How-to: Solving old problems and getting fast action

I’ve heard it too often: “You’re the tenth consultant we’ve seen, and nothing ever happens!”

How do you break past that? The most effective ways are usually helping the people in the organization fix their own problems.

break past problems

One example comes from a single-day training seminar — usually kind of a throwaway item where people sit through, have a nice lunch, and everyone goes home happy and unchanged. In this case the seminar was center on improving customer service and dealing with tough customers. Most of the people at the meeting were jaded about it, and some said, up front, that we had no business telling them how to work, while others resented the intrusion on their time. Tough crowd!

I was challenged fairly quickly — after saying that, before sending customers to other offices, people should call, introduce the customer, and see if they could resolve the problem over the phone. One person said they couldn’t figure out who to call because the phone book was organized by names, not by subject; nobody answered when I asked what one solution might be. I suggested getting in touch with the person who writes the phone directory — who was in the room already. She agreed to add a subject directory — and the very next day, it was done. One long-standing issue had been immediately resolved.

Someone else said the last president had introduced new hires publicly, which was very helpful, but no longer done. I suggested they take it upon themselves to introduce new hires, and they agreed.

Each time a problem was raised, I first asked the group to solve it, then provided some possible solutions if nobody else did. To move the training along, I began to suggest that interested people raise their hands for each problem, then work together on solutions.

People started to come up with their own solutions, and there was a good deal of new communication among subgroups. Eventually, we moved back to the formal presentation, but only a few minutes later a resentful voice, spoke up, saying, “Yes, we can do these things, but nobody else will.”


That might be true, sometimes, but people can change their organizational culture, because the culture is influenced by people as much as it influences people. A large enough group — such as this one — can, if they act consistently and purposefully, change the way others act. Knowing that cultural change was a long haul but that they could do it, this group went out and effected real change — more than I could have done with any number of surveys, interviews, strategy sessions, and nicely formatted reports. The cost to the organization was one single day of my labor.

This event shows that cultural change does not have to begin at the top (there is no shortage of cases where people, even without outside help, start a bottom-up change).

People said they were impressed by the idea that they, without executive help, could alter the organization’s culture. That shows that many problems are partly self-imposed; people do not talk to each other, because there’s a perception they can’t. People don’t take the power to fix things, because they don’t think they have that power, even if they are motivated to do a high quality job.

Several people in the group suggested that we have another discussion about how they could resolve the problems facing customers. The results included more problem-solving, agreements to meet and discuss other issues later, and some personal feedback to people who had unintentionally been discourteous or condescending.

Most of the participants were very satisfied with this first training session. We had let the discussion wander because learning how to provide superior service was useless if they were not motivated or able to apply it.

The limiting factor was not knowledge; most knew how to provide better service, but felt they could not overcome obstacles. By deflecting protests of powerlessness with examples of how they could seize the power to help students, I was able to show them that they could, in fact, make those changes, and increase customer satisfaction and retention.

Communication was key. Many people had never seriously discussed long-standing and common problems with their counterparts in other areas. The heads of different departments entered into a focused, albeit heated, discussion — kept cool with process consulting methods. The result was closer coordination and changes which had been needed for years. This was, for most people, their first work-oriented situation where they could discuss problems across areas.

Communication is often discussed as something which is needed, but nobody tells how to actually get it. It cannot simply be created by executive decree, though an executive can model it and start initiatives to try to increase it. If people talk with each other and have meaningful discussions on a regular basis, there will be communication, regardless of frills such as newsletters, Web sites, e-mail, and conferences.

The participants were happy with the experience of communication they encountered, and with their sudden empowerment. Some continued the dialogue after the training ended. Several areas started their own low-level meetings, and several groups of cross-area people began to meet regularly. Within a week, there were many small but meaningful actions which resolved long-standing complaints.

One un-solvable issue was that, no matter what people did, there was no direct reward. However, that’s something one can note and then move on from. You don’t get financial rewards from exercises like this, except perhaps better job stability; but you can increase your intrinsic motivation and avoid bitterness.

I was personally surprised by the repressed desire to help customers, the energy with which people started to communicate and work together once they lost their hopelessness, and even the simple fact that they did not realize that they could actually make simple decisions on their own. A few simple ideas liberated a great deal of energy and enthusiasm:

  • You have the power to do your job, if you take it.
  • You can talk to people in other units.
  • You can be motivated by the intrinsic worth of helping customers and doing a good job, rather than by money or supervisor feedback.
  • You can find work-arounds when the system will not allow something.

Those are powerful ideas – and the difference between an excellent organization and one that simply gets by.


David Zatz, Ph.D

David Zatz focuses on using research and data for targeted change efforts, including employee and customer surveys, linkage, process mapping, and process consulting. He has spoken at conferences and has published articles in journals (such as HRMagazine, Quality Digest, and Effective Executive), trade publications, and books. David has worked with clients such as the American Management Association, Arthrocare, BTI Americas, the Coast Guard, Enhanced Vision, General Fire & Casualty, Mattel (American Girl), Santen, and the City of New York. David holds a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University, and an M.Phil and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University.