School & District Management Opinion

Leaders as Problem Finders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 25, 2017 4 min read
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Are you a problem finder? Leaders are sought to solve problems that arise. Most are good at it but are they too good at it? Whether from the community, faculty, students, parents, or staff, the leader tends to be the go-to person. Everyone expects this person to be the problem solver. Leadership actions and decision are so often driven by others.

In the frenzy of the day, with a ‘the buck stops here’ attitude, leaders can be caught in the ‘solutions trap’. There is graffiti in a bathroom so lock the bathroom. There are students who leave the building during the day so lock the doors preventing them from re-entering without being found out. There are too many students arriving late to class so place more adults in the hall to hurry the students along. There are growing numbers of students being disrespectful so write a new code of conduct or write more referrals. Teachers aren’t holding to agreed upon methods or expectations so hold a meeting or send a memo. Parents shout at students at games, so send letters of audience expectations home to all parents.

Little changes or if something does change, it may not be for long. Solutions are short-term responses to the behaviors that have a deeper source. An immediate response may be indicated and required, but the behaviors will remain if a search for the problem doesn’t accompany responses. It takes time to search for the underlying problem. But it is time well spent.

Certainly not an exhaustive list, but one that can give offer some thoughts:

  • Graffiti in the bathroom
  • Students arriving late to class
  • Growing numbers of students being disrespectful
  • Teachers aren’t holding to agreed upon methods or expectations
  • Parents shouting at students at games

What Causes Problems?

Actually these problems have a common thread, don’t they? What might cause members of a community to disregard rules of civility, respect, and responsibility or is there a structural flaw that is opening the door to adverse behaviors? Using the example of graffiti or destruction in the bathroom(s), the search for the perpetrators may include which bathroom, what time of day it takes place, who may have been given passes from classes at that time, what the graffiti said. These are all good questions as the investigating continues and finding the guilty ones can be the result. No doubt a suspension follows. Lesson learned? Probably not. Perhaps they learn not to deface the school building, but why was it done in the first place?

The same question about lateness to class and growing disrespect applies. Consequences surely will be put in place. But if it is not a single behavior, one and done, why respond to the behavior and not search for the source? The same is true of the example of teachers who are not following agreed upon methods or expectations and of parents who are behaving poorly at school events. The first questions are who is involved and how many are involved. Is it happening often or was it a single incident? Is there a pattern? If it happens often, is it the same people or is it random? Responses to these questions will bring you to a choice point: are you a problem solver or a problem finder?

The Search for the Problem

A method that is helpful for the problem finder is “5 Why’s”. It was developed almost 90 years ago by Sakichi Toyoda the industrialist and inventor and who founded Toyota Industries.

The 5 Whys uses “counter-measures,” rather than solutions. A counter-measure is an action or set of actions that seeks to prevent the problem arising again, while a solution may just seek to deal with the symptom. As such, counter-measures are more robust, and will more likely prevent the problem from recurring. (Mindtools.com)

Only one of many routes to problem finding, this method offers a quick shift to a different mindset about handling difficult and disruptive, disrespectful and disruptive behaviors. Looking for patterns can also help to narrow the field of interventions. Generally speaking, why do children and/or adults choose unacceptable behaviors and why do leaders offer consequences when those consequences do little to curb or eliminate behavior? Don’t you think it is time wasted?

But, even this strategy is reactive. The problem solvers of the future are those who see and identify problems before they arise. They are problem finders. These leaders anticipate issues without needing others to identify them and bring them forward for solution. These are the leaders with confidence and courage to become forecasters and trust enough form the board and the system to create the coalitions of other problem solvers for a plan to emerge. These are the leaders who, working with emergency responders, made their buildings secure before tragedies alerted everyone to the need to do so. These are the leaders who were creating STEM programs and innovation labs before pressures form businesses and governments were upon us. And these are the leaders who saw a swastika on a wall downtown and knew that hatred was rising from the hidden and dormant corners. Before it came to school, they had invited religious and civic leaders to join them with parents and students and create a countering force to keep school sand children safe. These problem finders are highly valuable and more rare among leaders. Their rewards and accolades do not come from being rescuers but from keeping their buildings and systems out of the rapids and moving forward.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by skeeze courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.