Overcoming obstacles: watch, learn, adjust

Overcoming obstacles: watch, learn, adjust

The fun part of business is that rarely do you find someone who comes to work with ill intent or a work process that was put in place to cause problems. The intention is almost always to do good, it’s just that sometimes the “how” isn’t the same for everyone. 

Stopping to learn how to manage these obstacles, or rather challenges, is often that special thing that determines the success or failure of a leader.

The process I use is to watch, learn, and adjust. Each phase of this is to follow Stephen Covey in the desire to seek to understand, before seeking to be understood.

Here are some common obstacles to keep in mind:

  • Process problem
  • New hire problem
  • Sudden change in behavior or outcomes

Process problem

There can truly be a lot of causes with a process problem, but here are a few common things I’ve encountered:

  • Workarounds become the standard
  • There has never been a standard
  • People know their corner of responsibility but not how the process affects others
  • Distractions from getting the work done
  • Volume of work outrunning staff
  • Skills of staff over or under the needs for the job

Watch the process – have someone draw it out or outline it and see if everyone models it differently. Sit in on it and see how it’s done. Do something to provide a third set of eyes to the process to ask questions – sometimes that alone is impactful. 

Learn as a group. Learn how people do it differently, learn what is needed out of the process from others and what is and is not going well, and learn what frustrates people about the process.

Adjust the process. Sometimes you’ll do these steps over and over. Sometimes there has never been a written process. If you want to build a process that eliminates errors, do this over and over again. Make sure you are always sharing what you’ve learned through watching, learning, and giving credit where credit is due.

New hire problem

Watch what its like to be a new hire. Is it welcoming? Does the staff member get the tools and training they need to succeed? Are new staff treated well and have you promoted an environment that accepts everyone from all walks of life?

Learn as a group what isn’t working for new hires. If there’s a gap in culture, tools, or training, create standards that eliminate those gaps by adjusting the process to make it better for each new hire until you get it right.

Sudden change in behavior or outcomes

Often times when you see this, something is wrong at home. I’ve said it a lot, but as a leader one of your responsibilities is to learn about your staff. If they are high performers, know the name of their dog. If they are low performers, know their motivations to help guide them.

If there’s a sudden change, watch the behavior for a while. If it evens out quickly and they don’t approach you, trust it and let it go unless you see it again. Sometimes people aren’t ready. If you are seeing it more than once, then it’s time to talk. 

Learn about what’s wrong from them and see if you can help. Everyone who reports to you is human, just like you are, and they’ll appreciate you caring and seeking to understand. Don’t make this conversation punitive and ask how they’re doing out of concern for their performance. Ask because you care. If you don’t care, ask yourself some questions – you might need to.

Adjust, if you can, to help them out. I’ve run into cancer, marital issues, erosion of health in parents, kid problems, and more. Good people are hard to find and harder to keep so make allowances if they are reasonable. Remember, your human resources department is there to help!


This idea is really close to models like PDCA and LEAN, but it’s a little different because it puts emphasis on Stephen Covey’s concepts and valuing people. We see this in business, life, and society all the time – everyone wants to do good but everyone’s influence and perception on how to do that are different. Keep your mind open to the possibilities and remember to always be open to changing your mind as you watch, learn, and adjust.