How to Spot Problems in Your Company -- Before It's Too Late

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 12:47 AM EDT

Last week, I interviewed Bryant University professor Michael Roberto about some of the reasons why managers can be blind to burgeoning problems in their organizations. This week, I'll share some of his tips for finding such problems while they're still small enough to fix.

These are but a few of the problem-finding methods Roberto discusses in his book Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen.
  • 1. Become an anthropologist: Sometimes it's not enough to ask customers for product feedback; you have to observe them using your products in their natural settings. One company that has effectively used this strategy to find problems is Kimberly-Clark, makers of Huggies. Roberto says they observed "parents on the go changing diapers, with one hand holding the baby, the other fumbling around with packaging. They redesigned their packaging, so it could be opened with one hand."
  • 2. Circumvent gatekeepers: The gatekeepers who help senior executives manage the flow of information can sometimes prevent them from detecting problems within their organization. Roberto advises, "Make sure you see the raw data for yourself and hear from different voices. If you receive a report about how a region is doing, don't always hear it from the same person. Get a different perspective."
  • 3. Make sure you're watching the game film: Managers need to become adept at looking at their own performances as well as their competitors' performances. For example, Roberto says a new store opening should be carefully reviewed, so problems aren't replicated in future store openings. He also stresses the importance of having mechanisms in place to learn from mistakes.
While it might seem that managers constantly on the lookout for problems risk finding trouble where none exists, Roberto says this isn't the case. Managers who are in the habit of constantly scanning and analyzing information are better at detecting false alarms from real problems.

So how can you become a good problem finder? According to Roberto, it's all in your mindset:
Be intellectually curious and retain that, no matter how much success you've had. There's a quote I use from a Japanese Zen master in the last chapter of the book: 'In the beginners' mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert's, there are few.' So many times we'll become an expert in our field and close down the amount of possibilities we see. The ideas in the book are about helping people keep their minds open to the fact that things they think are unlikely may very well be happening to them.
  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.