In my last blog (a guest post for Jim Keenan here), I ranted explained the importance of collaboration. In particular, I linked collaboration to the idea that “You have to disrupt customers to get them to see the problem, solution, and outcome that you can help them successfully address. And, perhaps even more importantly, you have to disrupt your own organization to get them to see how they can help your customers experience the value you are trying to sell.” Dave Brock then wrote a great post expanding this thought – which I recommend you read here.
NOW… I want to pull this idea of collaboration into my rambling the discussion on developing your credibility as a problem-solver. One of the critical competencies any problem-solver MUST have is knowing when to solve – and when NOT to solve – a problem. But a major component of this competency is choosing the right approach. Or in other words, should I collaborate or not?
Let me introduce one other concept before I run down the rabbit hole. Charles Green wrote a brilliant critique of the idea that we should solve problems as individuals. He concludes that, “We live in a relationship world. Thinking we are solitary Robinson Crusoes floating around on our solitary islands is sub-optimizing at best, and destructive at worst.”
This is, in my opinion, fundamental to choosing the right approach. Whenever you have a problem to solve, you should be thinking, “How can I leverage relationship to solve the problem?”
This is the opposite of the all-too-common thought of “How can I solve this problem – on my own?”
GREAT problem-solvers – check that – the GREATEST problem-solvers know how to collaborate. And collaborate well (go study people who won the Nobel prize for Science if you don’t believe me). In fact, they seek out collaboration first, because they know the impact of their efforts drops off considerably when they are not collaborating.
So, my first big point in this blog is really a mirror moment. Do you seek to collaborate first? And if you do, is it because someone else is making it happen or are you the one with the passion/drive to create collaboration? Are you the leader who is finding the root cause problem that you and your teammates (or customers) can share responsibility to tackle?
Picture this: a sales manager sees an opportunity to sell something to a key customer that is much more than what her sales rep is seeing. Instead of jumping in to “solve the problem” herself, she pulls the rep to the side and helps him see the bigger opportunity. Then, instead of creating a one-two punch to blow the customer away with their “amazing clarity” on the opportunity, they approach their best relationship at the customer to collaborate on a way to understand the problem better and validate the size of the opportunity. The chances are that this approach will open up a much bigger opportunity than the sales manager would have likely achieved on her own. Aside from whatever financial success the opportunity represents, the sales rep is also learning how to see his business differently AND learning how to collaborate with his client for better results.
Continue the scenario down one more path. Imagine that the opportunity requires the sales manager to go back to her own company (hmmm – let’s pick on Finance this time) and get help to pull a business case together. But instead of collaborating, the sales manager simply submits a request for help. Can you guess what will likely happen? If the sales manager works in a typical company, the entire process – at best – will slow down painfully. At worst, the sales manager will be ignored and left to figure out the business case on her own.
And this is where you have to know how to do more than collaborate.
You see, while I advocate collaboration at all times, I know what it is like to be in a situation where that is simply not possible. And here is where I apply this model of problem-solving relationships.
At the top of the model (because it really should be your first approach) is collaboration. Collaboration shares the burden of the problem with others. It doesn’t stop until the problem goes away. It accepts disagreement, and even craves it, as long as it is done respectfully and in pursuit of solving the problem. Collaboration produces infinitely better results (which is another reason it belongs at the top).
The second tier of the model is cooperation. It is “acceptable” because you don’t always get to collaborate and the results are much lower than what is produced through collaboration. But the results are still acceptable. Cooperation shares the burden of the solution with others. It doesn’t stop until someone gets the solution. Hopefully at the same time, because if the other party gets their solution before you, you risk them suddenly disappearing – leaving you to finish on your own. Ever have that happen to you?
The third tier of the model is competition. It is less than acceptable, but can be effective when you have no other alternatives. Competition is all about sharing the result. Well, sharing is not quite the right word. It’s more about dividing. As in, “I want my share of the pie. And it better be bigger than yours.” When you are competing, you are constantly fighting over things like resources, accolades, power, and leverage. It doesn’t stop until there is a winner. And a loser.
Which brings me to my second big point. If you are going to be a master of solving problems, you must know all three. But if you are going to develop your credibility as a problem-solver, you must consistently skew toward collaboration. You see, if you can always solve the problem, but have a reputation as a competitive problem-solver (or worse, you create a culture of competitive problem-solving for your entire team), your reputation will not be positive. Except amongst the minions you have created. Trust me, their adoration is not a reflection of reality.
You have to be known as a collaborative problem-solver, who can also solve problems cooperatively and – if necessary – competitively. But when all is said and done, your credibility rests on the collaboration you create AND the massive results that collaboration produces.
This is your mission. This is your reward.
I mua. Onward and upward.
By Tim Ohai
8 thoughts on “Developing Your Credibility as a Problem-Solver (pt. 2)”
Excellent stuff, thank you. I’ve never seen this connection made so clearly before, the strong link between problem-solving and collaboration. Of course, it makes total sense.
Very good to see it so coherently and tightly laid out.
Many thanks. And of course thanks also for the mention 🙂 )
Charles, the pleasure is all mine.
Awesome post Tim! I’d love to see you weave something else into this theme: Interdependency. Implicit in collaboration, cooperation, even competition is interdependency. The stronger the interdependency, the stronger the collaboration and cooperation (I’m still working the competition side), the stronger the potential outcomes. Absent this, it’s difficult to achieve anything.
I actually have links for interdependency built into the model. The interdependency comes from how the parties share the root problem(s) in collaboration, the solution in cooperation, and the result in competition. But that is supposed to be fuel for another blog…
Of course, we can always discuss this over some kabobs next time you are in the SF area.
Great stuff Tim. This reinforces my tact with culture change in local government. The top execs have scewed too far to the “deligation” side. They are not working collaboratively at the highest level to expose and work through the root causes that most of the time are cross initiative dependant. The classic stepping over and on each others initiatives to “insure” individual success is the norm. This article will help me communicate our new approach to problem solving.
Tom, thank you for commenting. Yes, you are spot on in terms of how often cross-functional initiatives and activities are actually making problems worse. It’s amazing how much wasted effort and wasted resources can be recaptured simply by defining the problem correctly to begin with, then sharing the burden of addressing that problem’s root causes.
Tim: these are good ideas, which can work well in some environments. But there’s an assumption that people inside and outside of organizations can and do work toward common goals. As you point out, “It accepts disagreement, and even craves it, as long as it is done respectfully and in pursuit of solving the problem.”
Therein lies the rub: how do you factor hidden agendas, divergent goals, passive-aggressive behavior, infighting, lack of goal consensus, and dysfunctional teams (the list is longer, but because space is limited, I’ll stop here)? Even the best collaborators and problem solvers will find it difficult or simply too expensive to overcome. The issues I described prevail more often than not, and salespeople can’t be naive to think they can waltz into a situation that’s ready, willing, and open to ‘collaboration.’ That assessment requires viewing every sales opportunity through a different, more discerning lens.
Andy, I completely agree that the environment in which we try to solve problems is not going to be collaborative 100% of the time. But let’s step back for a moment and look at this differently.
First, this entire series assumes that (1) the customer wants to solve the problem and (2) there is an element of interdependency (as Dave highlighted above) required for solving the problem. Neither of these points require altruism on behalf of the customer – or even his organization. I would argue here that it is vital for any sales professional to recognize these elements and choose their approach accordingly.
My advocacy is that we don’t accept a reality where collaboration has to be brought to us. That’s lousy salesmanship. Great sales professionals know how to create it, over time, and shift both external and internal mindsets. In fact, we should all be able to turn what was once a competitive situation into a cooperative one, then (hopefully) into a collaborative one. I know I have done this many times. I’m sure you have as well.
Unfortunately, too many new sales reps have not been given the tools to even see the situation clearly. They either misread it entirely or they have only one approach and are completely stymied (aka missing their targets) when that approach doesn’t work – even if they see the situation clearly.
Does this answer address your concern?