Typically, whenever a new way of working or problem-solving is introduced, questions or objections are raised. That is understandable, even commendable. Professionals always need to exercise and display their professionalism. Specialists frequently insist on emphasizing that part of the new proposal that reaffirms and preserves their specialization. Nietzsche said, “I skip steps and no step will ever forgive you for skipping it.”
Often, objections are excessive and obstructive. Indeed, they may betray a worrisome, obstacle-oriented organizational culture. Such companies spend an inordinate amount of time and energy defending the status quo. Frequently, it approaches hysterical proportions. Horror stories surface. Dire predictions of failure loom. Projected and imagined dislocations are compiled as a doomsday scenario. Two sectors usually cited as whipping boys are education, especially universities, and government, especially the federal level.
The dilemma is more serious and perhaps endemic. The reason a company rejects or stalls reconfiguration or reengineering is that it is in fact its identity and culture. It projects its characteristics: knee-jerk reflexes, the focus of its energy, its driving DNA. Above all, it reflects how the company thinks, learns and leads or, more tellingly, how it doesn’t.
Problem-solving thus involves two elements: the problem itself, and what its solution may encounter. The first objectively reflects an obstacle in the company’s path. The second subjectively reflects the internal obstacles to its acceptance. To be ultimately effective, the second has to be folded into the first—the solution always must be double.
The problem-solver now has a partner, a secret sharer, an alter ego. His accomplice is anticipatory, so what finally emerges is not stillborn. It is not enough to solve the problem brilliantly if it cannot live and survive the culture. Indeed, its ideal version is to change that culture to one that is solution- rather than problem-oriented. That requires expanding the current learning management system (LMS) to a learning obstacle management system (LOMS).
The minefields need to be known in advance. Following are 10 generic obstacles to the problem-solving process itself as well as the fate of its solution.
Information Technology Micromanaging
The dazzling gains of information technology have created the false impression that copious data, complex electronic formatting and calculating power are all that it takes to solve problems.
This is understandable. Initially, data was limited. Now, it is apparently so unlimited that it is intimidating as well as inundating. Initially complex operations requiring the intersection of many subsets exceeded capacity. Now, spreadsheets hooked up to data sources can display complex interactions instantly. But no matter how generous it is, information is still not knowledge, and even then, interpretation requires purpose. In short, no matter how busy and noisy the IT surroundings, decision-making is still a square-one activity.
Losing Sight of the Big Picture
If the first obstacle involved micromanaging, the second lacks macro-visioning. Is the solution in tune and aligned with mission? Such a focus is not outside the parameters of problem-solving. In fact, it is its operational condition. It can be built into problem-solving as leveraging from the start. Overlay, not overhaul, is the way to go—scenario rather than fiat, simulation rather than specs. If the thinking can be freer, the learning unlearned and the leading multiplied, macro change and alignment gradually will follow. The small will shape the big.
Organizational structure determines the way information flows or does not. It also influences the way new or divergent ideas are welcomed or rejected. Work design and relationships are functions of structures. The obvious ones, such as cubicles, are seen. The more hidden and damaging are dos, don’ts and taboos. In short, if a more imaginative, innovative and circular process is to take hold, obstructive structures also may have to be built into and become an object of the problem-solving itself.
Above all, the solution must not be summarily promulgated or trumpeted. It must be communicated individually and collectively. It must take some time for its logic and intelligence to sink in and be persuasive. It should be treated in the same way that a strategic plan is—gradually and thoroughly. When solutions and strategic plans converge, structure opens up and allows inquiry to be constantly ongoing and forward-facing.
Who owns the data? In many organizations, information is currency. Whoever has the most data has the most power. Indeed, the increasing demands problem-solving is making on IT have brought about a dependency comparable to changes in the rates of exchange or the introduction of a new currency like the Euro.
The issue posed here is whether information is hoarded or shared, whether access is privileged or equal. The question of data ownership in turn determines which professionals and levels are first- or second-class citizens. The latter’s lack of access inevitably will jeopardize the acceptance and implementation of solutions. They also will always be the first to raise objections. In short, they will embody organizational obstinacy.
Information Relationships and Teams
Information distribution determines relationships. Information sharing transforms supervisors and employees into colleagues, cost centers into results centers, and lone rangers into teams. Indeed, teams have introduced such a substantial subculture to the mainstream that, in fact, they have become the culture.
The information needs of teams are as different as they are insatiable. Their dynamics even reflect the shift in their job descriptions. They no longer have a fixed position or identity, but a dynamic of constantly shifting assignments. Teams thus epitomize and embody flux itself. Ideally, they also reflect the dominant thinking, learning and leading culture of the entire enterprise. Every solution therefore must be tasked with 360-degree team application. It should always miniaturize the whole.
Purpose and Mission
Problem-solving is so rich and willful that it needs to be steadied and focused by goals. Similarly, the ends of information must be stated. Is the purpose to control or to coordinate? Should continuous improvement be imposed or created? What happens when the ante is upped to continuous innovation? Can creativity be ordered or bribed into being?
Knowledge usage is not enough. There now must be knowledge creation. Individual contributions have to yield to collective contributions. Personal knowledge must give way to institutional knowledge. The goals should be bigger and better than those of the present. Each solution should play a part in future projections. Indeed, scenarios are really future solutions.
Strangely, strengths can become weaknesses. Too much success often can be debilitating. It precludes learning from failure. Above all, success can lead to an entrenched mode of problem-solving. The kit contains only variations on such infallibility.
Ironically, what ensures such tunnel vision or limited vision is excessive comfort brought about by hiring the same kind of managers with MBAs from the same schools. The proverbial need to find a fit and match chemistry has produced a cloned workforce that thinks, learns and leads alike. Thus, it is not surprising that these managers’ objections are so uniform and achieve consensus rapidly. It is the homogenous way of doing things. Too much agreement is therefore a bad thing. Do not take pleasure or comfort in such internal harmony and sense of well-being. Hire people you can disagree with.
Creativity is often defined preciously. It is limited to research and development types, reserved for the upper echelon and is prescriptive in nature. It also is frequently described as produced or developed. In truth, it is always co-produced and co-developed. It emerges out of an environment that is permissive.
In a classic example, 3M was faced with the need to become more innovative and develop new cutting-edge products. 3M introduced a novel mechanism: Every employee without exception could take 15 minutes of his or her workday to work on a project. Workers could bunch their slots of time to provide longer solid blocks. No top-level ego was involved or invoked. There was no supervisory requirement. No one had to report on what was being worked on or its progress. Customary resource support was internally available for those projects that passed initial minimal screening. Within three months, Post-It notes were in the final stages. Six months later, abrasive cleaning pads were approved. Both innovations came from the rank-and-file.
Testing and Training Range and Linkages
Like the problem-solving process, which does not take into account the unacknowledged contributions of the problem-solver, training itself also fails to factor in the contributions of those being trained. This unfortunate impoverishment may be compounded by the way an LMS is compiled. The training design and topics may be chosen rather than solicited, are usually singular rather than multiple, and are right or left brain rather than whole brain.
Testing of employees yields diagnostically driven training. Its design not only reflects and accommodates the contributions of those trained, but also assumes their role as collaborative instructors. The moment training shifts from assuming that learners possess not singular but multiple talents and intelligences, the entire world of design options changes. In addition, acknowledging the range of thinking and learning potential provides an evaluative critique of the current range and expectations of training programs or systems.
In addition to expanding range, employee testing also addresses linkage. In both instances, it not only diagnostically taps the existing culture and its talents, but also seeks to enrich and extend both. Specifically, it focuses on linking individual and institutional knowledge.
Employee profiles identify and help break down the false separations between who we are and how we think, how we relate and how we learn, and finally, how we motivate and how we lead.
The wheel does not to be re-created. It is already explicitly there (although often ignored or untapped) in Myers-Briggs as well as on The Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument. Indeed, the latest version of MBIT measures team thinking and behavior.
Archival Awareness and Recording
Many organizations are so totally with it–existing in the now and the new–they give the impression that they have no past or that it is irrelevant. But in the process, they ignore or alienate the histories of as many as five generations of employees who currently coexist in companies. Even more seriously, they image themselves and their operations in static terms as a series of snapshots rather than as a continuous motion picture.
The difference is significant. Only dynamic environments and stimulating situations bring all the many talents into play. Presenting work or ideas in the dynamics of simulation is not just a more effective form of communication, but also a genuinely different way of thinking, learning and leading. Perhaps it finds its ultimate expression when individuals and their companies compose their learning histories or journeys, a subject complex and important enough to be treated separately.
Finally, Figure 1 shows how obstacles are reflective of cultures but also what kind of antidotes embodied in a revised learning obstacle management system (LOMS) may offer.
Irving H. Buchen is vice president of academic affairs at Aspen University. He can be reached at email@example.com.