(2023-03-01) Cutler Tbm203 Fixing Messy Problems

John Cutler: TBM 203 : Fixing Messy Problems. I draw heavily on ideas from Dave Snowden, Donella Meadows, Gareth Morgan, Dana Mackenzie, Judea Pearl, etc.

I have observed many instances of this situation: There is a general agreement about what great looks like. There is disagreement about the "root cause" or "problem definition."

The challenge is that complex problems have no single root cause, and any nuanced definition of the problem feels abstract, multi-layered, and messy.

While complex issues are sometimes hard to budge and improve, there are also many complex problems where progress is possible (given the right approach).

For example, a team is caught in the swirl of too much work in progress, competing agendas, macroeconomic factors, old-guard vs. new-guard dynamics, tech debt, dependencies, etc. Is this climate change-level complexity? Absolutely not, but it is thorny. You can't "fix" the whole thing by "just" lowering work in progress, and the system will quickly bite back.

But you DO have good experiments at your disposal. A team might visualize work, encourage people to work together in new ways, subtly shift the flow of information, or have influential leaders shift their narrative slightly (small bet)

*Are there things (almost) guaranteed to fail or at least leave a lot of damage in their wake? Yes!

Implementing a 9-layer Jira setup, setting up gates, bringing in armies of contractors, and imposing cookie-cutter frameworks with no clue about principles is guaranteed to be a shit show.*

Much of the corporate world runs on the idea of 1) gap thinking and 2) treating all problems as complicated (not complex) problems.

In a nutshell, the consulting industrial complex RUNS on gap thinking

*How does someone navigate that situation with humility and empathy when dealing with people who heavily identify with gap thinking and treating things as complicated problems?

This last question is something that the "complexity community" often struggles with. They often display a surprising lack of nuance in communicating about the challenge*

it is about who owns the Narrative around the change and how that relates to their professional identity

implied that everyone in the room was stuck in some antiquated form of thinking… what would you predict would happen? Raging success? No chance!

Now say they put a roadmap on the wall with many salient, popular ideas/experiments listed as “options”. They define what awesome looks like with a great story. They mention the key levers they hope to move and ways to measure progress. They reiterate that the definition of awesome includes not messing thing up and making things unsafe.

And THEN they take accountability for making (and communicating) progress, ask for air-cover and support, and openly acknowledge that the favorite solutions and root cause discussions might be right.

why does it feel better?

Is respectful and humble

Introduces the idea of levers/leverage points in a safe, less threatening way

Includes people's pet ideas as potential options

Regarding our approach to solving complex problems, diverse "feelings" may be the best tool at our disposal. Complicated lend themselves to hard data. Complex problems lend themselves to more intricate data (feelings).

We can strengthen our systems thinking skills and intuitions over time. Ten years ago, I was terrible at predicting which change experiments might succeed or fail. Now, I am marginally better. Not perfect, but better. And when I engage other perspectives, we are a lot better together. (Reminder these are the process-change experiments, not the product experiments.)

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