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The key to unlocking opportunities is to understand the problem you are solving

Published on 21 April 2021

The key to unlocking opportunities is to understand the problem you are solving

When did you last look at your fingerprints? Consider how your prints differ from family or friends? Our 2021 best practice theme draws out the ways in which we each have a unique part to play in unlocking opportunities and shaping the future. Just as our fingerprints are unique, so is our approach to work, as professionals. 

The opportunities we develop are shaped by the personal experience and knowledge we build up, and the connections we make, in our professional and personal lives. Equally, developments in the world around us shape what is possible and what matters most. Above all, how do we unlock the opportunityfor change? This interplay, between us and the world around us, is a broad, powerful source of creativity.

21 Years at The Forum

This year we celebrate 21 years since the launch of the Professional Planning Forum in March 2000. We remember the value of a community of professionals and all that has been achieved by our members and award winners, including those that now sit alongside Planning, for Customer Strategy & Leadership, Quality & Customer Experience and Data, Analytics & Insight. Traditionally, turning 21 meant you got the key to the door, recognition as a fully-fledged member of society, with the privilege to come and go, empowered to make decisions and shape our destiny.

In customer operations of all kinds, the role of Leadership, Planning, Insight and Quality has never been as critical as it has been in the past 12 months. This reflects the pressing, constantly changing challenges we face, which require unprecedented agility from us. Also there is a huge bank of best practice knowledge, consolidated over the last two decades, as we saw in our 2020 Vision programme last year. We now have a vast network of professionals on whom to draw, with whom we can collaborate, so that ‘the best get better every year’. Looking forward then, it is our collective responsibility to ensure we build upon this and continue to extend our reach as professionals, across the wider business.

A fresh perspective

Our annual best practice theme provides a different lens, a fresh perspective on the problems we are looking to solve. How can this help us take learning from the past and use it to shape the future? For 2021, many of us feel a level of uncertainty that we haven’t experienced before. However, have we ever truly been certain? Disruption, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, turbulence, uniqueness, novelity, ambiguity have always existed. So what is different? I see a new permission to say, “we don’t know what we are doing”. This is the starting point of learning. It is causing our members to search for new ideas and approaches, with huge energy and creativity, where previously we may just have accepted the status quo.

The key to unlocking opportunities is to understand the problem you are looking to solve. We do this when we use the wider professional community. As professionals, we can learn from others and develop ideas from a broader perspective, as we continue to raise standards. In this chapter, for instance, we explore the link between learning and leadership and the power of the stories from our award finalists to inspire and challenge us. Why not take a moment to think how you can use and grow your network? How can you involve others to help you become better? Consider personal, team and organisation blind-spots and learning gaps, to identify the help you need in order to improve. There is a lot of pressure and urgency, we’ve never been busier, which means we haven’t got time to be doing the wrong things. Give yourself the time to stop, reflect and think.

Understand the problem

How we define problems reflects our context, the nature of the challenges we face. Stop and think how much has changed just since the start of the pandemic in 2020. It’s fair to say a lot of changes have been made and we have had to rethink our operating models ‘on the hoof’. Some changes will have been temporary, some may be permanent. All of them provide the chance to look at our problems differently. There has been a ‘perfect storm’ to accelerate change towards digital transformation and home or hybrid vs office-based work, which we address in chapter 2. The need to do something different became far more urgent and, in all this, necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve often seen an overriding imperative; something must happen. This can mean no red tape, no pilot phases, just full-scale implementation. So, we didn’t get bogged down in the detail, especially not the unnecessary detail. What’s more we were ‘in this together’, our purpose aligned, with a shared outcome, at a high level anyway. We’ve got on with it, to achieve the goal and then worked on the detail after. Alongside this, we’ve seen a colleague-first mindset, which I hope is here to stay. We have gained new awareness of different personal circumstances, along with the need for more support for mental health. How does this impact the ways in which we prioritise our professional development and look to make a difference in our workplace?

While the rate of change may slow as the threat of the pandemic eventually recedes, the volume of change looks set to remain. We may need to repair problems created by quick fixes and introduce more strategic, long-term solutions. This is our time to unlock opportunities. Ideas aren’t often the problem. Timing, influence and implementing the right ones often are. This is where we can make the difference, by helping to plan out how to move forward. Unlocking an opportunity needs both patience, to wait for the right moment, and then the ability to react rapidly and stay flexible.

So why don’t we learn?

The way we learn, and drive improvement, is key to shaping the future. Many of us see the benefits of continuous improvement, taking each day as a chance to learn. But hand on heart, how do we apply this? It’s not easy learning alongside a full-time job, we all have enough to do. Organisational culture may not make it easy to adopt a ‘lessons learned’ approach. What’s more, our obsession to perform with success, look busy, or stick to proven methods, means we ourselves can be part of the problem. We too often limit our learning potential. Instead, if we can recognise when we behave in this way, we can choose to change, to make time to learn. Bias towards success isn’t necessarily a bad thing but, if we are blindsided by failure or don’t learn, it’s a problem.

The way in which we track and measure performance is especially important, as we explore in chapter 3, in looking at predictive analysis and the four stages of insight. Likewise, ‘fail fast; fail forward’ is often said but can be hard to do, consistently every day. This desire to learn and to shape the future needs to be a core value running through the business. In particular, metrics and measures need to be set up to support learning and agile response – and not limited by the availability of data. Take a look at our latest learning modules on target typology and telling a story with numbers. Poor metrics and short-term tracking could even result in success being reported as a failure. The wrong hypothesis using the wrong data will conclude with the wrong outcome. Take the efficiency of home versus office work. Would you base your future strategy on working practices or staff surveys during the pandemic? You now know that, if you were to look back on this study, the first thing you would say is that the data and analysis was flawed.

Action bias

The challenge now is knowing when to act and when not to. Second to performance, we often obsess with action: “better to fail by doing something rather than nothing at all”. In fact, sometimes changing nothing is the right response. ‘Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers’ is a paper published by Israeli scientists  in the Journal of Economic Psychology. During a penalty kick in football, goalkeepers preferred to fail by diving, rather than just standing still, yet there was a greater chance of saving if they stood still. 

Yet 12 months into changes due to COVID-19 has caused fatigue. Tired people aren’t good at learning new things or get careless and complacent. This could lead to the opposite of Action Bias, which is doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away. The urgency of decision making, caused by responding to a pandemic caused action. As we slowly move away from restrictions with a vaccinated population, does the urgency to respond also disappear? There are many things that need to be changed, so take the time to involve others and create a broader perspective on the problems you are trying to solve. Define a clear reason why, explore possibilities and set priorities. This will build energy and commitment. The key to unlocking opportunities is to understand the problem you are solving and connect it to your wider purpose and strategy.

Group think

Among the many things that cause bias and block learning, group think is a common danger. Over the past year, togetherness and teamwork has played a huge part in our successes. Yet, healthy and appropriate challenge is necessary to ensure we don’t do what we’ve always done. A balance is required, between the one who always opposes what is being said and knowing when you challenge or provide an alternative. If workplace norms stifle learning and innovation, they need to be challenged. Likewise, decisions shouldn’t be too easy to make. Normally, they won’t feel that easy if they take into consideration a wide range or perspectives.

As Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do …. we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. Colleagues need to feel comfortable when speaking up, or they will stop contributing. Success is not just about talent or knowledge or skill. Today, it is also about freeing ourselves from the blinkers and blind spots that beset us all. Can we harness a critical new ingredient, cognitive diversity? Some of the skills that have served us well over the previous 20-years may no longer be fit for purpose, at the very least they will need to evolve. The pandemic has demonstrated how fast we can drive change and think differently, we need to make sure that we maintain this level of agility.

A narrow view of expertise

Another barrier is a seeming lack of expertise for strategic leadership in a post pandemic world. It is not unusual to look for experts and specialists to help solve problems. This can be an extremely effective way to move faster. After all, it’s hard to find the time to do your day-job, whilst introducing and then trying to embed change. Working alongside specialists with a  sole responsibility to drive this change works. However, it can also be too easy to turn to consultants or seek expert help when the ideas are already in your business. If our default is to seek expert help, we could find ourselves finding the wrong solutions for the wrong problems. One opportunity for many analysts and managers is to strengthen our own capability for contributing to change and the strategic debate within the wider organisation. Small successes provide a great way of opening doors to new types of work. Another opportunity is to introduce into our organisations methods that bring out the expertise and judgement that is built up within the business from years of practical experience. Of course there are dangers to avoid – bias, limiting beliefs or even undue enthusiasm – but there is also an untapped potential.

Scenario Planning

More generally, it is difficult to imagine how different life will look like in another year, let alone look ahead 5 or 10 years for strategic planning. But look back 10 years and review the advancements in technology and the changes to ‘normal’ life. Things that we take for granted now were unimaginable then. That’s why we explore in later chapters techniques that allow us to shape alternative assumptions about the future and think ‘outside the box’. Part of the problem right now, is that we are still living with COVID-19. It’s been over a year and uncertainty still remains. We are unsure of the long-term changes in behaviour of our customers and employees, yet there is a pressure to come up with answers. This is where effective scenario planning models can help to reframe our views.

The key to unlocking opportunities is to understand the problem you are solving and, as professionals, we each have a unique part to play in unlocking opportunities and shaping the future. There is a huge amount to learn from experience and the broader community. Just as our fingerprints are unique, so is our approach to work. The interplay between us and the world around us is a broad, powerful source of creativity.

Author: Phil Anderson

Date Published: 27/04/2021

This article was published in the 2021 Best Practice Guide, Unlocking Opportunities. Download your full copy

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