Catching the tooth fairy: problem solving around limitations

There’s much excitement in my house at the moment. My son has his first wobbly tooth and knows he’ll soon bank some cash. My daughter wants to see the tooth fairy.

She knows it’s a lot to ask: it’ll be dark when the fairy arrives, she’ll visit my son’s room, and my daughter will be asleep, as unable to stay awake as she is on Christmas eve.

But she’s determined to achieve her goal and won’t let these big obstacles stand in her way.

I asked her how she’ll do it.

‘I’ll put a net in the window’.

‘I’ll close D’s windows and door, then open my window so it’s the only way in. Then you can put Sellotape on D’s handle daddy and the fairy will get stuck there when she tries to open the door’.

After I’d picked myself up off the floor, where I’d been rolling around with laughter, I high-fived her and we baselined the plan.

Limitations at work

This creative thinking reminded me of an article I shared with my team at work some months ago.

Now bear with me a minute on this, it’s an article from HBR about avoiding burnout.

It has a raft of good points to make, none of which are about problem solving directly. But that’s the way I read the section ‘Negotiate the non-tangibles necessary for success‘, as a creative problem-solving exercise.

Here’s what the article says:

‘When working on difficult projects fraught with unforeseen obstacles, we often assume that we need additional resources (such as budget or headcount) to complete the work; however, in reality, our most vital resources are less tangible. In surveying professionals from various industries about the resources they most need to be successful, these six factors were rated of similarly high importance: 1) access to information, 2) action from leaders, 3) feedback or coaching, 4) access to key meetings and people, 5) time, and 6) help establishing credibility’.

When we encounter challenges at work, they often look like people/time/money problems. These are the lenses we’re used to looking through (exacerbated by prevelance of models like the traditional cost-quality-time triangle)

We believe that things would improve if only these challenges would disappear.

But as responsible grown ups/leaders at work, it’s our responsibility to navigate through problems and get ourselves and our teams out the other side (the ‘adulthood problem‘).

Back to problem solving

Where you need to get creative, in these sticky situations, is to assess what you really need.

Extra headcount for a project might be a burden if the people are inexperienced, or demotivated (or useless).

Instead, could your line manager clear the path with a stubborn Compliance function, freeing up far more time than you’ll ever gain with extra workers?

Additional budget will be no use if you can’t spend it, or the lead time for the resources you need is too long for the funding to be effective.

Instead, can your leadership buy you some time, giving you and your team a little wiggle room to get out of the bind?

Just as my daughter recognised that she can’t stay awake all night to catch the tooth fairy, when we come up against challenges we should recognise that sometimes the least obvious solutions are easier to implement.

Try this approach with your next problem and see where you get to.

And I’ll let you know if we catch the fairy.

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