Category Archives: Problem Solving

Stop and Think

By, Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

When you have a problem to solve or decision to make do you take the time to Stop and Think?

As simple as it sounds, most people don’t take the time to Stop and Think about the problem they are trying to tackle or the decision they are trying to make and end up wasting a lot of time. The excuses people make include:

“I already know what the cause of the problem is, or I have a good Idea which choice I should make.”

• “I don’t have time! If I stopped to think about every problem or decision I have I would never solve any of them.”

• “I never consciously thought about it!”

Stop and Think will help make you more efficient in your problem-solving and decision-making and you will realize many benefits. Among them are:

• It will clear your head from the cacophony of daily business noise to focus on the specific situation needing to be addressed.

• It allows your brain to question what your “gut” may be telling you is the best course of action and prevent you from making a snap decision – getting you to use facts over your opinions.

• It is a wise investment of your time. People attribute Ben Franklin with the quote, “Haste, makes waste.” Four or five minutes taken on the front end will save you hours of rework repairing a snap decision that was bad or the incorrect solution to a problem.

• It minimizes your chances of falling into the time-wasting syndrome of “analysis paralysis” because you will take the time to define a list of that data you determine is necessary to arrive at the best outcome and identify the specific sources from which that data will be gathered.

• Finally, when working with others, consider the purpose of Stop and Think similar to a huddle in football before a play. When the huddle breaks the players go to the line knowing what their individual responsibilities are to successfully execute the play called by the coach.

Stop and Think is a critical thinking process. Characteristic of all critical thinking processes there is a list of logical tasks defined by a series of questions you should ask yourself. The answers to those questions help you to formulate your game-plan for tackling your situation. Here is a look at some of the questions you must answer and tasks you must accomplish before running out onto the problem solving and decision-making field.

1. Have you created a clear description of your problem, decision or goal? John Dewey, an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform, said, “A problem well-defined, is a problem half solved.” What he was referring to is that when you take the time up-front to develop a concise problem or decision statement it helps you to eliminate areas you should avoid because those areas have nothing to do with your current challenge. I.T. professionals consider this as avoiding “scope creep.” That’s where your workload expands into doing work not directly associated with your primary task or wasting time to gather information which – in the end – proves to be irrelevant.

2. How does this relate to my goal, objective or mission? Answering this question will allow you and your team to tie the successful resolve directly to your overall purpose. When you do this, you will recognize the level of importance that this decision of solution has to the overall progress of your project or job.

3. What is the urgency and risk associated with this dilemma? Prioritizing tasks is an important concept in managing one’s time and project plan. By identifying the issue’s urgency and risk you will be able to balance this problem or decision among the many other things you need to accomplish.

4. How much time do you believe will be needed to solve this problem or make this decision? Everyone works well when deadlines are established and known by all. Create that deadline. If not, you will find yourself viewing procrastination as an option. It shouldn’t be!

5. Define your criteria in advance? Establishing criteria in advance allows you to pinpoint the specific information you will need to gather which prevents you from drowning in a sea of information and wasting time in that dreadful time waste known as analysis paralysis. Your criteria will also help you frame up your problem or decision and identify the source where that information can be obtained.

So, with your next problem or decision resist the urge to jump in with both feet. Stand at the edge – Stop and Think – and carefully map-out the game plan you will follow with an accurate and concise assessment. You will save a lot of time and frustration.
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Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on this blog, Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Why​ Ask “Why?”

By, Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker

“Why?” is such an easy question to ask. I suppose that’s why it’s a child’s favorite question.

Having raised two daughters, I remember going through a period in each of their lives when it seemed the only question they knew was, “Why?” At first, it was cute because I viewed it as their thirst for knowledge. I also have a theory that it is an innate human trait for each new generation to garner as much information from the previous generation in order to seamlessly perpetuate life and our society. Children are natural problem solvers. They keep asking “Why?” until they have gleaned all the information available.

Child: “Why do I have to go to school?”

Parent: “To learn.”

Child: “Why do I need to learn?”

Parent: “So you can grow up to be smart.”

Child: “Why do I need to be smart?”

Parent: “So you can get into college.”

Child: “Why do I need to go to college?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why do I need a good job?”

Parent (Now exhausted with this exercise): “Because Daddy says so!” OR “I don’t know, go ask your Mom!”

Child: “Oh! OK!”

Mission Accomplished! I now know as much as Dad on the subject of why I have to go to school…

This technique is actually a tool of good critical thinkers. There is a name for it. It’s called the “Five Whys.” It’s a basic process to gather information to solve a problem by asking the question “Why?” five times, or until there is no more new information available. This is most useful in identifying the root cause of most problems.

When my youngest daughter, Tess, was born, I remember my older daughter holding her new baby sister and looking up at me and saying, “Dad, we’re gonna have to teach her everything.” I laughed because my older daughter, Caitlin, was only 6 at the time. The fact that she thought she was at a point in her life where she believed she already knew everything didn’t escape me. As time went on and she reached her teenage years the point that she did know everything – and I no longer knew anything – was a frequent topic of intense debate between us! Caitlin stopped asking, “Why?” because she assumed she knew why!

I think every parent remembers that night when they went to bed, and their child considered them the smartest person in the world only to wake up the very next morning and find that during the night that same child had arrived at the conclusion that they were being raised by idiots! Ah, those cherished memories of raising children!

The fact is, most – if not all – of us stopped asking “Why?” as often as we should a long time ago. Today, this prevents us from gathering good information that helps get to the real cause of our problems. Some people refer to the process as “peeling apart the onion.” Each peel reveals a new layer. Or, you can equate asking Why? five times to those egg-shaped Russian dolls where you open one doll and it reveals another doll…. And another…. And another…. Until you get to the last doll that is the smallest of them all.

Root causes are similar to that last Russian doll – small, simple, and most times easy to handle.

In my work as a critical thinking skills executive coach, I have encountered that most people or teams focus on problems as the first doll that they see and don’t do a good job of asking questions – such as “Why?” – to open it up to reveal the next doll. This happens for a variety of reasons. The three root cause reasons are:

  • Overrated Intuition – Individuals assume they know what the root cause is and therefore, there is no need to ask any more questions. In your gut, you believe you know the root-cause and you jump immediately to generating solutions.
  • Time – In order to keep up with our fast-paced business environments and demand for high productivity individuals see questions leading to more information that eventually spins into analysis-paralysis. So again, there is the tendency to spring into identifying potential solutions. Usually, these solutions only address the symptoms of the problem and the root-cause continues to wreak havoc and be disruptive.
  • Ego – Many people view asking “Why?” as highlighting a personal knowledge deficiency. “If I ask ‘Why?’ others will discover I don’t know and that will tarnish my image as a manager or subject matter expert and I will lose the respect I need to lead.” To which I reply, “Get over it. If you knew everything you wouldn’t be sitting behind that desk. You’d be on a yacht in the Caribbean enjoying your millions because you have all the answers to every business problem in the world.”

Whatever your reason may be for not asking “Why?” more often, get over it! Get in the habit of asking “Why?” You will find the benefits – especially when working with others – will exceed just gathering more information. It will help:

  • Increase collaboration within your teams or work groups because they will come to know that you value their input and won’t be quickly dismissed.
  • Your co-workers – and family members – will feel more comfortable expressing their points of view around you.
  • It will make you humble and appear less arrogant.
  • And finally, you will learn so much more then you do now.

So, when you’re done reading this, ask yourself; “Why don’t I ask ‘Why?’ more often?” Then take steps to do so!

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Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on this blog, Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Open Mind: A Cure for Cognitive Bias

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Fake News…. Alternative Facts….

These are two terms that we hear too much of in the news these days, and they are invading our team and project meetings.

I don’t intend to get into a political debate. What I do want to highlight is the phenomenon of cognitive bias that causes us to rely only on that information which is not in conflict with what we already believe to be true and how it is detrimental to sound critical thinking. Every critical thinking process you can employ adheres to the old adage; “Garbage in, garbage out.” Thereforeif you only use information with which you believe to be true or agree, chances are you will fail in solving your problems correctly, creating solid strategic plans or making accurate decisions.

Cognitive bias occurs because of several reasons:

  • You take mental shortcuts when solving problems or making decisions to save time.
  • Too much information is available, and you gravitate to only that information with which you are most familiar or you believe to be true.
  • You are motivated by emotional or moral reasons.
  • You yearn to be “in-sync” with your associates or friends – Peer pressure or Groupthink.

There are 120 types of cognitive biases that we all experience when assessing situations, solving problems, generating solutions, and making decisions. It’s a regular smorgasbord! Without having to spend years in therapy to break through these biases there is one easy solution we can all practice which will help us steer clear of cognitive biases – having an open mind. An open mind will permit you to look at information that may be in conflict with your experiences and what you understand to be true. Ultimately, an open mind leads to more accurate decisions, plans, and solutions.

Here are ten suggestions you should consider acting on to keep that door to your mind open on a regular basis:

  • Listen More Than You Talk!

When you talk, you reinforce what you already know and believe. When you listen, you hear information that may be different from what you know and believe.

  • Think Positive, Before Negative

Our brains are prewired to protect us. When someone brings up a new idea our brains have an “Automatic Negative Thoughts” trigger. Our first reaction is to give a dozen reasons why the idea is bad or why it won’t work. Force your brain to start thinking about the positives. Think how an idea will work, or what the benefits of that idea could be.

  • Never Say Never, Never Say Always

This mindset keeps your thoughts and beliefs static. The world around us is moving fast. Things DO change. Your thinking and thoughts must also change in order to stay up-to-date. By saying NEVER and ALWAYS you do not allow your thinking to evolve.

  • Avoid Making Snap Decisions

When you make snap decisions it’s usually because of overrated intuition– your gut. That means you do not think through decisions by using established criteria and facts. The more you do this, the more comfortable you feel making decisions “on the fly” which keeps your mind closed.

  • Respect Others’ Point of View

By respecting other people’s points of view, it prevents your brain from being immediately defensive about views, opinions, or feeling that are different than yours. This invites people to express their points of views more often. You will find It increases collaboration and teamwork!

  • Look for New Opportunities

Thomas Edison was quoted as saying, “There is a better way to do it, I have to find it.” Be like Edison and look for new opportunities to be more productive and more efficient. This mindset will help keep your mind’s door wide open.

  • Expand Your Network

We surround ourselves with people who tend to think like we do. They are your comfort zone and provide you a “safe place.” Expand your business network. Add new people to your circle of friends. These people will provide a diversity to your views and what you think.

  • Make Failure an Option

When thinking through new ideas, or different ways to do things, make failure an option in your mind. We naturally avoid failure at all costs so we will make judgments sometimes because of uncertainty or lack of knowledge. When you let yourself consider failure as an option you will not be quick to dismiss those ideas that appear on the surface as unsafe.

  • Get Away from Your Screens

This is the most difficult of all of the suggestions. We are addicted to our screens – computer screens, cell phone screens, TV screens, tablets, and even touch screens on our car’s dashboard. Make an effort to go on a technology diet. Each day, make a conscious decision to detach yourself from all screens for a period of time – one or two hours, initially. When you get on your screens you gravitate to information with which we agree – Facebook pages, Twitter or Instagram accounts, or texts to and from our friends. It confirms our beliefs. It makes us feel “safe.” Turn them off. Walk the dog. Go for a run or a bike ride. Better yet, sit down and talk with your family, friends, and neighbors.

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Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on this blog, Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Has Brainstorming Become the IBM Selectric® Typewriter of Creativity?

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Is it time to send brainstorming to the Smithsonian Museum to put on display with other antiquated business tools such as typewriters, overhead projectors, slide carousels and fax machines?

I believe if advertising executive Alex Osborn – who is known as the father of brainstorming – were still around even he’d be disappointed that brainstorming has become ineffective in today’s business world. Its ineffectiveness has many business consultants and academicians encouraging companies to no longer conduct brainstorming sessions because they are a waste of time. In his book, Your Creative Power (1940), Osborn outlined in detail how to brainstorm and included guidelines with an extensive flowchart. Unfortunately, over time the basics he described have been ignored or overlooked and now cause many business people to roll their eyes at the thought of participating in yet another brainstorming meeting.

Osborn’s concept – and the ultimate success he derived as an ad exec from the process – was based on the theory that if you brought a group of people together from different backgrounds and with different experiences you will end up with a wealth of great ideas. It makes sense. However, a study conducted at Yale University in 1958 (and many more studies since then) revealed that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone.

So, should we throw brainstorming away? Is it as outdated as typewriters in today’s business world? Or, can we revive brainstorming and make it a productive critical thinking tool once again that spurs creativity? These are serious questions that we must ask especially since many work groups still engage in brainstorming sessions to solve problems and develop new ideas but are sadly disappointed by the results. Here are some suggestions to salvage and reinvigorate Osborn’s original brainstorming technique:

Limit the size of the group – Keep your brainstorming session to seven people or fewer. Many times if the group is larger, some people will take advantage of the “free ride effect” or “social loafing” and sit back and watch other people do all the work. In short, they sit there texting or playing Candy Crush® and don’t participate.

Create a “creative environment” – If you want people to be creative you have to set the mood which makes them feel creative. You wouldn’t expect a group of chefs to prepare a gourmet meal by putting them into studio apartment-sized kitchen with limited pots and pans and cutlery. You need to put them in a facility that allows them to showcase their talents. The same holds true for a management team. Most people are running from one meeting to another and by putting them into a typical stale corporate conference room and expect them to be creative is futile. The furniture and the walls are screaming at them to “think inside the box” and maintain the company’s status quo. Plan on preparing the meeting room in advance to elicit excitement and cause a “paradigm shift” in thinking. Consider the following:

  • Rearrange the furniture – or move the furniture to the hallway and have everyone sit on the floor.
  • Bring in toys for the meeting participants to play with, such as Play-Dough®, Nerf Balls® or other Dollar Store-type trinkets.
  • Make everyone write with crayons on construction paper or large colored Sticky Notes®.
  • Bring in music which will help people relax and forget about tasks – for a little while – that they need to do when they leave your meeting.

Set ground rules – Don’t start by saying, “Here’s the problem. What ideas do you have to solve it?” Implement some of Osborn’s original guidelines which led to his success:

  • Set a goal for the number of ideas you want to identify and a time limit for the actual brainstorming. This creates a sense of urgency and a deadline.
  • Defer judgement during the actual brainstorming session. Don’t comment on any idea until the brainstorming part of the meeting is over.
  • No “Killer Statements” (i.e. “That is a stupid idea.” “You’re out of your mind,” etc.)
  • Encourage “freewheeling.” Ideas that are way “out of the box” can sometime yield way to more “grounded” solutions.
  • No idea is a bad idea – Capture EVERY idea uttered on a flip chart or white board.

Schedule time to warm-up – Professional athletes don’t just run out onto the field (or court) and just begin playing. They warm-up and stretch. Give your team a chance to warm-up by brainstorming on an unrelated, non-business problem, such as, “How many ideas can you come up with for empty tin cans?” This will get the creative engine in their mind revved up and prepare them for the primary concern about which you called the meeting.

Don’t select an idea in the same meeting you created it – You don’t have the facts available to you in the meeting to decide if an idea will actually work or not. Assign ideas to people to gather relevant information so the team can accurately assess the ideas at a later meeting. If not, you may eliminate ideas based upon assumptions, opinions and guess from alleged subject matter experts or “authority” in the room.

Allow people a few minutes to brainstorm individually before opening the group brainstorming session – Introduce the problem and give people five minutes to brainstorm on their own. Then go around the room and record the ideas they identified. This will give the group a head start and get people thinking. Then open the floor up to the typical group brainstorming session.

When you go the extra mile and adhere to Osborn’s original concept, you too, can be as successful as he was and help avoid throwing brainstorming into the category of outdated business tools.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Critical Thinking or Creativity: Which is Most Crucial

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

Imagine this, experts are divided on which skill is most important to business and personal success – critical (rational) thinking or creativity. It’s like watching FOX News and MSNBC report on the same event, but as usual, both reach different conclusions. Who can you trust?

So, which skill – critical thinking or creativity – is most important?

They both are! They’re two sides of the same coin.

Experts do agree that both critical and creative thinking are essential. Some even include creative thinking under the category of critical thinking. Why are both critical and creative thinking essential? To solve problems you must think deductively and rationally (critically) whereas in other instances you need to think expansively and innovatively (creatively). If you were to approach all problems from a purely rational, deductive manner, you would never exceed current levels of achievement. Conversely, if you were to approach all problems creatively, you would never understand why something wasn’t working and be able to take corrective action. Many problems require a blend of the two approaches. To focus on developing one and ignoring the other not only risks ineffective problem solving but it runs the risk of stifling “forward-looking” or “progressive” solutions and reactions.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him atlouquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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Positive Discussions Encourage Creativity

By Lou Quinto
Executive Coach and Speaker

In the past several years I have worked with the IT departments for several Fortune 500 companies. With each company I have encountered depressing stories about unproductive and highly negative interactions that have taken place in their “post implementation review” meetings – known in the IT vernacular as a PIR. A PIR is conducted at the conclusion of the implementation of an IT project for continuous improvement purposes. The objectives of these meetings include identifying areas where improvements can be made to the implementation process for the next project. The agenda usually includes three focal points 1) discuss the outcome of the most recent project, 2) identify successes and opportunities, and, 3) brainstorm potential improvements when planning the organization’s next big initiative.

Seems innocuous enough, right; maybe even productive.

But the actual meeting can be anything but productive. In a room full of high-achievers, people shine the light on all of the trouble spots and create a laundry list of things that went wrong. Brainstorming soon morphs into “Blame Storming”. Everyone leaves the meeting bruised and battered.

On the surface, our focus on problems and trouble spots seems to be in keeping with the spirit of continuous improvement. Unfortunately, when the meeting focuses just on what went wrong, it destroys your ability to be productive.

In his groundbreaking research on group dynamics, researcher Marcial Losada identified 15 high performing teams based on profitability, customer satisfaction, and peer reviews. He then recorded their interactions during planning meetings, contrasting their communications with 26 mid and low performing teams. He found that the mean “positivity ratio” of the high performers was three positive comments to every negative comment. For the low performing teams, the ratio was 0.4 to 1. He also observed that following bouts of negativity, teams lost their ability to flex their behaviors and to question appropriately. Team members simply devolved into an endless loop of self-absorbed advocacy for their own positions.

So what’s the learning for us? In order to encourage high levels of critical thinking in your team meetings, do the following:

1. Start with the positives: Unless we acknowledge that there are many strengths we can leverage, there is a danger that we will focus only on our weakness, closing the door to innovation. You want to remember and reinforce everything that went well so you can build on your success.
2. Spontaneously appreciate: When people are challenged, their natural response is to go into fight or flight mode. To keep people in the collaborative mindset necessary for effective problem solving, first identify the positives of all ideas before offering concerns.
3. Be generous: It’s hard to overdo it. Further research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan found there to be an “upper limit” to positivity, but it doesn’t kick in until you reach a ratio of 11:1. But, make sure your appreciation is genuine, as a lack of sincerity in discussing strengths can do more harm than good.

Employ these tactics consistently at your next series of team meetings, and I am “positive” you will see improved results in your critical thinking.

Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at louquinto@gmail.com. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.

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September 10, 2013 · 8:49 am

Implementing Change During Times of Adversity

If the recent string of cruise ship problems over the last year has you changing your vacation plans, you’re not alone. Four Carnival cruise ships have experienced trouble at sea ranging from power outages to steering problems. The long-term impact to Carnival’s business depends largely on their response to this crisis.

It’s situations like this that have business leaders wondering how their company would respond in a time of crisis or adversity. Perhaps you don’t have responsibility for such visible crises but what about the “everyday” crises you experience with your sales force, teams and departments? Crises such as losing an important client, losing to the competition, or losing market share? It’s important to recognize that managing people and processes in a crisis is the same as managing them under normal circumstances. However, what’s distinctive in a crisis situation is the urgency, focus and potential negative consequences that highlight the inadequacies that were already present. The way to address the crisis is to first establish solid problem solving practices and a common language for non-crisis situations – and this may require changing the culture of your organization. Second, create a strategic plan to guide you through the current adverse situation.

In working with many large organizations over the years I have found that the following are distinctive traits in those organizations that are successful in changing their problem solving culture. These unique traits are relevant for any culture shift:

Understand why the shift is vital and communicate: Identify and clearly articulate the reason for the culture shift. Identify what would happen if no shift occurred. Identify the expected result and benefit when the shift does occur. And, of course, couch all change actions with a focus on “what’s-in-it-for-me” for each audience.
Overall management commitment: Key organizational management understands and articulates the reason for the shift. Management is “on-board” with the need for the change and the process that was used to achieve the shift.
Key stakeholders and drivers: Often there is a person or small group that is passionate about the need for the culture shift and they have the ability to adjust priorities (including financial) to bring about the needed changes.
Consistent message and support: Messages are communicated clearly and frequently. These messages are also supported in the actions of management. Expectations for change are consistently coached and encouraged by managers. Everyone in the company must understand that the current culture took a long time to develop and it will take time to change the culture. During times of change people push back because they focus on what will be lost. Your message must focus on all of the good things that will be gained.
Common language and processes: Through training and other communication, a common language and set of processes for addressing problems was established. The common language was reinforced through statements, personal actions and coaching of individuals at every opportunity.
Effective interdepartmental communication: Departments must interact well with one another and use the common language and processes that have been established.
Celebrate the “wins”: Organizations find it helpful to point to examples of success that give people a visible example of achievement and benefit. They make a “big deal” about the success so that others are encouraged and motivated to accomplish the same.

In short, crisis management is all about managing change in a culture with which people are comfortable. Shifting the culture of your organization will cause discomfort and push back will hinder your successful implementation. It takes strategic planning and effort to change a culture to one that is resilient in times of crises and adversity.
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Action Management Associates

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Filed under Problem Solving, Strategic Thinking