Tackle the Problems Others Avoid

Every organization has lingering issues that hinder performance. Often, they are even surprisingly well known and frequently talked about, maybe in a complaining, resigned, hand-wringing or even resentful way. But they never get fully addressed because they don’t quite fit squarely into the clear responsibility of any one person or even one functional area. So, they continue to decrease productivity, stifle creativity and collaboration and drag down efficiency and morale. Shouldn’t someone do something? Maybe you?  
Gray zones can be open invitations
Workplace challenges that don’t exactly seem to be anyone’s real responsibility are what executive coach Art Petty calls “gray zones.” While you need to be careful not to step into a morass of quicksand that will suck up your time, energy and capital, a gray zone issue can also offer unique opportunities to step up, stretch your capabilities and leadership skills, and boost your profile by taking the lead on an unresolved issue. The key is to find ways to bring value to your immediate boss, expand your circle of engagement and make a contribution to the broader company mission and performance.
“This odd reality of organizational life – that we deliberately ignore problems in plain sight – is your opportunity to lead, scale your impact and grow your career,” Petty says. With most managers overwhelmed with the scope of their daily responsibilities, gray-zone issues become those pesky inefficiencies everyone limps through because actually stopping to fix them seems like an indulgence you just don’t have. You may be similarly overwhelmed. But, if you can find the bandwidth to address a festering problem, it can provide an opportunity to lead in ways that may stretch well beyond your title.
Be wary the black hole
Safety first, so when considering wading into the gray zone, check first for evidence that it’s actually more like a dangerous black hole. Your boss’s reaction to sharing your interest in tackling the issue and a brief summary of your plan of attack is a good place to start. Does she respond with gratitude and a desire to get the situation fixed? Or make it clear that it’s not a priority and that she prefers you be engaged elsewhere? Is there company lore that points to “casualties” from people who have gone before and bear the scares to prove the fight wasn’t worth it?
While it’s reasonable to expect you will need to make the case with your boss that this is a good investment of your time and won’t keep you from completing your regular duties, if the issue does not clearly tie in to her agenda, or she thinks your suggested approach is doomed, you need to look for other opportunities.
Search for high-potential gray-zone issues hidden beneath stalemates between your department and others where communication consistently breaks down; where the same mistakes seem to be repeated; in consistent customer complaints that remain unsolved; or with awkward communication processes that require duplication of effort and still don’t result in key participants having input or being well informed.
Once you’ve selected an area for focus, dive in deeper to learn if tactics have been tried that haven’t worked and who knows the most about the issue in the organization. Then put together a short strategic approach you can share with a few key folks to ensure you have a solid understanding of the challenge ahead.
Calling go-time
Once you’ve identified a gray-zone issue you want to attack and secured your boss’s sign-off, consider these strategies to increase your chances for success.
  • Build a coalition. Not only will strong collaboration significantly increase your chances for driving improvement, but this is where you have the greatest opportunity to network across the organization. By bringing together diverse people who can shed light on the situation and provide critical input and behaviors to solve it, you will also forge important new relationships and showcase your skills in new ways.
  • Articulate the benefits. For each person you involve in the process (starting with your boss), you need to outline the benefits specific to them. Will creating a better approach to this lingering issue save someone time? Reduce costs? Drive additional revenue? Open the door to greater collaboration to drive innovation? The more you can tie benefits to the specific needs of others, and to organization goals, the more buy-in you will get from others who will want to reap the improvements they now see as possible.
  • Advocate for yourself and share the spotlight. Remember, a key reason you have decided to invest your limited time and energy in tackling a festering challenge is that it provides a unique opportunity to grow your impact, make a larger contribution to the organization and be seen as a high-potential leader. While it’s dangerous to expect the work to speak for itself, it’s tricky to toot your own horn too. One of the most effective ways to do both is to focus on the coalition members who came together to create solutions.
You will show yourself as a leader by sharing credit and making senior executives aware of the contributions of their team members. Simply being in that role will add to your reputation while the results of the team effort will be appreciated by those directly involved, and even those who benefit more tangentially.
Problem solving is what the best leaders do best. By showing you have the ability to spot issues that need attention, and pull together human and other resources in the organization to solve them, you show yourself as a proactive problem solver who thinks beyond her immediate scope; in other words, a leader.

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