Solutions in Search of Problems


By Holly McDonald

The theme for my work lately has been “solutions seeking problems”. You know, the situation where you are asked to throw together a <insert your area of expertise where an internal or external client places an “order” for whatever you do here>, and it isn’t really what is needed. The tendency is to just buckle up and do it anyhow.

However, the good news, is that this past week it was more about clients who did not succumb to the usual easy solution.

These folks did not succumb:

  • A new client approached me with a training request. It was for a pivotal, but not very large number of people who are working globally and communicating across timezones, cultures, and languages. There are so many factors that could be impeding their success, that I suggested we do a needs assessment to decide. That way we could be sure that they did need training and not some process work or performance support tools.
  • ¬†Another client I’m working with is taking an existing face-to-face workshop and putting some of it online. They have had great success with the workshop, but realize they are not able to simply scale it as is. They could have easily just converted the powerpoint slides to a “course” and put it on a website, but that would be boring. As a result, they came to me to help them re-think it. New questions have been key. Is this activity or topic in here for a reason? It is a tough process for them, but I think it’s worth it. There are lots of ways to provide training, some traditional and others less so.
  • I am also working with a client who is rolling out a new computer system to thousands of users around North America; their traditional method was to train everyone on how to use the system at “go live”. I suggested that we look at it a little differently and create a short awareness tutorial and then base all the others on tasks that people need to do on the system, building a range of support for each task. We’ll be testing this in a few weeks and the system rolls-out to most users in January. I’m really pleased that my client is not going to subject all those employees to hours of boring, useless training. They won’t remember what to do, it costs a lot to train 16,000 people and it takes up lots of time that could be used to do their jobs. I’m also proud that my client is taking the risk to do things differently, like this organization did.

I did, however hear about a couple that did.

  • Someone asked me: if an internal audit shows that staff are not following the policy guidelines, even though we trained them with an e-learning course, are there other options besides just retraining?Oh vey. YES. It could be that some people didn’t know how to follow the policy, but I’ll bet that many knew how, but were challenged dealing with other barriers. It’s possible that their e-learning wasn’t so great and that contributed to the lack of performance. Too many steps, not enough time during transaction, no direct feedback on improper procedure…you get the picture. It is easy to assume that (re)training will make a difference, I just think it is a very expensive option to take without trying to make sure there’s no other factor to address.
  • The second situation is based on someone I talked to that is developing a new product. He had lots of ideas for features and for how people would use his product, but he hadn’t really dug deep to find out if this was a solution that was necessary or if it seemed like a great idea, but wasn’t solving a specific problem.

I get that it seems simple to prescribe a solution, but those of us in consulting roles (internal or external) really do need to help our clients avoid the trap. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. It doesn’t always work. So, I’m going to continue to help my clients focus on problems, not solutions. I hope you do too.

Holly MacDonald is an independent consultant with well over 15 years of experience in the learning & development field. Holly is a bit of a techno-geek and can often be found playing online. When she steps away from her computer, she spends time outside: hiking, kayaking, gardening and of course walking the dog. She lives on Saltspring Island and is a leader in the live/work revolution.

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