How to Find the Hidden Problems at Your Company

In my previous post, we explored the types of challenges at your company that you’ll hear about as well as the ones that remain hidden from new hires. The latter type are usually the most critical to the future of the business, and you need to be aware of these so that you can spot the best opportunities where you can create value. However, understanding the types of problems is only half the battle. There is still the not-so-small matter of actually finding them in your organization. The question of how to actually do this comes up often enough that I feel it’s worth devoting a post to how you go about uncovering and understanding the really big challenges in your organization.

You would think finding these problems should be easy because of their importance. But in practice, new hires usually don’t get the full story about what’s going on at the companies where they work. People who have been at the company for a while can be reluctant to discuss the big, scary problems with outsiders and recent hires. I can attest to not divulging “the dirt” to new hires about shortcomings or difficulties at the places I’ve worked. Many times, experienced folks don’t wanting to freak new people out right away about the company they just joined. And I’m speculating here, but I think another reason why we don’t share this information with new hires has to do with the relationships we form with our places of work. Once you’ve worked somewhere for a while, you kind of take ownership of its shortcomings, regardless of whether you have any control over them. Watch the person’s body language the next time you hear them talk about some deficiency at your company. If people are really wearing the company jersey, they don’t just talk about problems; they admit to them. Admitting to failings doesn’t make people feel good, which creates an emotional obstacle to you finding what you need. And lastly, entry-level employees are hired primarily to get work done for managers. Your official job description does not involve solving the company’s biggest challenges. Remember, you are making it your business to understand these things so that you can help the business and accelerate your career. Since people won’t proactively include you in the discussions you’d like to be a part of, you’ll have to go searching on your own.

With all of these cultural and interpersonal hurdles to clear, it’s important that you approach your information gathering with some thoughtfulness. The first thing to remember is that emotion is the enemy. To get information about potentially sensitive topics, you need to avoid triggering anything that makes people shut down or just give you generic answers. If someone is unsure about what you’ll do with the information they give you, they’ll give you vague answers rather than the nuanced information you need. You’ll get the same result if your approach makes the person nervous you’ll somehow make them look bad. If you give people reason to question your motives or if you just plain annoy them, you can start making enemies too. Every company and culture is different, but you have to pay attention to the emotional factors at work here in order to get what you need.

In order to strip emotion out of the equation and learn things you can actually use to do your job better, I’ve distilled the process down to three basic rules:

Ground Rules for Problem-Hunting

  1. Work from the symptoms back to the root cause
  2. Work double-time to convince people that you’re just trying to understand the situation
  3. Always de-personalize the issue

One other thing to keep in mind is that asking anyone to explain something to you, especially if it’s complicated, pulls on their time and energy. Be respectful of that, and try to make it easy for them. If they can explain something to you while you walk to get coffee, that’s a lot easier than writing you a lengthy email. I try to stay away from email altogether so that people don’t self-censor out of fear of their words being forwarded unbeknownst to them.

Real-Life Example

Let’s say you hear from a colleague that the telecom company you both work for has just lost its fourth major corporate client in three months. From your perspective, this might be due to any number of reasons: the quality of your product has declined; clients are switching to cheaper options; your customer service is poor; salespeople aren’t doing their job to win renewals…lots of places to look. Regardless, it’s clear that the situation has management’s full attention. That means it is an opportunity for you to learn something important about the business, provided you find the actual problem.

The first decision is whom to talk to about what. Each of the different root causes you speculated points to a different department, so start with the people who are most obviously impacted by the problem. This is what I mean by working back from the symptoms. If you suspect, for instance, that customer service is problem, start by asking about the salespeople whose job it is to renew the contracts. If the customer service is poor, those salespeople are sure to hear about it from the customers. You might think asking people on the customer service team what’s going on with them would make sense if you think they are the source of the problem. That what be the right thing to do if you managed that team, but you don’t. Asking people to self-assess their work for you is pretty abrasive, especially as the new guy. No one owes you an explanation of how they could be doing a better job. Not yet, anyway.

Rather than ask people to criticize themselves for your intellectual gain, I’ve learned far more just by asking people to describe about the inputs and outputs of their work. In other words, what information does this person get from others to do their job, and to whom do they provide their output? By asking people to describe the challenges both upstream and downstream from themselves, you’re less likely to put people on the defensive because they aren’t talking about themselves. The person on the customer service team might be able to tell you where she thinks sales people run into problems, and those problems may in turn point to other areas. The point is that you haven’t asked someone to discuss their own effectiveness. When you talk to a salesperson about what they see as the upstream and downstream challenges, there will be plenty of time to discuss customer service issues.

During your information gathering you need to reassure people that you’re not looking to burn anyone or sell them out. This is as much about tone and how you present yourself as anything else. Whomever you’re talking to has to see you as being on the same side they. If you sound like you’re looking for a person to blame (the “throat to choke”) or like you’re just being a busybody, they are less likely to give you the naked truth. On the other hand, if you show that you want to understand the situation so that you can think of ways to help or just do your own job better, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for. Especially when you’re new and dealing with people whom you don’t know well, setting the right tone goes a long way. Demonstrating that your intentions are sincere brings down another barrier between you and information. 

The last and perhaps most important thing to remember is to always separate the person from the problem. If the most recent lost account belonged to Jeff, don’t ask something like, “What’s going on with Jeff’s accounts?” The problem is that the account is gone, not that Jeff lost it. Now, when you ask people across departments about each others’ work, you’ll likely hear some blame tossed around. Don’t take the bait. “Jeff couldn’t have lost the account on his own,” should be your posture. And if you happen to be talking to Jeff, never ask, “What happened to your client?” Using the second person (“you”, “your”, etc.) puts the other person on the defensive. You need to put some distance between yourselves and the issue at hand. You can do that simply by framing the question instead as, “So when a client leaves us, what reasons do they usually give?” Now Jeff is answering a more neutral question rather than evaluating his own work. If you always keep the problem at arm’s length and don’t look for individuals’ failings, people will see you as a problem solver rather than a nuisance.

It gets easier over time to get the information you need in these situations, but at first it does require some more proactive work on your part. When you’re just starting out, this kind of information just doesn’t flow your way naturally. My view however is that you can’t afford to wait to learn about what’s most important to the business. Moreover, it doesn’t take any additional skill or training to start thinking about most of these problems. It just takes context and the ability to ask important questions. Anything that allows you to more completely understand your role in the company and find opportunities to contribute is worth your investment.