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The three Ps of problem-solving

As a retired senior executive, I try not to go back to the organizations that I served because new executives don’t need previous executives poking around. 

However, recently I was invited by the union of an academic institution where I served as second-in-command to speak at the retirement of their local union president, and I readily accepted because I have such high regard for this person. 

In many institutions the relationship between union presidents and senior executives can often be acerbic. 

But this union president and I never had a harsh or angry word between us. 

He is a consummate gentleman, kind, gentle, professional, highly knowledgeable and he subscribed to the belief that everything can be handled in a fair, professional and dignified manner. 

That was not to say that he was a pushover. 

He got what he needed to get for his members with a firm, fair, ethical negotiating style. 

He approached issues with grace and I worked hard at finding a balanced resolution both for the organization I represented and for his members. 

Many readers of this magazine work in unionized environments. 

Some of you may find that the atmosphere is tense while others may find that collegial relationships exist between your union and your employer. 

I discovered that the key to establishing a professional and collaborative working environment was being firm, fair and respectful in all interactions. 

Our union president and I met every two weeks to talk about matters before they became issues and to talk about issues before they became problems. 

There were three guiding principles to our biweekly discussions. I called them the three Ps – people, policy and paperwork. 

Whatever the matter we were discussing, the person/people involved was the most important part of the tripod. 

Regardless of what happened or who had allegedly done something wrong, the person or persons involved had to be treated with respect and dignity. 

Facts had to be gathered systematically, transparently and thoroughly. 

Once who said what or who did what had been disentangled then the two of us could look at the matter from different perspectives and try to arrive at balanced conclusions. 

The policy part of the tripod was the provincial/federal law or the organization’s written policies and in the case of a unionized workplace it is the collective agreement that binds both parties. 

And if there was a gap between the law and policy where resolution was not contained in existing documents then we worked out a local agreement. 

A local agreement is a carefully worded addendum to a collective agreement and is meant to resolve a serious issue that the collective agreement did not foresee. 

An example of this could be arriving at an agreement about how employees would be evaluated. 

This would involve a few members of the union together with administration and would need to be very circumspect in upholding the organization’s need for excellence and the union’s need to have their members’ skills respected.

The third P was the paperwork. We made sure that follow-up paperwork was done. 

These were carefully worded, dated and signed by both of us. 

They were usually letters to the parties involved outlining the steps that had to be followed in resolving the issues. 

Sometimes, however, the paperwork was not as simple. 

An example of a large and significant gap that we needed to address together several years ago was the absence of guidelines to govern how an employee could be eligible for a religious day off. 

Two decades ago the only official days off were Christmas and Easter, both Christian holy days. 

But with so many authentic world religions in a diverse democracy, pious people needed to take a day off for prayer when the western calendar did not include their holy day. 

So, the union and our administrative team undertook the immense task of writing guidelines for religious accommodation. 

These guidelines have served two large organizations where I worked very well for over two decades now.

I know that many readers lead large, important and busy organizations and you have your own tips about effective and collegial problem solving. 

My three Ps have served me well:

People. When dealing with people, especially students and employees, it is critical to first and foremost make sure that the person or persons involved in the issue are all right. 

Provide emergency care, first aid, counselling or de-escalation spaces immediately and call for help when needed.

Policy. Always have the policy in front of you when meeting to discuss issues.

Paperwork. Make sure that you complete all follow-up paperwork and get them signed before filing securely.

                                                                                                                                                      – Dr Vicki Bismilla


• Dr Vicki Bismilla is a retired Superintendent of Schools and retired college Vice-President, Academic, and Chief Learning Officer.

Posted: Oct 1, 2019

November 2019

Centennial College



Immigration Peel Canada



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