Best practice solutions to the wrong problems

Organisational change tends to be hard to pull off – even when it looks like it should be easy.

What makes it hard is that it inevitably involves a complex interplay between the attitudes, behaviours, actions and interactions of multiple people with different perspectives.

What makes it look easy is that from each of these people’s perspectives there’s typically a single, simple, clearly identifiable symptom that seems to be the problem – and that’s what they would focus on tackling if it were up to them.

In most cases, it’s the perspective of the most senior person involved that wins…

That’s hardly surprising – but it’s also often wrong, as this real-world example illustrates:

In the late 1990’s, the new CEO of a Swedish high tech scale-up asked me to help them “be more innovative”. We met, along with the VPs of R&D and Marketing, and he explained his plans for the business and where he wanted my help: “We don’t come up with enough good ideas for new products” he said, before heading off to his next meeting.

As soon as he’d left the room, the VPs turned to me and said: “We come up with lots of good ideas for new products. It’s just that he doesn’t know which ones to invest in”.

We worked together over a few weeks and identified their real problem was misaligned views on how to exploit their technology portfolio to create value for customers. We came up with an approach to this, got the CEO’s blessing, and they were off and running.

The CEO had started out with a very clear focus but if he hadn’t, he’d have no doubt sought help – typically from external ‘experts’ or senior colleagues. But it’s highly unlikely that a senior problem owner will seek help from people ‘lower down’ their own organisation.

That’s a big mistake because even though people further down the organisation almost never see all sides of the problem, they almost always see vitally important aspects that will need to be addressed effectively if any intervention is going to succeed in practice.

Just consider what would have happened if the CEO above had hired someone who came in with their ‘best practice idea generation methodology’. Not only would this approach have backfired, it would have further alienated the Marketing and R&D VPs from the CEO and made it even harder for them to work together on future common and shared challenges.

Over the past 30 years I’ve seen hundreds of relationships between people in dozens of organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the US end up strained in this way, often to breaking point and beyond.

When this happens, it results in:

  • Huge waste of resources on trying to solve the wrong problems;
  • Disengagement of people who aren’t adequately consulted or involved;
  • Frustration at being obliged to participate in pointless exercises;
  • Anger at having to go through the charade and pretend to be engaged;
  • Disbelief that senior management could be so misguided.

You’ll never build your organisation’s future-fit capabilities without adequate, effective involvement from enough of the right people. Fail to ensure you get this and you’ll end up instead reinforcing the organisation’s existing cultural immunity to change.

So, what to do instead?

  1. Resist the temptation to ‘get on with it’ by diving in with the first ‘solution’ that fits any one person’s inevitably partial, biased and incomplete view of the symptoms;
  2. Explore the hidden logic behind the symptoms from multiple perspectives so you avoid ‘going off half cocked’;
  3. Be wary of any external expert touting a ‘best practice solution’ before you’ve engaged with enough people to understand the unique reality of your organisation;
  4. Ensure that your people, not outsiders, do the heavy lifting – because this is absolutely the only way to build your organisation’s future-fit capability muscles.

Who should you enrol first in your organisation?

In my 30 years of specialising exclusively in this work I’ve found that the internal people who can best help achieve transformational culture change have these six character traits:

  1. Empathic – they can appreciate the different perspectives of others by not just seeing things through their eyes but by feeling what life must be like for them;
  2. Systemic – they don’t dive in to fix symptoms but first identify relevant patterns and gain insight into the deeper hidden logic that gives rise to attitudes and behaviours;
  3. Curious – they avoid jumping to conclusions that label others as misinformed, mistaken or misguided but work hard to empathise with ‘unusual’ perspectives;
  4. Adaptive – they don’t get stuck to a fixed process or approach even (especially) if it’s sold to them as ‘best practice’;
  5. Proactive – they try things out and iterate, learning what works and what doesn’t in your organisation’s unique reality;
  6. Enthusiastic – they’re intrinsically motivated to create the unique future-fit culture their organisation needs if it’s to survive and thrive in an increasingly VUCA world.

Fortunately, most organisations have motivated people with enough strength in some of these traits to get started and to develop them all further ‘on the job’. 1

To support this internal focus, you may need some support, guidance or coaching from outside the organisation. If so, you’ll need to be careful in your choice of external ‘help’ so you don’t get sold a ‘best practice solution’ to the wrong problem whilst simultaneously failing to build internal capability and capacity.

This means you organisation may need to escape the clutches of ‘the usual suspects’. This can be particularly challenging if a general consulting service provider has managed to wangle an umbrella agreement with someone senior for the ongoing supply of ‘more of the same’ …

But don’t let the above put you off taking action.

The world continues to become ever more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) – and organisations that fail to build a future-fit culture will not thrive and may not survive.2

  1. If your HR function wants to have a strategic role in transforming your organisation’s culture, it needs a high-priority focus on encouraging these traits throughout the organisation.
  2. Find out more about how organisations can prepare for an increasingly VUCA future here.
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