How to deal with issues and problems

How to deal with issues and problems

 In last week’s blog – “You cannot bypass the truth” – I discussed the fact that if you want to fix/transform any dysfunctional or unwanted organizational condition or dynamic you have to start by being honest and telling the truth about the problem.

I am sure you have heard the saying

95% of the solution to your problem is admitting that you have a problem!

Well as simple as it sounds, this powerful principle applies when dealing with big organizational issues.

If you want to fix or change an undesired condition, you have to make sure all the key leaders and team members who are involved in that condition agree that there is, in fact, a problem. They have to own and embrace the fact that things are not working, and they have to be willing to talk about it.

Many times leaders have to look in the mirror and acknowledge that something about themselves is not working. It could be in the way they are interacting, collaborating, aligning or the way they are being viewed by others. Most importantly, leaders have to own the negative impact that their dysfunctional behavior is having on the teams they manage.

If leaders are too proud or arrogant to admit their shortcomings they don’t stand a chance at driving change.

In my last blog, I stated that the two main reasons that prevent leaders from addressing the issues are either their lack of courage or that they simply don’t know how. They don’t have a reliable methodology and approach for addressing the problems.

Many leaders have shared with me their previous bad experiences of how trying to create a dialogue to address a problem turned into a ‘bitching session’ or ‘screaming match’. In many of these recollections, their attempts not only didn’t yield a positive outcome they caused greater divide, trauma and bad feelings.

I would like to share a high-level approach, which is both simple and powerful, for addressing issues, problems, and unwanted organizational dynamics. If you apply this framework it will help you transform even the most challenging issues.

  1. Clearly define the Problem. Start by clearly acknowledging and outlining the problem. By clearly I mean make sure that everyone sees the problem the same way. As part of this first step, you could also get clarity on questions such as: “When did the problem start?” and “Why did it start?”. So many times this seemingly simple step of clarity isn’t achieved and different team members have a very different take on the problem. In fact, most often whilst some members say there is a problem others deny it. If team members are not on the same page about what the problem is, they won’t be on the same page about what to do to solve it and they definitely won’t bring the same commitment and passion to the task.
  1. Focus on your commitment. People are often eager to delve into the details of the action plan and ‘who is going to do what’ too quickly. They go into ‘What needs to be done?” and lose sight of ‘Why do we want to do this?”, “What do we really want here?” and “What is our bigger purpose and committed?” By taking a step back to focus on your commitment you can generate a much more powerful and compelling platform of shared and aligned commitment. Operating from commitment is proactive. Fixing a problem is reactive.
  1. Come up with possibilities and ideas. Once you are clear about your bigger purpose and commitment you can start exploring possibilities and ideas for how to turn it into reality. A keyword in this step is COULD – “What could you do to fulfill your commitment?” In this step allow yourself to think outside the box. Don’t restrict yourself to ‘realistic’ or ‘achievable’ ideas. After all, in this step you are not committing to anything, so truly allow yourself to come up with as many new possibilities and ideas as you can.
  1. Commit to clear actions. Once you have a long list of possibilities and ideas for what you could do you need to decide which of these you are actually going to carry out. Whatever you decide to do, commit to it. Promise it. Make sure the outcome, time frame and ‘who is committing to what’ are all crystal clear. In fact, document all promised actions so you can follow up on them.
  1. Set a cadence of follow up touch points. Many teams are good at creating ideas and even committing to them, but they are not good at following through. So, as part of the action plan commit in advance to a cadence of follow up meetings and make sure to keep to them, no matter what!

These five steps represent a very powerful process. However, any process or methodology is only going to be as effective as the context inside which they are being implemented.

You can’t simply follow the steps and hope for great things to happen. You have to bring your heart, soul, commitment, and most importantly – courage – to the game.

You cannot bypass the truth!

As I have repeated many times in previous blogs, if you want to fix/transform any dysfunctional or unwanted organizational condition or dynamic you have to start by being honest and telling the truth about the problems.

There is no way around it – no matter how challenging it may be!

I was working with a leading telecoms company to elevate their performance to the next level. As always I started with a cultural analysis and the results revealed significant issues: silos instead of collaboration; politics instead of transparency; lack of alignment between functions and levels; plus a lack of unity within the senior leadership team itself.

As I began the transformational phase of the process I shared my cultural analysis findings with the senior team and managers effort. Whilst everyone understood the list of issues (as the output came directly from their feedback as participants in the process), it was hard, especially for some of the senior leaders, to fully accept, embrace and confront the dysfunctional reality.

In fact, a few steps further into the process when I wanted to bring the list of issues up again in order to create a plan to address them there was reluctance and resistance from some leaders to do so.

The leaders didn’t want to bring up and discuss the dysfunctional issues again because they were afraid that by doing so they would be taking the organization backwards and making things worse. The leaders believed that by not discussing the issues they would simply disappear or their negative impact would be contained or minimalized.

And, surprisingly the HR leaders and managers, whose role it is to nurture and improve the corporate culture, were most adamant about not resurfacing the issues.

Unfortunately, I experience this exact dynamic in quite a few companies.

The logic of “If you can’t see and hear the problems they don’t exist or they don’t negatively impact the organization” is fundamentally flawed, undermining and dangerous to any corporate culture.

In fact, not bringing up the issues and talking about them makes things much worse, rather than addressing them head-on.

If you understand corporate culture at all you know that when employees feel they can’t publically bring up the painful issues that they then don’t discuss them at all. On the contrary, they simply go underground to express their frustrations and this directly impacts the culture. Negative background chatter becomes rampant, people become more skeptical, cynical and resigned, issues are avoided and things get worse.

This undermining dynamic is the ‘kiss of death’ to any change initiative and negates everything that a change initiative is typically about.

The senior executives can keep saying all the right things about the importance of change. However, contrary to their declarations, their reluctance or inability to deal with the negative issues sends a covert but clear and definitive message to all, that the change initiative is a farce and that the senior executives don’t have what it takes to lead it.

And that is exactly what happened in the organization I described at the start. No matter how much change and progress they were actually making, every time I went to their offices, people would pull me aside and give me an earful about how nothing is changing, and the leadership team isn’t living up to what they said and they don’t have the courage to drive change.

This prevailing mindset was like a cancer to the initiative, and it was very hard to change people’s mindsets, because, to be frank, they were right – the senior leaders didn’t demonstrate the courage to deal with the most important problems, most of which stemmed from their own divided and dysfunctional behaviors.

Everyone knew all this, however people blamed others for the situation, and everyone felt powerless and frustrated.

Unfortunately, I see this type of dynamic in so many organizations.

Why are people so reluctant to allow the prevailing problems and issues to surface?

The main reason, plain and simple, is lack of courage! However, it goes beyond that. People don’t know how to deal with the negative issues and problems, which are often loaded with ego-based emotions and blame.

In next week’s blog I will complete this account by sharing a simple, yet powerful approach and process for addressing and transforming issues, problems, and dysfunctional realities.

Stay tuned!

Slogans or Reality?

I was speaking at the annual sales kick-off meeting of a growing successful global telecommunication company. This event was impressively managed with main stage events, breakout sessions and a barrage of high-end social activities.

Like similar events, the themes were catchy, motivational and relevant. The messages were powerful and well presented by the senior executives, and the presentations were effective at inciting and pumping up everyone to do their best in the coming year.

At the end, the event scores seem to be high, the senior executives left feeling great, and judging by the high energy, everyone seemed to be on board. A picture perfect reality.

Companies invest so much money in these mega events. They hire the best production companies to ensure things run like a Swiss clock, and there are always inspiring themes and slogans to incite commitment and urgency among the troops – things like: “This is our time!”,”Winning together!”, “Our time is now!”, “Be the change!” and “The future is here now!”

Big stage presentations are often highly inspiring and exciting, as this is the opportunity for the CEO and his or her senior executives to shine by patting themselves and their teams on the back for great performance and progress. It is also their chance to show their human, personable, vulnerable, charming, funny and visionary side. And, to top it all off, there is usually a great guest speaker to help drill down the corporate messages and inspire the troops.

I have attended many of these events, and they are always excellent!

And then… everyone goes back home and sooner or later (usually sooner…) things pretty much go back to the way they were before – politics, silos, blame, infighting, victim mentality… yada, yada, yada. The slogans remain slogans and the reality remains reality.

What a dismal predicament!

Why does this happen?

Is it inevitable?

It is not that the slogans are flawed or that those who are presenting them don’t genuinely believe them. It’s also not that those who are receiving the messages aren’t listening or they don’t care.

The reason is – executives focus too much on the content and they don’t focus on the context inside which the content is being received, assimilated, and implemented.

What determines if the slogans will remain slogans or if they will change and/or become reality is the context inside which people absorb, interact, behave and perform.

For example, at a different event I attended the CEO stood in front of her entire sales team and asked everyone to take full ownership of the company goals. She urged everyone to not be afraid to bring issues up and do whatever it takes to fix them in order to succeed. She even showed a slide with an up-side-down organization chart that had the CEO on the bottom and the sales employees on the top – I have seen leaders use that trick several times. She accompanied this with: “I am at the bottom of the pyramid. My role is to remove barriers and help you win. I work for you…” However, this same CEO and some of her executives were known for micro managing the day-to-day, including things like scrutinizing people’s expense sheets and giving them a hard time when they overspent on customer related activities.

I am sure the CEO meant every word she said on stage. However, anyone with a healthy sense of reality knows that no one in the audience took her comments seriously. In fact, people rolled their eyes, looked at each other and whispered cynically: “Whatever…”

While the CEO wanted to deepen ownership and commitment, her comment and more importantly her lack of awareness of the perceptions people had about her and her team, actually weakened it. She was too focused on getting the management text book messages right, rather than on how people would perceive and receive them.

This CEO is no different from so many others I have seen. Executives think that they can stand on a stage once or twice a year and say all the fancy slogans with gusto, and then go back to micro managing the day-to-day, and that will drive change. Nothing is further from reality!

If the CEO wants to create a new culture of “Transparency”, “Honesty”, “Courage” and “Winning Together” he or she has to make this a priority as high as achieving the revenues or profitability numbers of the company. He has to invest and put in place the same robust programs, routines, incentives and practices to continuously promote, foster, reward, nurture and sustain the desired behaviors. Elevating your team culture is a process/journey, not an event. That is not a slogan!

Peter Drucker, the great business management guru, once said: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Believe me, that is not a slogan. It is the inevitable reality, that for some reason many CEOs, even if they understand it and can repeat the slogan, still don’t seem to get and adhere to.

Size Matters!

Whilst working with a leading regional technology company, I was supporting the Sales and Services teams to help establish greater clarity about their roles and responsibilities in order to reduce overlap and infighting and increase alignment and collaboration between these teams in the marketplace.

After a few sessions, we got it right and it was time to update the company’s senior leadership team, as well as the entire middle manager forum on the newly established role definition and rules of engagement that the team created. However, some of the Sales and Services senior leaders expressed reluctance to share the details with that wide of an audience.

They were concerned that if too many people get exposed and involved in the dynamic between Sales and Services, everyone will meddle and want to influence things and this will complicate and slow things down. As one of the leaders put it

“As long as the Sales and Services leaders understand the rules that is all that matters. It isn’t anyone else’s business.”

I have witnessed this type of mindset quite a few times before. Many executives often believe that when it comes to critical business discussions and decisions (including strategic planning), these important debates should be conducted as an exclusive affair.

Their logic is that the fewer people who are involved in the process, the easier, smoother and faster it will be. As such, they often limit participation to a small group of business unit heads and/or the strategy development group.

However, making key decisions and/or putting together the strategic planning team is not a matter of finding the perfect size of group — it’s about gathering together the right people.

Remember, any decision, direction or strategy is only as good as the context inside which it’s being received, owned and executed. Therefore, in order to make the best decisions and create the most powerful strategy with the strongest sense of ownership and accountability for execution, you must include both those individuals who have the best expertise about where the organization needs to go and the people who are going to be involved in, support and implement the agreed upon direction and objectives.

While some impatient executives might see this broader inclusion, for example of support functions such as Human Resources and Marketing as slowing things down, slower, in this case, will inevitably be faster where it counts most. This is the case since doing things right from the start saves time, money, and prevents having to do things all over again when people are only paying lip-service to the execution further down the road.

Start talking plain English

This may sound over simplistic, but one of the reasons teams find it so hard to get everyone on the same page when it comes to important strategies and plans is because people simply don’t talk in plain English.

I don’t mean that people don’t speak the English language. I mean that people in corporations tend to talk in a conceptual, vague, unclear and convoluted corporate language, which is predicated on professional slogans, jargon, acronyms and other shortcut phrases and noun-type words.

For example, people say things like: We want to be Best in Class‘, but it is hard to tell if that means ‘Best among their peers in the industry’, ‘Best among other teams in their company’ or ‘Much better than they are today’?

Or, people say: “We need to enable our teams”, but do they mean train everyone, improve specific systems and/or tools, create new systems and/or tools or all of the above?

While everyone assumes that everyone else understands what is said and meant – more often than not that is completely not the case. Then people wonder why not everyone is owning the strategy and rowing in the same direction.

You wouldn’t fly with a pilot that commanded his flight with the low-level clarity and rigor that most corporate teams manage their business with. Nor would you put your body under the knife of a surgeon if you believed that he or she wasn’t 100% accurate and precise about their strategy and proposed execution of the operation. We don’t tolerate approximate measures when life is at stake. But for some reason, we do tolerate vagueness and lack of clear and rigorous conversations in business.

Corporate language is a language of implicit, not explicit clarity. You would think that with so much at stake within the business world people would want to leave nothing to chance. However, experience shows that leaders are content with leaving declarations, commitments, promises and expectations at a general and vague level.

So often when supporting teams in creating their strategic plan I listen to the dialogue and even though I am not an expert in their field I can immediately tell that their inability to converse in plain language is hindering their ability to think, create and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively.

Simply by asking: “So, what do you mean by that?” everyone quickly realizes that different people have different assumptions and interpretations about what is being said and meant.

My questions are often met with a blank stare or a long-winded response that only further illuminates the lack of clarity or I get a barrage of different, sometimes even opposing responses from different team members.

People seem to be so entrenched in the language-style used in PowerPoint presentations that they seem unable to move away from that style and converse in the same manner when interacting face-to-face.

This behavior is ingrained in corporate culture. However, it stems from our basic survival and comfort level instincts. We like to leave things high level and vague in order to ease the pressure of total commitment. After all, if you define things too clearly it becomes crystal clear what you’re saying, what you stand for, what you are committing to, and what you are accountable for. But, if you leave things more general it gives you wiggle room, especially when facing adversity. At the core, it’s not a language issue. It is a commitment issue.

The typical corporate language is sufficient for perpetuating the ordinary and status quo. However, if you have bolder ambitions in mind of being extraordinary and the ‘best of the best’, you better challenge the norm and start promoting and demanding a new level of simple, straightforward and rigorous exchange.