Many executives think they’re going to the crime scene to learn the facts. In actuality, they’re more like a king visiting the serfs.
A leading global financial services company that boasts of its focus on customer service requires executives to visit all its call centers so that they can see the customer interactions first-hand. That sounds good in concept, but it doesn’t really work that way. The executives leave their marble-floored, mahogany-lined offices in NY, take the corporate jet to the inexpensive, second-tier locations around the world, and then sit through a series of PowerPoint presentations. Then they listen in on a few calls with the best customer service rep, write an obligatory “lessons learned” email, and fly back in time to make dinner in Manhattan.
This is not visiting the crime scene.
Visiting the crime scene is: the former credit card company MBNA requiring all executives to spend four hours a month listening to customer calls. Not only that, they were forbidden to have unlisted home phone numbers—the CEO wanted to make sure executives received the same dinner-time telemarketing phone calls that the company made to ordinary people.
Visiting the crime scene is: Peter Aceto, the CEO of Tangerine (formerly ING Direct), working in the call center and taking customer calls every day during his first year on the job. It’s James Hereford, the CEO of Fairview Health Services in Minnesota, spending an hour with a different hospital unit every morning. It’s Jim Lancaster, president of Lantech, walking through his company every morning for 60-90 minutes, visiting each department, observing the work, asking questions, and learning about the problems that his employees are grappling with.
When these leaders go and see, it’s not as a tourist seeing a strange new land, or a king visiting his serfs. They don’t spend half their time in a conference room listening to some boilerplate presentation. And employees don’t cover their butts by hiding problems and difficulties—they know that their leaders want to see the real conditions where the work is getting done.
As a result, when these leaders solve problems, they’re able to leverage a deep understanding of the facts, buffering them from the temptation to jump to solutions. Before you come up with a solution to a problem, go to the crime scene and see for yourself. Make sure you have the facts, not just the data.
When you go and see, you need to practice what management scholar Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry.” According to Schein, humble inquiry:
“Derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person. Such an attitude is reflected in a variety of behaviors other than just the specific questions we ask. Sometimes we display through body language and silence a curiosity and level of interest that gets the other person talking even when we have said nothing.”
Traditional hierarchical workplaces create unbalanced power dynamics that work against this kind of interaction. Nurses struggle to voice concerns about patient safety to surgeons. Software engineers have a hard time talking about coding problems to their project manager. First-year lawyers cringe at the thought of pushing back against the firm’s practice leader. Young staff accountants are reluctant to question a partner on how they define “materiality” when they see shenanigans in the financial statements.
You only get a real value out of going to the crime scene when you skip the royal tour and see how the work is actually done. That requires you to consciously break down the hierarchical barriers in the organization.
Approach people with humility and ask questions that you don’t already know the answer to so that you can learn and understand.
That’s how you avoid the impulse to jump to solutions.