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One of the nice things about working in an office environment is the camaraderie. Especially if we run into a problem. There’s always someone to talk to or help us figure it out. In a workshifting situation, that dynamic changes, and we have to work through our own problems.

The first step to solving our own problems is understanding that the situation we’re faced with is really a problem. Dr. Barry Johnson, author of the book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems talks about the differences between problems and polarities. His theory is sometimes we try to use a problem solving approach on something that’s really not a problem at all.

One definition of a problem is the difference between what you have and what you want. Examples of problems include: “How do I get to I-95?” or “Should we merge with XYZ Company?” In these instances, once you get to I-95 or merge (or not) with XYZ Company, the problem is solved.

By contrast, a polarity occurs when you have two opposing forces. For example, centralization versus decentralization is a polarity. This is a polarity because neither centralization or decentralization are wrong – they are just two different approaches. And even when you choose one, you still have ongoing dynamics to deal with (read: it’s not over.) Dr. Johnson elaborates in his book how polarities are not problems and the specifics of to manage the opposing forces of a polarity. It’s a fascinating read.

But for now, let’s go back to our problem. You’ve analyzed the situation and you know you have a problem. Now what? Well, following is a three step approach to working through the problem. This is known as the STP model of problem solving.

STP is an acronym for Situation – Target – Proposal.

During the Situation phase, you have the opportunity to examine the situation. You’re able to collect any relevant information, understand the dynamics of the problem, and the possibilities in terms of changing the situation. Using the example above, you’re driving along and realize you need to be on I-95.

The next phase, allows you to identify the Target, or the end to the problem (i.e. arriving at I-95). This is ultimately what you want to accomplish. You can also see if there is anything you would like to avoid – like getting lost on the way to I-95. Or maybe not hitting any toll roads.

The last phase, Proposal, is when you generate ideas and develop a plan to solve the problem. This would be using your GPS, downloading a Google map on your phone or stopping at the local gas station for directions.

Think about a problem that you’re currently experiencing. You can ask yourself the following questions to work through the problem:

  • Step One: Assess the Situation – Ask yourself the who, what, where, when, why questions to fully understand the matter. Also, don’t forget to ask “to what extent”, “is there a pattern”, and “what is the cause”.
  • Step Two: Identify the Target – Create a vision of what would happen if the problem were solved. This will clarify the issues involved in solving the matter.
  • Step Three: Generate Proposals – Now that you’ve accurately assessed the problem and determined the target, use this step as a way to prepare the action plan to solve the situation.

In the first two installments of this series, we talked about knowing ourselves and doing meaningful work. Being able to solve problems adds another layer to our workshifting competencies. When we’re able to understand our strengths and weaknesses and apply those in the context of work, it helps us correctly assess, develop and implement a solution to the problems we face.

But what happens when that problem is another person? Well, that’s our next workshifting quality – conflict management.

Photo Credit: Hjem

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