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A new study reveals how to solve perhaps the single biggest problem for work leaders

Ah, the “non-routine problem.” It’s arguably the single biggest type of problem one can run into at work. New research points to a solution.

Words by Ariela Kozin

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

We all face obstacles at work.

There are obstacles that we can prepare for well in advance so we know exactly what to do to overcome them. And then there is the other kind of obstacle, arguably the single biggest type of problem leaders can face at work, one that may have ripple effects for years. Getting it right is key.

These problems land on the doorsteps of businesses as surprise guests with little time to prepare and no contingency plan in place. In the detached language of science, they are referred to as “non-routine problems.” 

Benoit Decreton, an assistant professor in strategy at Nova School of Business and Economics and a Research Associate at Ecole Polytechnique, just outside Lisbon, Portugal, has spent a lot of time considering the implications of non-routine problems and how leaders can solve them.

“An example of a non-routine problem can be seeing a big drop in customer demand for the first time,” Decreton explains.” If it’s never happened before, there are two issues: You’re not sure where the problem is coming from, and you’re not sure how to deal with it.”  

Of course, non-routine problems can leave any worker feeling extra pressure, no matter their position on the org chart. The good news is that there are methods to prepare for such unforeseen snags, which can reduce stress and foster company success. 

When things do not go as expected, a connected enterprise and thoughtful collaboration can be one part of the solution.

As part of a study published in Strategic Management Journal in March 2023, Decreton and his co-authors confirm that when leaders engage in open communication and thoughtful collaboration, it can make all the difference in solving non-routine problems. 

When leaders engage in open communication and thoughtful collaboration, it can make all the difference in solving non-routine problems.

According to Decreton’s research, non-routine problem-solving should begin by returning to the source. Identifying the problem’s origin point is how an organization can decide who should be involved and who shouldn’t. Decreton and his colleagues came to their findings after collecting data on 120 non-routine problem-solving projects that occurred in 60 foreign subsidiaries of 40 multinational corporations. 

Also, key in this investigation is determining if the problem is internal, such as an operations glitch, or external, like demand for a product or service dropping precipitously, Decreton tells The Workback.

“Many internal processes are standardized at the global level, so executives will be more knowledgeable about the processes because they created those processes themselves,” Decreton says.

As for unforeseen external issues, the most knowledgeable cohort will be the team who is working directly on the products that customers buy and use. Specific knowledge is needed, such as an engineer’s ability to fix an error in a digital product launch’s code, and “it’s not part of an executive’s role to be in contact with those processes on a day-to-day basis.”

Even if the problem needs the executive’s knowledge, the boss must consider when and how they will be involved. Why, you ask? Because out of the 40 multinational corporations that participated in the study by Decreton and his colleagues, unnecessary executive involvement resulted in less participation from employees and more time explaining the knowledge necessary even to begin to brainstorm solutions. 

“If a middle manager chooses to involve executives, they need to be sure that doesn’t mean their team’s ideas will be shut down. Team members need to be able to speak up to share their ideas,” says Decreton. “If the workers are the ones with the local knowledge, then they need to feel empowered to challenge executive ideas and views.” 

“If the workers are the ones with the local knowledge, then they need to feel empowered to challenge executive ideas and views.”

Benoit Decreton, author of a new study on solving non-routine problems.

Implicit voice theory—or “unconscientious beliefs about when and why speaking up at work is risky or inappropriate”—can cause employees to avoid openly sharing with executives. According to a 2021 study titled “The impact of supervisor-employee self-protective implicit voice theory alignment,” even if executives explain to their team that they value their candid feedback, the implicit voice develops long before we enter the workforce. In other words, unnecessary executive presence can slow down finding a solution and hurt the quality of the solution. 

Decreton’s research suggests that executives allow the middle manager—who has had an opportunity to build stronger relationships with team members and executives —to take the lead while keeping them updated on progress.

“There is no negative impact when an executive is involved in the formulation phase and helps to determine the problem, but such suggestions should never be interpreted as a command,” he notes. 

Go from reactive to proactive with a work platform that fits your future.

While the executive may not have local or day-to-day knowledge, they’re exposed to “any of the company’s problem-solving activities so that they could offer inspiration from those solutions” via communication from the middle manager. “From there, they should be able to trust the manager to steer the solution identification and execution phases.”

When teams are connected, collaboration becomes easier, as do asynchronous check-ins on team progress from executives. Eric Edelson, CEO of Fireclay Tile, the San Francisco-based home and commercial tile company, says this sort of informational infrastructure sharpened his team’s focus and freed him up for other work.

“Once we standardized and templatized our marketing processes, our team was able to focus on creating powerful campaigns, I was able to take myself out of the execution phase because I knew I could see how work was progressing whenever I needed,” Edelson previously told Asana in an interview

Decreton says the findings in the study underscore the importance of how to address non-routine problem-solving.

“None of our findings are surprising, but many companies are still conducting non-routine problem-solving counterintuitively, so maybe it’s a natural tendency,” Decreton says. 

“That’s why it’s important to stay aware of the nuances even when pressure can be high.”

This article includes Asana customers, partners, or employees. The Workback’s policy is to be fully transparent about the business relationships between our sources and Asana, Inc. We have identified those instances within the article as well.