changing business needs and priorities, getting the job done on an operational level, and communicating the new  strategy to the team.

Solution: Once you set the strategy make sure all the business/operational processes, tools, training, personnel and needed resources are in place to execute. Don’t assume you know. Ask. Communicate. And communicate again.  Acknowledge the change in implementation needs.  Assumptions made about what it will take to execute are one of the most common reasons for strategy implementation failures. Get someone to do a needs analysis and make sure the resources are in place before you start. Again, don't assume.

Project Manager-

Situation: Finding the balance between implementing quickly and “analysis by paralysis”.

Solution: Take a tip from the Marines. Collect all the data possible within a given time frame that will allow you to execute on time and then go with the 80/20 rule. If you are 80% sure you can succeed, then go for it. If you proceed and it becomes apparent you will fail, then collect more data and proceed in another direction. The point is to balance your analysis and risk and implement. Be willing to change and keep executing. This is how things get done. This is leadership by problem solving.

Tips For Everyone-

  1. Keep cool, rational and stick with the facts. Leave your opinions at the door. 
  2. Keep focused on solving the problem and what it will take to implement the solution. 
  3. Remember that blaming (looking for a scape goat) will only make you feel better in the short run. If this becomes your motis operandi expertise, then your professional reputation will suffer.

What about you? How have you seen problem solving used by PM’s in your organizations? What has been effective or ineffective? Do you know someone who is a good leader by using PM skills? What tools keep you on track in using this valuable skill?

Related Links
Personality types can have a huge impact on successful problem solving, so it pays to understand them. If you're a nervous about speaking up about a problem, we have suggestions to help you. Leadership can take many forms, depending on the project phase.

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