Bringing the Whole Toolkit to Problem-Solving

Some Background, a Work Story, and a Game Plan

This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about a problem-solving seminar I attended in or . I was with a group of fellow managers from the Hesburgh Libraries 📖. We worked through the FourSight problem-solving curriculum.

There are four approaches to problem-solving, and there’s a natural progression:

Do their homework.
Ask questions to make sure the problem is understood.
They make sure you're doing the right thing.
Think of possibilities.
They generate new ideas and possible approaches.
Think through the consequences and impact.
They make sure you do things right.
Have a bias for action.
Do the work to get things done.

One off-hand comment during that seminar stuck: Higher education and non-profits tend to attract Ideators and Implementors. At the time, I scored highest on Ideation and Implementation. Though my other two weren’t too far behind.

In late and early , my organization was working through a re-organization. Leadership was adding a Strategic Innovation Lab; They approached me to join. I would be building on the work and approaches I’d taken for a large grant project.

In my mind, I said, “Cool. Now I’ll have opportunities to work on the business of the library.”

I accepted and joined a team of one manager, another developer, and an analyst. The scope of our work was a bit ambiguous. Still, I accept initial ambiguity but seek to clarify as much as possible because I know ambiguity piles up.

The Strategic Innovation Lab’s problem-solving preferences are:

  • One clarifier/ideator
  • One ideator/implementor (hey, that’s me!)
  • One developer (who I suspect favors Developer but is quite adept in all four approaches)
  • One implementor (I suspect that they have high ideation as well)

All told a great mix, and I was and still am excited to work with them.

A few weeks after the Hesburgh Libraries announced and set in motion the re-organization, several things happened:

  1. New members joined the senior leadership advisory cabinet.
  2. The library formed new programs.
  3. Covid-19 📖 hit.
  4. The university implemented a hiring freeze.
  5. We all went remote while scrambling to respond to significant changes to service assumptions.

In , our team started its formative work. At the time, it was clear that we were to decide what to pursue but be transparent in how we arrived at those decisions.

We began developing a rubric for moving ideas through evaluative gates. Based on the team’s internal understanding of our purpose, we sketched out some interesting evaluative tools and processes, a classic example of working on the business of the library. That is to say, create processes and rubrics for later doing the work in the library.

But storm clouds began developing. Later the proverbial lightning struck, illuminating a grim reality: The senior leadership and contributors to the Hesburgh Libraries did not have a shared nor clear understanding of the Strategic Innovation Lab’s purpose.

And this ambiguity was creating a lot of organizational friction.

Throwing on the Brakes

Our team requested that we work towards clarifying our purpose. The process we outlined looked as follows:

  1. To avoid cascading ambiguity and misunderstandings, we need to have a shared purpose.
  2. Then, with our purpose, we’d roll out our principles.
  3. And from that purpose and principles, we’d establish and document our methodologies.

For our purpose statement, we wanted to make sure that we had a unique charge relative to the others in the organization. For our principles, we followed Matthew Treagus’s guidelines to Write Good Principles.

The way I see it, senior leadership is accountable for our team’s purpose. Our team took on the responsibility of drafting a purpose statement. We brought our draft to senior leadership to review, adjust, and approve as a draft. Once senior leadership accepted the document—with changes, of course—we consulted the advisory cabinet. I’m using the language of a Responsibility matrix assignment (RACI 📖). Accountable: Senior Leadership; Responsible: Strategic Innovation Lab; Consulted: Cabinet; Informed: Hesburgh Libraries.

The cabinet, with new members and incumbent members, asked questions. From there, we went back and began adjusting our purpose statement.

, this is our current state. Our purpose statement remains in a draft state, but we’re actively working on it. And thus, we don’t have a document for sharing our purpose.

I’m personally looking to that document of purpose and principles as akin to a Letter of Marque 📖; if we’re to work on the business of the library, we need some statement that says, “This is in line with our purpose.”

From that document, senior leadership will say this is the Strategic Innovation Lab’s purpose. Since we’ve consulted with the cabinet on that document, we can begin the conversations that will truly develop our shared understanding.

That’s right, the purpose and principles are pieces of paper that we can bring into a conversation as a frame of reference. If someone feels that we’re out of bounds, we can go back to the document and discuss our differing views and understanding.

We can use this document to help triangulate the coordinates on the broad mental map that is our varied understanding. This may sound slow but to proceed without clarity invites rework and challenges from across the organization. By writing the purposes and procedures, we’re hoping to short-circuit some of the academy’s challenges of knowledge work.


I work in higher education, and one challenge we have is stopping services. By extension, this means we should be mindful of how we start things. Remember that off-hand comment from the problem-solving seminar? If I hold that as accurate, then it follows that we have many ideas and a drive to implement.

During this slowdown, the person with a high implementation tendency has been eager to get to work. But—and this requires better framing—we are doing work; it just looks different than expected.

If we start working on things without a ratified purpose, we might spin up services or projects that will be difficult to stop according to our track record. Or we might commit to a project that, upon reflection, is outside of our purpose, then what? We’ve diminished our capacity to deliver towards our purpose.

In other words, it’s far better for us to focus on the purpose and principles before accepting any additional work. Once we have a ratified purpose and principles, we’ll need to revisit our rubric and processes.

Again, by slowing down, we don’t jeopardize introducing more work for which we may not have the discipline and ability to stop. The goal of business isn’t to be busy but to solve problems experienced by customers. It’s also important to be good stewards of capacity and resources.

Another interesting observation is that people want to know about our methodologies; or suggest methodologies. While it might be helpful, it distracts from creating a shared understanding of purpose and principles. Note: suggesting methodologies is a manifestation of Ideation and Implementation.

So, our purpose—which I won’t yet be sharing as it’s still a draft—hints at methodologies, and our principles eschew methodologies. This way, how we do our work is up to us. We’ll know more about the how as we explore our purpose and problem space.

Circling Back to Problem-Solving

I look to the quote on Foursight’s website: Teams trained in FourSight are more effective at innovation. “Creating & Sustaining Innovation Teams” International Business Machines Corporation (IBM 📖) study conducted by Dr. Casimer DeCusatis, IBM Master Inventor.

I look to those four steps and approaches—clarification, ideation, development, and implementation—and think that the most strategic thing the Strategic Innovation Lab can do is to incorporate processes and procedures that shore up traditional weak spots of higher education problem-solving. That is to say, bring more clarifying and developing tendencies.

Our organizational tendencies will already generate ideas and get things done, so let’s make sure we’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way.