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ATD Blog

Work the Problem: A User's Guide

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Last year, I was fortunate enough to contribute a commentary to Kathryn Stafford's book Work the Problem: How Experts Tackle Workplace Challenges. In compiling the book, Kathryn created 10 challenging scenarios from the wide world of talent development and then asked commentators to describe their approach to addressing each of those challenges. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and now that I've been able to read the completed work, I enjoyed the book even more. What struck me as I read Work the Problem is that, unlike many business books, there were several ways I could envision putting this content to use. If you pick up a copy, I hope these three ideas will enhance its value.

1. Read It!

So, this one is pretty straightforward. Work the Problem is an easy read at just under 140 pages before the references. You can easily cover it all in one sitting, but the unique case study with commentary format also lends itself to sampling whenever you have a spare moment.

What I appreciate most about the book is the richness and complexity of the scenarios presented. Each takes place in the context of a fictional organization. Nonprofits, tech startups, financial institutions, and manufacturing companies are all represented. Each scenario is also inhabited by a compelling cast of characters, including CEOs, managers, creatives, and consultants. What stands out most is how true-to-life these situations feel. They're chock-full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and contain mostly grey areas with no clear answers. These are what the literature would call "ill-formed problems."

Because of this richness, the commentators were forced to go beyond providing canned solutions to describe how they would go about finding the right solutions (and you get two takes on each scenario from two different experts). For the reader, this means the book provides a surplus of great questions that talent professionals can ask in challenging situations and many references to additional books, articles, and tools that the experts have found most useful.


So, that's my first recommendation: Read the book and highlight or copy down every good question you encounter, and be sure to check out the seven full pages of references at the back.


2. Challenge Leaders With It.

If you're responsible for developing leaders to think critically and act strategically, Work the Problem is a great developmental resource. Select one of the 10 case studies that you find most relevant to your organization and have leaders read just the case. Then have them consider what their approach would be in the situation described. Once they've described their own approach, have them read the two expert takes and reflect on what, if anything, they would add to, change, or remove from their approach. This is a powerful exercise—but sometimes it's difficult to craft just the right scenario to make the exercise work. In Work the Problem you have 10 scenarios ready-made.

3. Share It With Your Team and Learn Together.

The format of Work the Problem makes it perfect for a corporate book club. Have your team read one scenario a month (or every two months—whatever pace works for your team) and start a regular meeting by discussing the scenario and the approaches the commentators propose. Individual scenarios should take only about 15 minutes to read, and the discussion can be brief as well. As part of this discussion, consider how the challenges in the scenario map to your real-world situation. Where are there similarities, and what can you apply from the advice provided in the book? When teams face challenges, sometimes it's difficult to discuss them openly and objectively because team members have so much at stake. Using the fictional scenarios in Work the Problem, your team can practice discussing difficult problems in a safe space. This can pay great benefits when the real challenges come.

If you decide to check out Work the Problem, I'm sure you'll find more ways to put its valuable content to use. If so, I hope you'll share your own recommendations with others. This book is all about sharing experiences to help others work through difficult circumstances—and that's something in which we all can participate.

About the Author

Chris Adams is a performance consultant and instructional designer with more than 20 years of experience helping clients engage people, apply processes, and implement technology to improve human and organizational performance. He is currently a senior consultant for Handshaw Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chris was co-inventor of Handshaw’s award-winning software, Lumenix, one of the first content-managed platforms for e-learning. He has been a featured speaker for a number of ISPI and ATD chapters, and has presented at regional and international conferences such as Training Solutions, The Performance Improvement Conference, and the Coast Guard Human Performance Technology Conference. Chris holds degrees in mass communication and instructional systems technology and is currently a doctoral student in the instructional design and technology program at Old Dominion University. 

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