Impossible tangles: creative approaches to complex problems
By Rob Balmer
Creating real change in an organisation can seem like an irresolvable problem at times. All organisations are complex entities, and when you create an intervention at one point, the ripples (and sometimes complications) spread in all directions. It can feel like an impossible tangle.
A creative approach to complex problems
I’ve been coaching for many years now, working with leaders who want to energise and activate their organisations, as well as their own leadership practice. In our company we are working with an enterprise-wide approach to developing leadership capability. I find that it provides an integrating and elegant solution to some seemingly intractable and complex problems.
The best way to explain our approach is through an example.
We start with intelligence gathering
I recently did some coaching with a female leader of a functional group in a cutting edge global software company. My brief with Jody (names changed to protect the innocent!) was to follow our Coachlive approach of completing a 360o feedback process, then instigating the coaching that followed from that. Coachlive is our initiative to deliver leadership coaching in a cost-effective and high quality manner at all leadership levels.
What came out of the 360 was a lot of very positive feedback. Jody is a very talented young woman, but what was clear from this feedback that she was under a huge amount of stress in this particular operating environment. A lot of problems were being thrown her way, and she was taking it to heart.
Identify the challenges and keep your eye on the potential
I could see Jody’s potential straight away. She came across as a very outgoing, relationships-oriented and positive person, who cared deeply about her work.
Jody spoke at a million miles an hour to start off with, letting go of the deluge of issues that she had on her plate. However I could see, behind the stress, that here was someone with a powerful personality and a lot of talent.
A particular challenge was that Jody was trying to keep everyone happy. As a result, she was taking on far too much work herself. She didn't know how to say “no” to anyone in the organisation. Her boss would unload with the latest crisis and she would take that on personally. Jody was loath to give her staff any more work because they were also at full capacity. She would get everything done herself, and done well, but in a stressed and compromised fashion. This was a recipe for burnout!
That’s the task side of things. On the behavioural side, Jody had a different sort of challenge in a fairly volatile manager who was not managing his mood swings effectively. Jody was bearing the brunt of some of that behaviour and taking it on as if she had done something to stimulate it.
Tease out the problems and see what’s really going on
So first we helped her sort out everything she had on her plate. What we realised was on top of her own work, she had the equivalent of three other people’s loads as well. So we separated it all out – on paper. It’s simple time and priority management, but not so simple when you’re operating in complex environments.
When she could see it more visually, Jody realised that in taking on other people’s work, she was becoming the bottleneck in the organisation. We also needed to work on her delegation skills. Her view was that ‘once I’ve delegated it I’ve lost control of it’ – so she wasn’t delegating things effectively. We showed her different ways to delegate without losing control, and helped her see that delegation is also a way of motivating and developing people.
Once Jody realised that by delegating she was actually helping develop her staff, she started using different delegation styles as a developmental approach.
The final thing was how to deal with her boss. Jody learnt how to almost create an invisible force field and not take everything that the boss was saying to heart. She learnt to deal with it on a transactional basis, focusing on what he was saying not how he was saying it. Jody realised that just because he was saying it in an abrupt and direct way it didn't mean it was the world’s biggest crisis. That was just his style. In this way she was able to take the emotion out of it and flex that communication approach to make it all a lot more effective.
Transform a nightmare into a success story
So long story short, after 6 months the movement from operating on the edge of chaos through to handling it with poise, control and status, was a fabulous result.
Jody went on to be promoted within the organisation and then was poached to become a very senior general manager at another much larger organisation. So she left it as a great success, not as someone retreating from a horrible situation.
Subsequently we went on to work with managers at different levels in the company, and we started to see some common themes emerge. I was able to, very gently, in a trusted advisor role, start working with the CEO to make changes that would affect a lot of people.
Gain insights through working across the organisation
This is one of the benefits of working at an enterprise –wide level. We see what is going on, and can engage in informed organisational development. We can quietly and gently work as coaches with the senior leaders – in this case the CEO – to help bring about some changes that have a knock-on effect throughout the organisation. As the senior leadership saw the value in our work, we were asked to deliver our Superior Team Performance program in selected regional teams, to help unlock potential.
So that’s one example of what an enterprise-wide, all levels leadership approach looks like. Working with frontline managers, seeing company wide themes, leveraging that understanding to inform our work with the executive, and then focusing in on specific team performance scenarios.
Out of the first Coachlive cohort of 34, 12 have gone on to be promoted internally, which is terrific, and vast majority of others are able to do their job more effectively in coping not with just their job but with the environment they’re operating in.
Complex problems need gentle hands
I think working to bring about change in complex organisational environments is an exciting challenge. It’s complex but doesn't have to be a struggle. It reminds me of unravelling a tangled ball of string. You just start loosening strands, gently, here and there, teasing it out and working out what’s going on. Progress may look slow at first, but then it accelerates and before you know it the culture is in a different place.