When Yesterday’s Terrific Solution Becomes Today’s Biggest Problem

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You can also read this article as published by The Business Journals.

Recently, I met with a small team of high-level managers. We were gathered around the conference room table wrestling with a challenge they had identified as their “most pressing problem.” Because company revenue was built on projects, there were times when some teams would be working 60-70 hours a week, while other teams had little to do. The result:

·     One-third of their workforce was over-utilized.

·     One-third was appropriately utilized.

·     One-third was underutilized.

Everyone agreed this was untenable if they wanted to make the firm more effective—and profitable.

Having identified a significant problem, the group moved to brainstorming solutions. It wasn’t long before Charles, 6’5″ with a deep baritone voice, said, “What we need is a meeting every month to talk about the human resources we can share with each other.” What happened next was quite interesting.

Nothing.

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That’s what happened. I looked around to see six other managers hyper-focused on their pens, their notepads, their phones, or their fingernails. No one made eye contact. And so we waited.

After about 30 seconds of complete silence (yes, it felt much longer), I asked: “What do you think of Charles’s idea? Should we schedule a monthly meeting where you all can talk about sharing team members with one another?” Again, silence. And so, we waited longer.

I nudged them again: “Are any of you reticent to share one of your team members with another manager at this table?” Dawn, a soft-spoken but influential manager, broke the silence and admitted that she would be hesitant to lend a member of her team to another team. We proceeded to have an hour-long discussion on why. A few of the reasons given:

  • Having a large team is more prestigious.
  • Historically, managers who lead larger teams have received greater accolades.
  • Promotions and compensation are impacted by the size of my team and the scope of the projects that I lead.
  • What happens if, at the end of the year, our executives see that my team did our job with 50% of the workforce? Will they cut my budget for the following year?

Then Dawn asked an even more powerful question: “What if my employee likes working for another manager more than working for me?”

“What if my employee likes working for another manager more than working for me?”

Discovering the Real Issue

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, co-founders of Cambridge Leadership Associates, brilliantly distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges are those that can be fixed with expertise. You need a new roof? Call a roofer. Your car is pulling to the left? Take it to a mechanic for alignment. If issues are truly technical, the applied solution should fix the problem and make today better.

Technical issues are like a leaky roof. Most likely your team will not debate whether it should be fixed, and no one feels a deep emotional connection with the leaky roof!

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are rooted in deeply held beliefs and values. These types of issues reach deep within us and connect with the dreams, fears, passions, and anxieties of the stakeholders.

Why It Matters

Let’s go back to the management team. Imagine that the team reluctantly adopted the idea to add a monthly meeting to share resources. Imagine you are a manager at that first meeting, and you mention that your team is overworked and desperately trying to hit a near impossible deadline that is critical for the company’s Q1 success.

You request additional resources only to hear your colleagues respond, “My team is about to kick-off a huge project,” or “I have a few people who are taking PTO (paid time off), so now’s not a good time,” or “I have assigned my group to do some critical research on our next project.”

You went to the meeting, asked for help, and got none.

However, that’s not the only downside. As you walk around the department over the next month you begin to notice another manager’s team surfing the web or playing Candy Crush Saga. You see them arrive late and leave early. They are taking extra-long lunch breaks.

Meanwhile your team is working 70 hours a week. It would be quite natural for your frustration to turn to anger and your anger to bitterness. The byproduct: diminished trust between you and the other managers.

Instead of solving the problem we actually made it worse. This is what happens when we apply a technical solution (e.g., another monthly meeting) to an adaptive issue, which can rarely be solved with a one-and-done decision. Ultimately, yesterday’s “solution” becomes today’s biggest problem.

A Way Forward

These managers needed to balance the competing values of individual rewards, respect, and accolades of leading a large team versus allocating resources effectively to get stuff done. As we continued to work, they discussed a re-design of incentive metrics so that all teams were incentivized on a collective set of company projects, which would drive managers to assign resources to the projects most critical for corporate success. Working with HR, they also made some compensation changes to encourage resource sharing.

While still a work in progress, we found a way for managers to navigate the situation more effectively. And, even more significant, they built trust in each other as they shared more transparently about their own anxieties, fears, and concerns.

I’d love to hear others chime in. To get the discussion going I’ll pose a couple questions:

Have you faced a similar situation, where the issue was clear but the resolution was super tricky?

Have you worked somewhere that a corporate “value” was in conflict with a methodology?

The failure to recognize adaptive challenges can cause a company to stall out, stuck in a repeating cycle of frustration. The conversations—and the work necessary to discover and tackle these issues—can be uncomfortable and stressful.

Sometimes an experienced third-party can help leaders find their way—faster and with relationships not only intact, but improved.

I wasn’t there to tell these managers what to do. My value was to identify the problems beneath the surface, and give the managers an opportunity to recognize and take ownership of the deeper-level issues—the ones that could lead to lasting change.

Do you think you or your team might be stuck? If you find yourself facing the same problem over and over, it’s possible. Joyner Advising Group helps Forward-Looking Leaders Create Alignment. To learn more about how we can partner with you, check us out here !

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