Published 03/24/09

Develop your problem-finding skills

Cover of Roberto's book SMITHFIELD, R.I.  (March 24, 2009) -- In his new book, Know What You Don't Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen,  leadership and management expert Michael A. Roberto says that problem-finding, not problem-solving, is the key to preventing large-scale business failures like those that struck the financial industry last fall.

Roberto is a professor of management at Bryant University. His new book, based on research he has conducted in businesses, hospitals and government, examines seven skills that leaders must master if they want to be effective problem-finders.

"Leaders need to become hunters who venture out in search of the problems that might lead to disaster for their firms."

Michael A. Roberto

"Unlike cream, bad news does not always rise to the top," Roberto says. "Leaders need to become hunters who venture out in search of the problems that might lead to disaster for their firms. They cannot wait for the problems to come to them. If leaders spot threats early, they have more time to take corrective action and can interrupt a chain of events before it spirals out of control."

The seven steps are:

  • Circumvent the gatekeepers to see crucial raw data and discover why too much formal analysis can hide problems;
  • Become an ethnographer, observing how employees, customers and suppliers actually behave and recognize what they're not telling you;
  • Hunt for patterns;
  • Connect the dots among issues that seem unrelated but are really signs of a deeper pattern;
  • Encourage useful failures, using small problems as a window on your system and a signal of possible weaknesses elsewhere;
  • Promote candor among front-line employees;
  • Watch your company's "game film" to systematically understand how your company is really behaving and performing, and how you match up with your competitors.

Roberto's first book, the critically-acclaimed Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer , was published in 2005.