The Problem of Overthinking Problems

The Problem of Overthinking Problems

People inadvertently overthink problems.

I lead some large (MM$) initiatives with sizable teams. One thing that I’ve observed, and have been observing for a while which has been consistent is that people spend way too much time over-thinking problems and solutions. Why do they do that? You might have read about Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor. This principle explains that there should not be more options than necessary. In simpler terms, things should not be blown out of proportion. Occam’s razor – Wikipedia

So why do people (and teams in organisations) overthink problems? Here are few things that I’ve noticed.
Ownership and Accountability: Sometimes teams don’t take ownership to avoid accountability. That is, they respond slow and hope someone else will take ownership. Sounds like culture issues, right?
Empowerment (or the lack of): Sometimes teams do not feel empowered and confident of the solutions they work on. Again, these are often culture issues. “Even if we find a solution, boss will do what they want. Let’s spend more time and provide multiple options.”
Deliberate delays on finding solutions: The thinking that goes on here is, ‘if we sit on a problem, it may go away’. We even observe this phenomena in our personal lives sometimes. Do you remember ignoring that annoying headache for days, which turned out to be the…?
Anxiety of the outcome: “Stakes are high and our reputation matters. Let’s think it through.” Anxiety can be a challenge, specifically in toxic environments. It certainly affects teams when stakes are high.
Psychological safety: “if we make a mistake, there can be consequences. So, let’s think carefully, and in detail so that we don’t get punished.” It’s indeed very important aspect of small problems taking longer to solve.
Culture matters: Good culture matters more. Leaders must strive to improve culture. Once people see that they enjoy personal freedom, they start taking responsibility of their own actions, and over-thinking of small problems drops.

What’s the solution for not overthinking problems?

Change your perception. Perception changes everything. A problem could be an opportunity.


The Incongruence of Organisational Hierarchy

The Incongruence of Organisational Hierarchy

The incongruence between facts and claims in many organisations often bothers me. One of the biggest bogus claims that I have seen is the lack of hierarchy or the flatness of an organisation. What that means is that organisations claim to have very little or no hierarchy in their organisational structure. Such claims make an organisation look modern, open and cool. The flatness of hierarchy (do you see the contradiction here?) is used as a marketing tool to attract talent. After all, who wouldn’t want to work for a company where management teams are approachable and where one doesn’t have to worry much about too many titles.

Sadly, more often than not, organisations that claim to not have hierarchical structures, have unwritten ones. Worse, some of these places have a command and control culturer where the top boss or someone else in the upper echelons control everything.

Few years ago I worked for a financial organisation that did not have many levels in their organisational structure. I was leading a digital project with a budget of few millions. What I found surprising was that the senior management team asked for so many details from projects that the monthly report was over 200 pages long. Did they read the report? I doubt that. Soon I figured out that the structure was less hierarchical because the bosses wanted to keep all the control and didn’t trust others enough to delegate. Unfortunately, that culture flowed down and made that organisation a typical command and control driven culture despite trying to be Agile in vain.

Are their any positives of a hierarchical structure?

One vendor that I can think of is that a hierarchy gives you a possibility of climbing the organisational ladder. It is easier for a company to move people one level up but adding a ‘Sr.’ to their titles. It doesn’t cost much and employees stay happy with yearly promotions. Result is that everyone stays happier.

What to do if you end up in such an organisation?

Well, it truly depends on your own circumstances. If you enjoy your work and the hierarchy does not impact you and your attitude, then you have no problem. What matters is whether you continue enjoying your work or not, and whether you have the right opportunities available for you.

However, if you feel claustrophobic in there, or if you want to climb the organisational ladder fast, then may be you need to consider other options. Again, that’s all circumstantial.




Do you bring problems or solutions?

Do you bring problems or solutions?

This is a classic phrase , mostly with the managers of a traditional mindset. However, this phrase, “Come to me with a solution (or options), and not with problems” can also be debatable. 

Look, any good manager would want his or her team members to apply critical thinking and spend time on thinking through possible solutions. Such a manager also wants their teams to take more responsibility and accountability of their work instead of being spoon-fed by their manager. So, hearing this phrase from a good manager should give you an idea of their support to their teams.

On the other hand, lazy and incompetent managers can use this phrase to avoid responsibility. If team members come up with options which, together they often can, then the manager’s job is only to choose the one which suits them. Easy! Isn’t it?

Sometimes, an organisation’s culture also doesn’t let the managers delegate responsibility. When managers do not delegate powers, employees do not feel empowered to even suggest options or solutions of problems. Even worse is, in such cultures even when employees have to come up solutions, they find something that aligns more with managers’ opinion than being a good solution. 

How a Google Maps Review Got Me a Job Offer

How a Google Maps Review Got Me a Job Offer

I once received a job offer just because someone I vaguely knew read one of my restaurant reviews. Here’s what happened…

I was dropping off my son at school one morning and as usual, saying hello to other parents and teachers who I knew. Among those was a father whose son was in my son’s class. We started chatting and he said he spotted one of my restaurant reviews on Google Maps while planning for a dinner party. We both laughed, then segued into talking about our work. When he learned what I was doing, he asked, “Hey, I’m looking for someone to help me with this project. Are you interested?”

“Really?” I thought. That was an actual job offer. And how did I get it? Via a restaurant review. Neat!

I have few good habits and one of those habits is providing feedback. I like to provide useful and actionable feedback to people as well as to businesses where I can.

One way I give feedback is through reviews on Google Maps. Almost every time I visit a cafe or a restaurant, I leave a review. Because of this habit, I’ve got nearly 600 reviews on Google and over 2500 photos. Google says there are over 47 million views of my photos… though I have no idea what that actually means. I wish they’d pay me a cent for each view, or better yet, a dollar. 🙂

These reviews didn’t happen in a day or even a year. I’ve been writing reviews for nearly ten years. And I do it simply because I enjoy writing them.

This job offer was not the first time that my reviews rewarded me. I’ve had other opportunities before this one. Some were quite small, such as 2 TB of free space on Google Drive for free or tote bags… but some more substantial, like a chance to visit California.

However, this post is more about the lessons that we can learn from our experiences than a chance encounter with an acquaintance and a job offer. 

Here are the lessons that this experience taught me.

Consistency pays dividends. Sometimes you have to keep doing the same thing for years without any expectation of a reward. The growers of Chinese bamboo know that. For five years, they water and fertilize a plant and see nothing. After 5 years, the plant grows to 90 feet in five weeks. In my case, I was doing reviews consistently without expecting a reward.

Enjoy what you do. Again, doing what you enjoy can be rewarding. At the very least, it can bring a sense of satisfaction. For me, leaving online reviews for businesses is a stress buster and a hobby. I get excited when a business owner responds. 

Then, sharing pictures of something I cherish, like a good meal or a good experience at a theme park, feels good. I don’t think I would enjoy writing business reviews for the sake of it, and I’m sure I’d get super bored very quickly if that happens. So, do what you enjoy.

Let others know of your interests. I enjoy writing business reviews and I love telling people about it. Actually, I’ve been told that I come across like an excitable child when I share this hobby of mine with others. 

Any hobby worth talking about must be talked about. People like to know interesting things about others and love to share the interesting things they do. By sharing your interests, you build connections and grow your network. And a good network is rewarding in many ways.

Last, but not the least: 

Learn to give and receive feedback. I learned about the importance of feedback from Gerry Weinberg, the famous computer scientist and author. His book, “What did you say? Art of giving and receiving feedback” is fantastic.

Good feedback is always valuable. It is equally valuable to the giver as well as to the receiver. In fact, giving feedback is more difficult than receiving it, because it says a lot about the giver.

I hope the lessons I learned were somewhat useful for you too. Did you have any similar experience to share? Let me know as that would be great to hear. And please don’t hesitate to pass on any feedback or suggestions with me.

Anonymous feedback sucks, but we give it anyway!

Anonymous feedback sucks, but we give it anyway!

A little while ago, the team coach at one of my clients suggested that we collect feedback from the team anonymously to understand the ‘team health’. My opinion has been that you can explore and understand a team’s health by frequently talking and working with them. So, I wasn’t really in favour of gathering data anonymously, but since I had started working at that place  only a few days ago, I asked for more information. 

Turned out, the team coach, who was a nice person and was quite experienced, was actually not in favour of collecting anonymous feedback either. However, the inexperienced manager of that group truly believed that feedback should be collected that way and therefore commanded the coach to follow the process. 

I believe that most of us don’t like receiving anonymous feedback. To validate my assumption, I spoke to a number of people. However, I wasn’t entirely surprised when many of them told me that they didn’t mind providing it when asked. Some even admitted that they have exaggerated while giving feedback anonymously. Giving and receiving feedback can be daunting, however, it can be worse coming from an unknown source.

My experience is that managers who have a command and control mindset do not like transparency, conflict or challenge. They see that as confrontation and try to avoid that.

How people engage with each other, and how managers and team members give or receive feedback often tells a lot about an organisation’s culture. Correct?

I can see that you are nodding your head, most likely in agreement. Well, if you trust me enough then tell me about it.  

Let’s try to analyse the feedback given in an unidentified and unspecified manner. An easier way to analyse that is break it down.

Analysis points:

  1. Is anonymous feedback good or bad
  2. What happens when people are allowed to give feedback anonymously
  3. How do we feel when we receive anonymous feedback
  4. Criticism or critique
  5. What does good look like
A person giving feedback to another while hiding his face

Is anonymous feedback good or bad

The debate about anonymous versus face to face feedback isn’t new. In my work as a coach, consultant and sometimes as a manager, I have come across scenarios where leaders were looking for, and at times, encouraging, anonymous feedback. Their logic or assumptions often were similar. “People feel confident providing anonymous feedback and we learn what our teams actually think about the organisation or the processes or the management or all of these.”

Nonsense!! If the culture of a place isn’t conducive to openness, people will not tell the truth even in an anonymous survey.

If people in a team find it hard to offer direct honest feedback, then it is clear that the group has trust issues. Because if I trust you enough, then I’d feel confident that you would listen, pay heed and won’t mind about my feedback.

So, in general, it seems that anonymous feedback isn’t a good thing.  

What happens when you are allowed to give anonymous feedback? 

How people respond to a request for feedback largely depends on how they feel in the setting in which they are. We respond and react passively or negatively in an environment that makes us feel unsafe. That’s why the ‘feeling of safety’ matters a lot. When employees feel safe to challenge the management, they inadvertently also save their employers from a lot of trouble. When they don’t feel safe, they won’t bother telling the management that the organisation was on fire, and in some cases, literally.

In a blame culture, while some people give up hope that the management would take any actions on their suggestions; few others find the request for anonymous feedback a great opportunity to vent their frustrations. They may exaggerate situations, they may skew data by giving the lowest score for everything and they may even lie if they feel vengeful. And  why wouldn’t they? Anonymity provides them the veil to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Receiving anonymous feedback: 

Here is a scenario that you will possibly recognize.

“Hi, we need to talk”:

Your manager comes to you and says,”I have received some feedback about you from some of the team members. They think that your quality of work is poor, you delay their work by not responding on time and you arrive to work late. I’ll have to take some action if you don’t improve.”

Naturally, you are taken aback because you thought you had cordial and honest relationships with your colleagues.  You considered them your friends and you always assumed that they would approach you for any concern they had about your work. Anyways, you always believed that you produced high quality work. You have been praised for your work by the clients and this feedback did not seem to make any sense.

So, you ask,”who has given that feedback?”

Manager says, “All feedback that we receive is anonymous. We don’t want people to feel exposed or unsafe for providing information or feedback. And we also don’t want people who receive feedback to be vengeful.”

“That’s a load of bollocks!”, You feel like saying to your boss, but decide to keep this thought in the mind and don’t actually utter it. Times are tough and saying that could be a career limiting move.

Instead you mutter, “I understand that, but without knowing exactly what the issue is, I can’t accept or even take action on this feedback. Actually, I think all of that feedback is incorrect. If you tell me who’s provided this feedback then I will work with them to fix things.”

Of course you never get that information.

The problem in the above scenario is that you don’t have any specific information. The feedback was vague, you didn’t know who provided that. You also don’t know whether your boss misunderstood what your colleagues said about you or whether they all were truly two-faced people. If you have a weak manager, then the first thing that comes to your mind is whether your boss was making up all that feedback. 

Whatever the case maybe, now you have a dislike and distrust of almost all your team members and also your boss. The damage has been done.

Criticism vs critique:

Criticism is always an attack on someone’s person. When you give critical feedback, you’re talking about that person and how bad they are. However, when you critique, you talk about an attribute of a person, and not the person.

Brene Brown says this about anonymous feedback:

“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

What does good look like?

The good looks like working in a culture where people feel safe speaking out, respect is a common behaviour, the management folks are open and honest in accepting mistakes and failures and actively ensure that their teams do the same by encouraging them.

I worked with few such teams (I have yet to see an ideal organisation) where people openly expressed their opinions and views. The leaders there created a culture where we felt safe to debate and challenge in an honest, healthy and respectful way.

In an environment like this, team members as well as managers can offer genuine and meaningful feedback in a supportive way. There you talk like mature people. And that not only helps the individuals to grow, but also helps their teams and organisations to stay on course. These cultures also encourage frequent and just in time feedback instead of waiting for a quarter of a year to deliver bad news.