The Mindset of a Problem-Finder

In What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen (Wharton School Publishing), author Michael A. Roberto aims to help leaders identify problems before they become major disasters. He discusses why problems go undetected for so long, how to spot patterns across an organization and how to avoid the “isolation trap” that prevents senior executives from seeing problems that are festering beyond their control, among other topics. Roberto, a management professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., wrote an earlier book entitled, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer. Below is an excerpt from a chapter in his current book.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

— Shunryu Suzuki, Japanese Zen priest

On July 17, 1981, roughly two thousand people attended a dance party at Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. Shortly after seven o’clock that evening, two overhead walkways collapsed onto the packed atrium below, killing one hundred fourteen people and injuring many others. The higher walkway gave way first, causing it to crash onto the lower walkway. Both structures then crashed onto the crowded atrium lobby below. Panic ensued throughout the hotel. A joyful dance party turned into a horrifying tragedy in a matter of ­seconds.

An investigation revealed that a design modification had been made in the winter of 1979 during construction of the hotel. The change occurred to facilitate the construction process. However, the alteration in the design doubled the load on the hanger rod connections that were instrumental in supporting the walkways. The design no longer met the requirements of the Kansas City Building Code, yet the construction incorporated this flawed modification. After the collapse, many engineers lost their licenses due to complaints of negligence and misconduct filed by the Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors. Victims and their families received more than $100 million from legal settlements and judgments.

As it turned out, some problems had emerged during the construction of the hotel, but they were not investigated thoroughly. People did not recognize the potential warning signs. For instance, in October 1979, a large section of the atrium roof collapsed because of a problem with the roof connections. People examined the roof design and construction at that time, but they did not revisit the walkway design. Another signal of possible trouble emerged as workers transported materials and supplies across the walkways during the final stages of the project. Some employees complained that the walkways swayed and vibrated at times, particularly when full, heavy wheelbarrows were moved across them. Construction managers dismissed the workers’ concerns; they did not examine whether a problem existed with the supporting structures. Instead, managers told the employees to take another route with the loaded wheelbarrows, thereby bypassing the walkways that traversed the atrium.

Now, consider a very different case in the field of structural engineering. William LeMessurier recounted this famous story to me in an interview conducted just a short time before his death in July 2007. LeMessurier, a highly respected structural engineer, worked on the design of the Citicorp building at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. When completed in 1977, the skyscraper became the seventh-tallest building in the world. Then, in June 1978 a New Jersey engineering student placed a call to LeMessurier. Assigned by his professor to write a paper about the Citicorp building, the student quizzed LeMessurier about the four columns that supported the skyscraper. The young man’s professor thought that the structural engineer had made a mistake. Why had he placed the columns in the middle of each side of the building, rather than at the corners? LeMessurier explained that the professor was incorrect and described why circumstances required the columns to be placed in the middle of each side. Moreover, he told the student about the unusual system of wind braces that he had invented for this building. LeMessurier explained how the braces protected against the force of both perpendicular and quartering winds.

After the conversation, LeMessurier thought about lecturing his own students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on the topic of his unusual system of wind braces. When he designed the columns, he had calculated whether the building could resist perpendicular winds, as required by the New York City Building Code. The code did not require any calculations pertaining to quartering winds (that is, those approaching the building diagonally), and the engineering literature generally did not concern itself with the impact of quartering winds on rectangular buildings. However, this engineering student had sparked LeMessurier’s curiosity. He decided to run a series of calculations pertaining to quartering winds. The results showed more strain on the braces than he expected. The finding proved rather unsettling.

LeMessurier then recalled a discovery he had made just a few weeks earlier. During a meeting to analyze plans for two buildings in Pittsburgh, a contractor asked a question about the welded joints called for in the design of wind braces similar to those used on the Citicorp building. LeMessurier called his New York office to ask about the construction of the welded joints. His office explained that contractors actually had used bolted joints on the Citicorp building; Bethlehem Steel had objected to the welded joints. In that firm’s opinion, the building did not require the extra strength required by the welded joints, and bolts saved a substantial amount of money. LeMessurier’s New York office had agreed to the change, and they had informed him. The office’s decision seemed to make sense at the time, because the engineers considered only the perpendicular winds, as required by the New York City Building Code.

With his new calculations, LeMessurier wondered whether the bolted joints could withstand the stress of high quartering winds. In our interview, LeMessurier told me that his instincts suggested that a serious problem might exist. He felt compelled to investigate further. He began to worry about a powerful storm triggering a catastrophic collapse of the building. He flew to Canada to speak with experts at the University of Western Ontario. He demanded a brutally honest assessment. They gave him one: the stress from quartering winds might exceed LeMessurier’s latest calculations. He knew that he had a serious problem.

To his credit, LeMessurier took personal responsibility for the mistakes. He informed the building’s architect and then flew to New York for a meeting with John Reed, then executive vice president of Citicorp (and later its Chairman and CEO). LeMessurier outlined the problem and then explained his strategy for repairing the building without alarming the public. Later, he met with Walter Wriston, Citicorp’s Chairman. Repairs commenced soon after these meetings. LeMessurier recalled that both men treated him remarkably well throughout the process, and they did not try to punish him harshly for the errors. Over time, LeMessurier became an exalted figure in the field of structural engineering. People commended him for his willingness to be so forthcoming when he detected a potential flaw in his design.

These two stories provide a stark contrast in the handling of information suggesting that a potential problem exists. The managers in the Kansas City hotel case dismissed the concerns of others and reaffirmed their belief in prior judgments by experts. Who were these construction workers to suggest that engineering experts might have made an error? William LeMessurier approached his situation with far more intellectual curiosity. Intrigued by the questions posed by a young engineering student far less knowledgeable than he, LeMessurier chose to perform additional analysis. In time, he began to question his earlier assumptions and judgments. He chose to pursue his concerns and obtain the perspective of unbiased experts. LeMessurier represents the quintessential problem-finder. He did not simply assume that his expert judgments were correct. When he detected trouble, he dug deeper. He wanted to understand the nature of the potential problem. He did not seek to assign blame to others, nor did he let the possibility of a disturbing answer suppress his investigation. LeMessurier clearly approached his situation with a very different mindset than the people involved in the Kansas City hotel tragedy.

This book has argued that leaders at all levels must develop their problem-finding skills. We have provided an in-depth description of the seven critical skills and capabilities required to ensure that problems do not remain hidden in your organization. These processes and techniques will help you discover the bad news that typically does not surface until far too late. Becoming an effective problem-finder requires a different mindset, though, not simply a set of new behaviors and competencies. That mindset begins with a certain level of intellectual curiosity. You must be willing to ask questions, seeking always to learn more about both the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Intellectual Curiosity

Problem-finding requires a certain amount of intellectual curiosity. You must have a restless mind, one that is never satisfied with its understanding of a topic — no matter how much expertise and experience you have accumulated on the subject. You must have the instinct to explore puzzling questions that may challenge the conventional wisdom. You have to resist deferring to the experts who may feel that a particular matter is closed, that the knowledge base on that subject is complete and certain. Perhaps most importantly, you must be willing to question your own prior judgments and conclusions. That last point may be particularly troublesome for most of us. In her seminal study of how the U.S. government discounted warning signs prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks, Roberta Wohlstetter argued that human beings tend to exhibit a “stubborn attachment to existing beliefs.” Over the years, cognitive psychologists have provided ample evidence to support her contention. Effective problem-finders fight constantly against this urge to remain attached to prior beliefs. They exhibit a curiosity that causes them to question what others see as “set in stone.”

The intellectually curious seek constantly to learn new things. They thrive on novelty. They seek out new situations and new ideas. Often, they find that these new experiences provide them a new perspective on the very familiar territory in which they work on a day-to-day basis. New research actually suggests that novelty stimulates the brain and enhances learning. For instance, in 2006, researchers at the University College of London conducted a study in which they showed subjects images of various scenes and faces while analyzing their brain activity using sophisticated scan technology. They discovered that new images stimulated the brain more than familiar ones, even if the familiar images were emotionally negative (such as an automobile accident or a face that appeared angry). In another set of experiments, the researchers tested the memory of subjects with regard to a set of novel images as well as more familiar ones. They discovered that subjects remembered more when new facts were mixed with more familiar data, as opposed to when individuals tried to memorize only common, recognizable information.

Emory University professors Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts have argued that seeking novel experiences helps keep the brain sharp. They explain: “The more things you learn, the better you become at learning. Actively engaging in novel, challenging activities capitalizes on your capacity for neuroplasticity — the ability of your brain to reorganize itself adaptively and enhance its performance.” Problem-finding requires an ability to cope with ambiguity and to sort through seemingly contradictory signals at times. It requires a capacity to make sense of messy situations and a willingness to look at familiar situations from a different perspective. Novel learning experiences often provide us new conceptual models of how to think about a familiar situation as well as new frames of reference. Novel experience can shake our entrenched assumptions. A curious mind that enjoys learning new things may be a problem-finder’s most valuable asset.

Systemic Thinking

Successful problem-finders not only exhibit a curious mindset, but they also embrace systemic thinking. They recognize that small problems often do not occur due to the negligence or misconduct of an individual. Instead, small errors frequently serve as indicators of broader systemic issues in the organization. Effective problem-­finders do not rush to find fault and assign blame when they spot a mistake being made. They step back and question why that error occurred. They ask whether more fundamental organizational problems have created the conditions that make that small error more likely to occur. Effective problem-finders recognize that you might fire the person who made an error on the front lines, but if you do not address the underlying systemic issues, the same errors will occur again and again. Firing someone who made a mistake without identifying the systemic problem does not constitute effective problem-finding; it simply means that you have found a convenient scapegoat.

Retired Brigadier General Duane Deal has an interesting perspective on the need for more systemic thinking among leaders. General Deal has studied a number of catastrophic failures. He has been a member of more than ten aircraft and space launch accident investigations, and he served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after the 2003 space shuttle accident. General Deal recognizes that most complex failures do not have a single cause. Many small errors and mistakes often converge to create a catastrophe. Extensive scholarly research supports his contention. General Deal argues that we must resist the temptation to stop when we have spotted the most visible problem that may be causing trouble for the organization. To be an effective problem-finder, we have to dig deeper. What’s behind that obvious problem? If it’s a technical issue, we should ask: Why did this technical error occur? What organizational conditions and leadership failings may have contributed to the emergence and persistence of this technical problem? Deal argues that we must go “beyond the widget” when searching for the causes of major failures in our organizations:

“Rarely is there a mishap caused by a single event or a broken widget. Therefore, after major mishaps — such as aviation and naval accidents –senior leaders must use that opportunity to look at the ‘whole’ organization. Even if the apparent cause of a flight accident is a broken part or an obvious pilot error, there are usually several other contributing factors.”

Healthy Paranoia

Andy Grove, former Chairman and CEO of Intel, once wrote a book titled, Only the Paranoid Survive. In the preface, he described himself as quite a worrier. He said that he worried about everything from manufacturing problems to competitive threats to the failure to attract and retain the best talent. Many concerns kept him up at night. Grove argued that he believed fervently in the “value of paranoia.” He felt that leaders must never allow themselves to get comfortable, no matter how successful they had become. They had to devise ways of staying in touch with those in the organization who were willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, and who might alert them to bad news.

During my research for this book, I interviewed Kevin Walsh, the Chief Financial Officer of Hill Holliday, one of the nation’s most successful advertising agencies. Walsh had worked in a range of industries prior to arriving at the firm. Most recently, he had helped recharge growth and profitability at Zildjian, the historic cymbal company. Walsh has seen many companies go through deep troughs during his career, and he knows that many executives do not spot trouble until substantial damage has been done. At that point, the problems have become unwieldy, and the solutions have proven to be rather painful. By the time of problem recognition, perhaps the firm has entered a downward spiral that cannot be reversed. When Walsh came on board at Hill Holliday, he received words of advice from agency founder Jack Connors: “In our business, you have to remember that everything’s rented, including us. You need to always be watching the front door because something is invariably slipping out the back door.” Walsh always remembers those words. All leaders should adopt the mindset exemplified by this simple statement.

Effective problem-finders acknowledge that every organization, no matter how successful, has plenty of problems. They often lie beneath the surface, hidden from view. Effective problem-finders acknowledge their personal fallibility, rather than cultivating an aura of invincibility. They exhibit a healthy dose of paranoia, much like Andy Grove and Jack Connors. As noted psychiatrist Theodore Rubin once said, “The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.”

Successful leaders demonstrate intellectual curiosity, adopt systemic thinking, and exhibit a healthy dose of paranoia. They do not wait for problems to come to them. They behave much more proactively. They seek out problems. They embrace them. You do not discover problems by sitting in your office waiting for the bad news to arrive at your door. The very best leaders know that speed is critical. The earlier you discover a problem, the more likely you can contain the damage, and the more likely you can solve it readily. Most importantly of all, successful leaders do not see problems as threats. They see every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve.

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