Jan 06, 2020 / productivity ~ work
Visibility, the best starting point for solving your problems

As a managing director, I hit problems in business on a weekly basis. Business just throws crap at you all the time. Then, you have to figure out what to do about it.

Here are a few examples of crap that hit me over that last 5 years:

  • We’ve accidentally done £150,000 worth of work which we can’t invoice the client for because we didn’t have tell them we were doing it. Shit!
  • We haven’t sold anything this quarter, how are we going to pay the bills?
  • We’ve just gone over budget for the second time and the client is going to ditch us.

I used to just deal with problems like this in the moment. I’d figure out a solution and deal with it case-by-case. You can always find a way to get by, right?

The problem with this is that you don’t really fix anything. Problems happen again and again and again. And this means your business or department is going to be a pain in the backside to run. You’ll have less fun and more stress.

The good news is that, over time, I’ve learned a simple method for dealing with this kind of crap properly. A method that means it’s much less likely to happen again. So what is it?

“Make it visible.“

I could also have worded this as “Expose the data” or “Map it out” or “If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it”.

In my view, almost any recurring business problem can be improved by increasing your visibility of the problem. The idea is simple:

  1. Determine what data is relevant to the problem
  2. Capture the data, building a picture of the data in a way that gives you some insight
  3. Create a way of updating and reviewing this regularly

So, if you’re over-servicing a client, the solution might be:

  1. Record time spent on the client
  2. Create a report of time against budget
  3. Do this every week, and review

If there’s a problem, you can see it coming and deal with it before it escalates.

This is incredibly simple. Don’t let that put you off - it’s powerful too.

The trick is to approach problems thinking “What can we not see that allowed this to happen?”. You’ll soon realise that your business problems are often due to lack of visibility.

Your job is to create visibility.

Another upside is how you interpret what others say. So, when you’re in a meeting discussing a new load of crap that’s hit you out of nowhere, you’ll hear people propose solutions. Then, you’ll start categorising them in one of these two ways:

  • Is it a solution that masks the root cause to get us through the day?
  • Is it a solution that addresses the root cause so the problem is properly fixed?

You’ll start to favour solutions that consider the relevant information and which attack the root cause. And if the facts aren’t known, you’ll look for ways to reveal them so that your solution quality goes up.

Some of you might dismiss all this advice because you’re thinking “This is too obvious” or “I don’t have time or motivation for this”.

This is how I used to think too. And if you think like this, you have work to do. You need to have a hard think about why you don’t want to fix your own problems properly.

The thing is, how else can you do it? How do you expect to solve your business problems if you don’t a) look at them more closely and b) making that a repeatable thing?

Doing both of these things means you go from reactive to proactive. This is what allows the problem to stop happening.

Hope this helps!

P.S - If you're a software developer, this should work for you too. E.g. Tearing your hair out on a code base that's hard to change? You probably can't see the execution paths. What's the smartest way to make execution paths visible? Then you can look at simplifying them with refactoring. What can you do to make this complexity more visible on a regular basis?

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