April 25, 2011
Tackling Hard Problems
BY Mary Mahoney
It’s something we hear often: “This is a difficult problem to solve … ”
One needs to look no further than to Google’s cofounder Larry Page who recently returned to his original role of CEO to fix a company that some say has lost its focus and verve after more than a decade of unrelenting growth and success.
The challenges are formidable: The Mountain View, Calif.-based company suffered a series of multibillion-dollar product flops, notably Google Wave, Google Buzz, SearchWiki, Google Video, Dodgeball, Jaiku, Google Notebook, Google Answers and Google Voice, among others.
The company also suffered a humiliating withdrawal from China last year after that country’s government allegedly hacked into Google computers to punish the company for failing to adequately censor web searches.
By all accounts, the company, once known as an innovator, stumbled under the tenure of Eric Schmidt, who had been appointed by Page and Sergey Brin, the company’s other cofounder, in 2001 to fill a perceived gap in management expertise.
Schmidt resigned from Google’s top leadership post earlier this year, and Page was reappointed CEO to pick up the pieces.
Consider some of the hard problems Page must tackle. Analysts say he must help Google resurrect its startup culture to better compete, despite the fact that the company has grown into a worldwide behemoth, with more than 20,000 employees in 40 countries.
Page must also trim Google’s products and prioritize its efforts, focusing on its strengths and dropping projects outside its core expertise.
How should Page or any other CEO or manager deal with such complex problems?
Some experts urge new leaders to conduct a thorough assessment of their challenges before imposing formulaic programs that may have worked well in the past but may not be appropriate for the present.
It is not uncommon for experienced CEOs to create a new management team composed of former cohorts to run a familiar play book, simply believing their previously learned skills will transfer to a new situation.
Experts stress it’s important for new leaders to work with existing managers to analyze and define the challenges ahead. This will determine the rest of the decision-making process. A poor or incomplete understanding of problems can lead to solutions that waste time and money.
The team should include four to six members representing a wide range of functions, each of whom is a stakeholder in a specific problem.
Mautner recommends that action teams meet weekly for four to six weeks and concentrate on one problem at a time. During that time, the team should define the problem, conduct research, review data, identify new procedures, evaluate those procedures through group interaction, draft a plan and prepare to implement it.
Some inbred problems call for the expertise of an objective outside consultant. In Using Experts to Tackle Challenging Issues on Suite101.com, Steve Watson advises hiring a consultant when challenges are beyond in-house knowledge and experience.
Watson recommends the following steps:
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it makes sense to hire a consultant versus going it alone
- Determine a schedule for completion
- Establish a reasonable budget
- Take the selection process very seriously (“It is essential to spend the time to ensure that the person is qualified and is a good fit for the organization”)
- After the interview process, ask each candidate to submit a a list of references and a proposal that summarizes previous discussion points and identifies the problem or issue, scope of work, budget, payment arrangements and schedule for completion
Tackling hard problems can be rewarding. If you can solve hard problems, you can create something valuable that’s difficult to duplicate.
“Hard problems demand fresh thinking; otherwise the hard problem would have been solved already,” said Marissa Mayer, senior leader for Google’s search business and one of the company’s longest-tenured employees. She shared some of the company’s innovation tactics at a recent conference on best business practices and emerging technologies at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Worrying about technology’s future direction is one of Google’s fundamental challenges, she noted.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Page, as new Google CEO, already has immersed himself in his new role by reviewing projects in development and refocusing the company’s efforts on more lucrative products and services. He also shuffled the company’s top managers.
“I’m managing the day-to-day operations of Google as the CEO, working very closely with my team, and I’m really excited about the progress we’ve had there,” Page said during the company’s investor conference call in mid-April. “I think we really hit the ground running,”
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