Coming to grips with difficult to define concerns

Although it is easy to focus exclusively on the most urgent problems facing our organisations, these have often developed because we failed to understand what was going on long before the issues became clear. Dealing with difficult to define concerns  like these before they turn into crises potentially delivers significant benefits, none the least in making the organisation more proactive. But it needs a different approach. 

For some years now my colleague Dr Garth Britton and I have been playing around with different ways of engaging with organisations and organisational leaders in circumstances where they know, or perhaps simply have an uneasy feeling, that things aren’t going the way they planned or that, to a greater or lesser degree, the wheels are falling off.

Mostly when this happens people go looking for a pre-existing solution, which of course pre-supposes that you know reasonably precisely what the problem is. Inevitably there are a range of pre-packaged solutions available. Inevitably, too, they often turn out to not be a particularly good fit to the situation or, even worse, the solution to a problem that isn’t the particular one you are experiencing.

All of this pre-supposes two things: firstly that what is being seen or sensed is the problem, and secondly, that thinking about organisational dilemmas as problems that require solutions is the most useful thing to do. Our experience suggests that this may not always be the case.

So here we try to describe some of the things we have learned and the way these translate into practices and approaches.

Generally we begin in a situation with a client by acknowledging that neither we nor they fully understand what is going on. At the same time we also recognise that collectively within the organisation, or across the the organisations involved in the situation, people do know a great deal more than they have been able to say so far. So our first step is to engage deeply with the people who are in the situation, devising ways to tap into their knowledge, perhaps enabling unheard voices and perspectives to be heard, in order to bring the situation to life. In doing this we seek as well to “go upstream”, back into the history of the situation and people’s involvement in it. We do this so that a sense of how things came to be the way they are can emerge along with a sense of the various trajectories embedded in current activities. We generally do this before turning attention to where to go and what to do next.

Sometimes collecting this data involves very loosely structured interviews/discussions, sometimes meeting with people in groups and sometimes the use of a more formal software-based qualitative data collection method. However we conduct this gathering of data we focus on asking people to be descriptive, that is to tell us stories about their experience of the issue or situation. This is part of a process of seeking to understand and make sense of athe situation “from within” rather than assessing it judgmentally from outside.

This generally leads us to do this work iteratively, first getting the people to describe their experiences and then asking them to tell us what their stories/experiences mean in the context of the issue or situation being explored. Once again we seek creative ways to do this that work in the context. One way that has worked particularly well has been to set up a space with the organisation where the data is displayed in some way as it is collected and some sort of analysis begins so that interested people can drop in and perhaps lend a hand or make an observation. This always leads to interesting conversations and insights and perspectives that might not have emerged in more formal settings. At other times we will have recorded some of our interviews and discussions and are able to extract particularly interesting excerpts from those interviews which can then provide the stimulus for discussions in small groups.

Somewhere along the track we begin to develop a sense of what is important to the people and the organisation, where people are uncomfortable or stuck and why and what would make sense to try in order to change the situation. To “nudge” it more in the direction people want and need. As we do we look to find ways to mirror back to people in the organisation, especially those who have the authority to initiate activities and expend or re-direct resources, what we have been seeing and hearing and our sense of where the starting points for doing something different might be. Generally this means that while we might write a report it won’t be a typical consultant’s report. Equally we might, if the circumstances are right, use more visual and descriptive forms of communication. Whatever we do we bear in mind that the end-product deserves to have a a “social life” and be a resource around which people in the organisation can gather to explore possibilities and potential ways forward. Whatever the form of presentation we are much more likely to propose some short-term safe-to-fail experimentation and ongoing action-based inquiry than we are to present a fully worked out plan of action.

We think about the kind of work described here as taking place in the “space between”. That is, the space between knowing and not-knowing, between those who are truly within the situation and ourselves who have become part of it temporarily and between and among the different perspectives that inevitably go to make up an organisation on its way to somewhere else. We do this to remind ourselves that we are entering territory in which no-one is the expert and in which there is much that we either do not know or cannot yet articulate. It also is a reminder that we may be working in a situation in which the conventional notion of a definable problem and a solution that follows logically might not apply.

In setting this out we feel the need to stress that it isn’t a recipe that can be followed precisely and repeated precisely the same way to get the same result in different context. We see it more as an emerging collection of descriptive concepts that help us to prepare to engage with our clients and, in that engagement, to jointly find ways to occasion both insight and meaningful activity in directions that matter. Although this is still, and will always be, a work in progress we think those concepts, in no particular order, are:

  • Begin in the middle – observe people and their work in context and develop rich description(s) of the situation and its antecedents.
  • Engage deeply and often – talk frequently to test insights and understandings and agree what is intended and what needs to be done.
  • Work together to co-design and articulate new ways forward (next steps), alternate understandings and potential new practices (disciplines).
  • Initiate short, sharp activities to test ideas, strategies and implementation approaches
  • Notice “rich points” and “striking moments” and explore similarities and differences
  • Continuously gather data to inform and test the ongoing usefulness of new frames and formatively evaluate the impact and effectiveness of emerging practices and tentative action.
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