For almost two decades, we have been trying to adjust our organisations to the challenges of today’s world. We experience the consequences of this as ongoing cost-saving pressures, burnouts, layoffs of productive employees and companies going out of business. Something important is missing in our solution thinking. Below are my case for a few Guiding Questions leading us out of this misery and a few such questions you can start asking right away.
Why many 'Unsolvable' Problems are Solvable
Solving supposedly unsolvable problems is something I learned at IT service provider EDS. On an ongoing basis, we had services in production that were ahead of their time. Clients and employees were beyond happy. Looking back, it turns out there was a particular culture. Certain guiding mechanisms were integral to it. This culture came from its founder, Ross Perot. Later, Perot became known for his candidacy for the office of president of the United States.
One characteristic of this culture was that it directed us to do what was needed to keep clients happy and employees motivated. This meant that, amongst other things, unsolved problems were not an option. They had to be solved at their root cause once and for all. To make this happen, we listened to the parties involved, and this meant going beyond writing down their requirements. We practiced inclusive listening—hearing requirements the involved parties were unaware of. Moreover, when there were no obvious solutions, we used experience and common sense to create our own.
Then came the best practices. Perot had already left. Compliance with processes and best practices became more important than happy clients and motivated employees. What wasn’t recognized was that this made the old culture disappear. With it, the problem-solving capability had been lost. When I found myself unable to do my job in the proper way, I re-applied techniques from the old culture together with some colleagues. As it turned out, this worked amazingly well, and we were able to deliver results in fields where the best practices had failed.
We managed to bridge a structural communication gap between central and European organisations. The same solution provided Guided Self-OrganisationTM for the 30,000 European employees and essential structures for agility at enterprise level.
Later, via the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk‘ the same techniques enabled us to identify huge sources waiting to be used to make the Dutch health services system affordable in the years to come.
There was also a big surprise in my family. My son had daily emotional outbursts due to ADHD, and learning to read was a huge challenge because of his dyslexia. The results of standard treatments were insufficient. Yet, it was possible for me to find an existing unconventional therapy. His outbursts are down to one in ten years. After years of frustrating exercises to learn reading, he learned to read within six weeks. It turned out others had made similar experiences. Why it worked is explainable. One of the techniques applied is shown to us by our navigation systems when they recommend an alternative route to avoid a traffic jam (more about this in an upcoming post).
For EDS it was too late, which was most unfortunate. A fantastic company ended up conducting yearly cost-savings projects, was subsequently taken over and its size reduced.
The Hidden Root Cause Dilemma
At this point, some will argue that certain best practices include root cause analysis and solving them. I agree. In the real world, however, there are insurmountable obstacles. Those start with the best practice of splitting complex challenges into supposedly manageable parts. The consequence of this is that, exceptions granted, root causes can only be seen when they are located within a part. This is something certain root causes refuse to be compliant with. With each round of solving their symptoms instead of the root causes, the negative impact has grown. It has grown beyond levels at which productive employees have to be laid off, burnouts and ongoing cost savings initiatives have become normal.
With agile best practices such as Scrum and self-organisation, similar patterns can now be seen as well. There is also a new complication: Their struggle against an overload of obstacles from the traditional best practices. This brings me to a dilemma seen with best practices and beyond:
Consciously or intuitively, we know that new solution approaches are needed.
As yet, our way of thinking prevents us from seeing the ‘high-impact’ root causes hiding behind insufficient results, complaints and finger pointing. When they and their solutions are found, they do not fit into the managed parts and procedures.
To solve this hidden root cause dilemma, we need something to guide discussions and initiatives toward the root causes. A few difficult-to-ignore questions of highest impact should provide this guidance.
Guiding Questions of Highest Impact
Following are the generally applicable Guiding Question found so far:
We have best practices, tools and experts for virtually any field. Where are those ensuring that not only the partial solutions work, but also the whole package at project, enterprise and system level?
More specifically, where are those best practices, tools and experts that …
- solve the mounting conflicts between traditional1 and agile best practices2?
- identify and solve the changeable (root) causes hiding behind complaints, reoccurring problems and ongoing cost-savings pressures?
- bridge the highly complex internal communication space between central and local organisations and between best practices?
- identify phenomena3 in complex environments and solve them with techniques suited to these phenomena?
1 Traditional/’old’ best practices: Project Management, Governance, service management/ITIL, etc.
2 Agile or new best practices: Agile/Scrum, Semco, self-organization, etc.
3 Phenomena: Capacity bottlenecks, tipping points, butterfly effects, etc.
Initiatives Leading the Way
The most remarkable discovery was the answer to question 1: the mounting conflicts. While the negative impact is dramatic, it is solvable from a single word. This word was published in 2011. Thereafter, it became lost in the information overload. Something was missing, as the necessary learning effect didn’t take place. That is the reason why I only provide this word after going through a little exercise. Do you want to know this word? If so, please click here.
Amongst initiatives leading the way is the City of Tomorrow at Eindhoven, Netherlands, with the AiREAS project; a project aimed at reducing air pollution. Other initiatives are Paradoxical Leadership and the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk’. Also remarkable was a workshop of the Permanent Beta initiative in November 2017. As was the case with the City of Tomorrow and the ‘Zorgdenkers Netwerk’, people listened openly and without restrictions. Coaching techniques made it possible to break through hard-wired thinking.
In addition, it would help enormously if we had a method helping us to find the hidden causes and make initiatives executable. Such a method exists. It provides answers to questions 2 and 4. For the analysis leading to Guided Self-Organisation, we used elements of this method without being aware that we were doing so. Another initiative was this: a potato sickness was threatening the harvest of the Netherlands. The initiative was trapped in endless discussions. At this point, this method was applied. A few months later, the project was up and running. Eventually the program ceased—not due to failure but because it was exceptionally successful (more information is available here; though it is in Dutch language). I call this method the de Monchy Method, named after the person who integrated multiple elements into an overall approach suited to get initiatives beyond the tipping point where they become executable.
With regard to question 3, the communication gap, a solution is available in this post as well. There will be more on this in a follow-up post.
What You Can Do
Do you want tough problems being solved at their root cause once and for all? Do you want this to be the case at the company you work for, with social challenges, within government organisations, politics or in the health services system? In that case, I would like to invite you to ask Guiding Questions such as those above.
Additional, challenge and field-specific Guiding Question will be available through further blog posts.