There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza…

Cyclical problem-solving

Do you worry? Do you fret? Do you seek solutions, but seem to end up where you started? That’s the result of cyclical problem-solving. Cyclical problem-solving occurs when organizations seek quick solutions to surface-level problems. Oftentimes, the problems originate in one program or department, but represent an iceberg of subsurface symptoms that represent larger issues. The process of implementing quick fixes and returning to bad habits creates a volatile and unfulfilling environment internally and externally. It’s taxing for leaders and turbulent for customers. Frequently, solutions are thrown haphazardly at the wall only to mollify management and prompt short-term gains.

How do you break out of cyclical problem-solving?

Problem Identification: There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza …

Liza probably knows about the hole in the bucket before Henry brings it to her attention. She’s been doing everything in her power to work around the issue. Now that Henry has voiced his concern, she must own the problem.

Here’s the misstep that disrupts the entire song. Liza jumps to a series of solutions before she understands the nature of the problem. She’s busy with her own chores. Henry is a nuisance. Problems aren’t necessarily voiced by the most proactive members of our team.

The first step in breaking cyclical problem-solving is to ask a series of follow-up questions to get more information. Does the problem need to be addressed immediately? Is the barn on fire? Should we be looking for the hose instead of fixing the bucket? Should Henry be solving this problem for himself, or is this issue indicative of greater resource issues? Is the problem worth solving, or is there an alternative that makes more sense?

Problem identification requires active listening: something Liza must activate before the scenario drives her nuts.

In a casino marketing scenario, a good example of this would be the angst over the size of Free Play Coupons. Is the problem truly the size of the reinvestment, or the way in which the reinvestment is deployed? Should we focus on the coupon, or the way in which the coupon is received and redeemed? Breaking cyclical problem-solving frequently refocuses our attention on process and deployment, beyond size and frequency.

With What Shall I Fix It: Dear Liza, Dear Liza …

This is where consultants fall short. A consultant may identify a problem, write a report, then wish the client the best as he or she walks out the door. There is a hole in the bucket. That’s obvious. The root of the problem stems from why there is a hole in the bucket. Many consulting engagements are finger-pointing journeys to prove or disprove solutions that clients are already aware of. An outsider is needed to confirm and redirect. The existence of a bucket with a hole; is it a problem or a bad habit? The summary of the engagement; is it a fix or is it a plan?

Frequently, a multidisciplinary approach is required: more than one solution is recommended. The strength of the implementation is in the coached progress towards better habits. No party involved will understand the true nature of the engagement until a discovery process that is both quantitative and qualitative takes place. Training and elbow-to-elbow engagement is next: a co-opted approach to gaining buy-in from multiple layers within and across the organization. The crucial final leg depends upon the coached process to follow. Does the team have a resource to gauge progress and help to remove obstacles? Are there quantitative tools to mark milestones and redirect efforts as implementation builds momentum? Those three steps represent reinvestment in the long game, not just a one-shot snapshot.

In the casino marketing scenario above, the process requires a deep dive into how worth segments respond to Free Play and how reinvestment is used or abused within each bucket of spend. Few properties look at layered costs. After this discovery, change is rolled out methodically over time. A shift in reinvestment can occur that nurtures the customer and rebalances the reinvestment equation in a more sustainable manner. This is not just a coupon change; it may involve multiple avenues of conflicting spend. Redemption and layered spend is monitored over time to measure lift.

Better end-goals.

There is a reason that Henry and Liza aren’t getting anywhere. It’s their end-goals that are at fault. Fixing a hole in the bucket isn’t an end-goal, it’s a patch.

A patch …
… doesn’t motivate,
… doesn’t inspire,
… and doesn’t provide a beacon around obstacles and through hardship.

Getting water from one place to another is a process that needs tools. If the tools are broken, perhaps it’s not the tools that need fixing. If Henry and Liza are planting a flower bed, the context brightens the journey. If the end-goal is a bouquet of dahlias on the kitchen table, that’s something both can envision. Both parties will be invested in removing the obstacles to getting the job done. The end-goal isn’t a patched bucket, but a bounty of color.

In our Free Play scenario, the end-goal could be tied to customer comments about feeling valued and appreciated. When working with John Romero, a master of engaging copy, a General Manager gauged the success of Direct Mail by the number of customers who called monthly to apologize for not being able to return that month, or by the number of response letters he received that responded directly to the story he (or rather his ghostwriter John) told in his monthly mailer. Behind the scenes, we can measure theoretical lift and response rates until our eyes bleed. The bounty of color comes from the engaged customer. The engaged customer is something worth removing operational obstacles for.

Cyclical problem-solving can be broken when bad habits are identified, employees are trained and engaged, and all directives make progress towards clear end-goals that matter to the heart as well as the bottom-line. I’d rather have a bouquet of dahlias on the table in six months than a patched bucket on the porch any day.

Nicole Barker
Nicole Barker 5 Articles