Beliefs and principles are useful things. They provide us with guidance and direction. They support us and help to give us confidence in the face of uncertainty. They give us something to rely upon when we encounter problems and difficult situations.
For all of their value, however, our beliefs can seriously get in the way. An essential issue is that we don’t actually challenge or question them very often. They’re what we accept as true and hold dear, after all. They are what we rely on. They are what has worked for us in the past. So the tendency is not to challenge or change that going forward.
The problem is that what worked for us in one context is not necessarily going to work for us in all of them. And what we perceived as working may not have been optimal, but it was what got us to the end. Sometimes we think we are being proactive and deliberate, where what we’re actually doing is simply muddling through.
From my vantage point, this is particularly true in how we manage projects and create change. We develop an approach, adopt a process or get indoctrinated in a methodology, and that’s all we can see. Too a certain extent, it’s the process equivalent of “Once you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Every situation that seems even tangentially relevant gets approached in largely the same way.
For reasons I’m not entirely unsure of, the last few weeks have allowed me to witness numerous examples of this, in a surprising number of different contexts. A recent planning session on how to manage a fairly large methodology implementation was only the first among many. It’s a big change, and will be a significant reorientation in how the organization thinks about serving its clients. One participant was arguing for a very deliberate, planned, cautious approach to implementation.
Not that this is inherently wrong, of course. There are times when you want to take a deliberate, cautious and careful approach. At the same time, the culture of the organization is extremely entrepreneurial. They move quickly. They’re overloaded with work. There is a real risk—and every likelihood—that slow and steady is just going to look like more work with less value. Implementation, experimentation and action is going to be needed for people to embrace what’s being proposed.
At a different client, I was facilitating a long-term planning discussion. Again, they have workload issues. Staff are overwhelmed, capacity is a significant problem and they are trying to figure out how to get a handle on the demands they are facing and how to manage them effectively. Several people—new to the organization and with a private sector background—staked out a position early on that the only way to solve the problem was detailed, comprehensive effort planning and time reporting. Those that had been with the organization for an extended period of time were equally vehement that going there was culturally unacceptable; there was no way, in an inclusive, not-for-profit environment, that staff were going to accept the idea of reporting their time in fifteen minute increments.
Both situations are illustrative from a couple of different perspectives. For starters, solutions are being recommended that can work. The reason they are being brought forward is that the person making the suggestion has successfully seen the approach be applied elsewhere. So there is the potential for theoretical relevance. At the same time, there is a very different question about whether what is being proposed can work here. And this is where things get messy and awkward. As I’ve argued before, culture matters. No matter how good a solution is, if the culture can’t accept it then it’s not going to work.
The challenge is sensitizing people to this reality. And this is where ideology gets in the way. Someone has a solution in mind. They are convinced of its rightness and reasonability, because it is a solution that is right and reasonable for them. Getting them to look beyond their personal experience, and evaluate the relevance of their approach in the larger context of the organization they are now dealing with can be a very difficult thing to do.
There’s a reason we develop ideological viewpoints on right and wrong, of course. Part of this is that we believe in what has worked for us before. We simply assume that it will work again. But we do this without any necessary recognition of the cultural or contextual reasons why it worked in the first place, or whether those factors still hold true were we are now.
As well (and I say this not as judgement, but as statement of fact) we’re cognitively lazy. It’s how we make decisions, and it’s how we learn how to do things. Once we have a process that works for us, we tend not to go looking for another one. At the same time, we tend to overlook whatever faults that process has. If it gets us the results we need, even if the way it does is less than optimal, then that is very often good enough for us. We’re not likely to be triggered to abandon one approach for the other unless our current approach quite literally stops working.
A different but no less significant challenge centres around how we learn—and how we are taught—process. What we’re discussing are complex and nuanced approaches to managing. Project management, change management and strategy all have a lot of moving parts. We recognize and acknowledge that there are political, organizational and interpersonal nuances that we have to manage and deal with.
In order to learn these complex processes, though, they are necessarily simplified. We structure them into discrete steps. We draw boundaries and boxes. We present the process as a linear, logical path. The presumption is that you can start at the beginning, and faithfully follow the process to the end, you will be successful as a result. Because that’s how we are taught, it’s how we remember the process, and how we think about it. It is also how we apply it, and how we introduce it to others. And if something doesn’t work, then we are all the more rigorous about following all the steps and ticking all of the boxes the next time.
What we don’t acknowledge, and what is more difficult to see, are all the fuzzy edges, the overlaps and the gaps in how the process works in reality. We see linear flow, rather than meandering pathways with tangents, loop-backs, revisions and wholesale jumps. We see boxes containing specific steps and actions, rather than fuzzy, overlapping suggestions and possibilities. We see a fixed answer, rather than a number of alternatives and questions.
The irony is that while we know the environment is messy, that people are indecisive and that politics are complex, there is a tendency to presume that the appropriate response is more rigorous process. The fuzzier and more complex the environment, the more formal the response often becomes. There is an inherent—and very human—rationale for doing this, in that the less in control a situation appears, the more we presume that control must be imposed. Often, however, this just compounds the problem.
The more that we know our process, the more that we have a linear preference that values structure and hierarchy, and the more we tend to have one process rather than an array of alternatives, the more ideological we are likely to be. We are more likely to be fixed, insistent and unmoving in how we think the situation should be approached. And we are much less likely to be open to another alternative.
So how do we get ourselves down from this ideological precipice? That’s an interesting challenge to explore. In my view, there are a few strategies that can help.
The first, and possibly the most important, is being open to alternative approaches. We need to recognize that there are—almost always—multiple ways to solve a problem. We may well have our preferred approach. And we need to realize that the reasons it’s our preferred approach is because it is the one that we know best. But that’s not to say that it’s the only approach. Stepping back and consciously acknowledging the possibility of alternative ways of proceeding is a necessary first step.
Not only should we be open to alternative approaches, we should actively seek them out. We should learn them, or at the very least be exposed to their essential features and principles. The more options we are familiar with, the more tools that we are adept with and the more processes we understand, the more flexible we can be. More importantly, our conversance with multiple approaches and methodologies doesn’t simply allow us to pick the most appropriate one. Instead, we are able to weave together new solutions, drawing the best from each in order to most appropriately address the problem at hand.
Finally, we need to maintain situational awareness of the environment we are in. We need to be sensitive to culture. We need to consciously ask, “Can this work here?” We need to be open and flexible in our approach, and willing to adapt it to what makes sense.
There are times, of course, when we are actually trying to nudge the culture to evolve. Like the methodology implementation I used as an example earlier, there will be instances where we are actually trying to create a new and different approach. We want to support the organization in working differently, and in realizing different outcomes. Even in these instances, we need to start from an understanding of where the culture is now, and what’s possible from here. Massive steps and wholesale change are rarely going to be accepted, no matter how well meaning the intention or well argued the case.
Change is possible where people see value. New approaches can be adopted when there is recognition that different ways can work, and there is a belief that a new way will allow people to be more successful than what they know and is in place today. Adopting that new way requires being able to connect it to what is done currently, and see it as a progressive evolution. Effective process is—and always will be—driven most by nuance and context. Ideology has no place here. The first step to change is letting that go.