Sunday, October 15, 2017

How can your team deal with complex challenges ?

Most of the challenges facing leaders today are complex. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model separates the types of situations leaders are confronted with into simple, complicated, complex and chaos, and indicates how each should be dealt with differently (HBR November 2007). A complex challenge requires leaders to probe, sense and respond. How can this model be applied to a team ?

When teams are invited to solve a problem or find solutions for a challenge, they nearly always intuitively move into solution mode very quickly. Each will mentally assess the situation, categorize or analyze the facts and then share which solution is the best and why this is so. “I think we should do this because I used to …”. Experts often save the day. Brainstorming helps to share as many ideas as possible in a short period of time so the team can respond quickly to the issue. Advocating solutions, expert input, brainstorming or sharing best practices works for simple or complicated problems where the Cynefin model prescribes the steps of sense, categorize, respond, and sense, analyze, respond respectively. Simple and complicated problems are prevalent in an “ordered” world where actions have predictable results. Approaching complex problems in the same way leads to half-optimized solutions at best and a team stuck in disagreement at worst; it is often up to the leader to decide what to do. So much for the team’s contribution !

How can a team work through the steps of probing, sensing and responding and tackle complex problems efficiently ?

That’s exactly what Action Learning does. Action Learning is a problem solving process where a small team works on a real and complex business challenge, takes action and learns as individuals and as a team while doing so. Rather than jumping into solution-mode, the ground rule “statements are only made in response to questions” helps the team focus first on what the real issue or challenge is. Perceptions and assumptions are put aside as the team asks questions about the different aspect of the problem. This corresponds to the probing step in the Cynefin model.

Based on the discussion and exchanges in the Action Learning session, each team member will decide what actions to take after the session. They can take action to test out an idea, confirm an assumption or talk to people to collect more information. This is the sensing step in the Cynefin model.

When the team reconvenes to continue their work on the challenge, each will share the result of their actions and what they learned from them. The team will take in this new information about the challenge, and continue to work on shaping the understanding of the situation through questions. This is the responding step in the model. 

For a leader, the Cynefin model describes how to deal with a complex challenge. When this leader wants to empower the team to learn, develop and come up with new ideas, the Action Learning process provides a clear structure and rules to avoid the pitfall of tackling complex challenges through the ubiquitous brainstorming-like “let’s find the solution” approach.

Monday, October 9, 2017

What does your trust look like ?

This is a picture of an ice-selling shop near where I live. The first time I went there to buy ice, nobody was in. I shouted a couple of times and waited a few minutes but it remained all quiet. The next time I tried the same, a little girl of about 5 years came out to help me put the ice in the bag and take the money. When our business transaction was nearly finished an adult showed up. So I told him that it was difficult to find someone around to buy ice from. He explained me the established operating procedure.

Anyone buying ice selects one of the plastic bags hanging behind the blue ice tank. There are three sizes. Filled with ice, they cost 3, 5 or 10 Thai baht. You can pick ice from the blue tank, with the big ice cubes, or the red tank, with the small tube-like ice cubes. Or you can mix both. Once you have filled your plastic bag to the rim with ice, you drop either 3 or 5 or 10 Thai baht in a rusty cup. There is no sign "put your money here" ! And that's how the ice shop works. So once I knew the ropes, I became one of their self-service customers.

"How can they trust strangers ? Don't people come and steal ice, or pay less than they should ?" I don't know the answers. But the shop has been operating for ages, and I guess they would have changed the system if it didn't work.

This is what trust looks like in this particular situation. Trust is a word with meaning, and is often used in a very general and conceptual way. We often say trust is important. So what does your trust look like ? With your team members ? Peers ? Clients ? Concretely. What do you do or say or don't do or refrain from saying, that established trust with those around you ?