If you want to succeed at driving change…

If you want to succeed at driving change, practice drawing pictures.  Specifically, practice drawing pictures of either what the future looks like or what the journey to the future looks like.”- April Mills (2011)

So, you might ask, “how do I draw a picture of the future?” And Laurie actually did ask that very question. And it is a good question to ask, especially if you are not used to drawing pictures of the future. Future what? Well, that is the point. In fact, we probably want to use some or all of Kipling’s honest men, the stout fellows – What, Why, When, How, Where and Who.

Ask yourself, and those engaged with you, “what do we want?” You can often describe the “what” in a sentence or two. Make sure the description makes sense to you. Then share it with others.  That will help trigger other questions. You don’t necessarily need to know the answers yet. In fact, you may not know the answers for quite some time. In some cases, hold off on the “How” for a while. Using “How” too quickly might keep you from figuring out the “What”.

My question was “What do organizations need to be able to address complex problems?” Note that I do not ask “How” yet, for that keeps me from thinking of the details of the “What”. I also note that I do not say “solve” complex problems, since complex problems by their very nature are very, very hard to solve. I just want to make things discernibly better than they are today.  So that is my first box:

Partly, that is because a problem is complex if there are many different stakeholders and their solutions are mutually incompatible. If I make Frank happy, Jane will be upset. That will not do!

I start to try to discuss this question and there are lots of ideas from people that I bring it to. That is good, but getting them to agree is pretty hard – whoops, there is an element – we need to be able to converse about the complex problem without getting locked into our mental models. I think I just found a second box.

You might say ”But I have lots of conversations”. And you probably do. Step back and think about this a bit. A conversation can be one on one, it can be a meeting, it can be someone addressing a large group. How do those conversations go for you? Do you get lots of agreement? And do the actions that are agreed upon happen when and as they are promised? If you start to think about it and come to recognize that a lot of conversations are not fruitful, you have merely joined most of the world. Only a small fraction of the world has fruitful conversations. If they are fruitless, aggravating and frustrating, learn how to have a better conversation.

My third box comes once we can converse productively, and we need to decide what tool or tools to use to work on the problem. It does little good to use a hammer to cut a plank of wood. So, that means we need to be able to divide our problems in classes, and then choose the correct tools to match the class of problem. We will be a lot better off when we have this conversation, as it helps to get to the correct class and thus the correct tools. Selecting the correct tools is the fourth box.

If we have trouble with the conversation, we can fall into any number of traps, including a black hole as we disagree over the tools and never get started, or we chose the tool the loudest person likes and knows, and spend lots of time but still don’t  make progress on the problem. You are now in the “How” question phase. You also are in the “Who” question phase. You need people to make this happen. Let us assume you had a good conversation, and thus could decide on the correct tool, How to use the tools and who to get on the team, what comes next?

I propose that next is the ability to execute the plan, the project, whatever you want to call the effort that you will undertake to improve the situation, using the tools you selected. This means you need people, with the skills to execute, and the hardware and the software for them to get done whatever you decided to get done. Implementing is the fifth box.

Once you get moving, you need to be able tell if you are making a difference, moving in the right direction. Hopefully, you figured out the way to decide that already, but if not, join the rest of us who try to figure it out on the fly. But, you do need a way to know if things are getting better. It can be pretty easy to fool yourself, so it helps to have hard numbers, a measurement or yardstick that is not relativistic. What does relativistic mean? Lots of people adjust their measurement device – “oh, we only got a 3% improvement when we were aiming for 30%, so we redefined our measurement and we are now EXCELLENT.” Where did the scale go? Don’t look too closely, but it got relativized.

Now you are at a really hard spot. You resisted relativistic effects, so your measurements are good, and the effort is not going anywhere. Nothing is getting better. What should you do? I propose that you need to be able to alter course, starting with asking some questions: Did the world change? Do we have the right people? Are we allowing them enough time to work on this project? Has our sponsor delivered the support we need? Those are just a few of the questions one might ask to assess “Why” your effort has stalled.

Or you might have executed well, and things are going good. You still need to assess. Were your initial goals too low? Can you go further than you designed? Have conditions changed and you might be headed for a stall? Lose a sponsor? The point is – good or bad, you need to periodically assess how the effort is proceeding. And then you need to be able to alter course based on that assessment. Often, your leadership and your team are committed, no matter how you are doing. It can be tough to alter course, but you have the measurements to back up your analysis. That is the next box.

At one of those assessments, you may actually get to call the project complete. Life is better, or it isn’t, but the end is nigh. A crucial steps needs to occur. The assessment needs to include the analysis of the following question – was this luck or skill? And it is crucial to decide this. All those people who touched this project will get the credit or the blame. And that is the way it should be, but think of all the one-hit wonders you have seen. Was that result luck or skill? You really need to decide which are skill and which are luck, otherwise you are playing roulette on every project. And if you promote people based on luck and they get a bigger project, your risk is now raised and you may not even know it. Until it is too late…

So that was eight boxes, and they might look like they come from a bigger napkin – they do. The bigger picture has some red lines on it. They represent feedback from some of the boxes to earlier boxes. And they are arranged in a loop. This is meant to convey that this is a continuous process, not a use once and forget.

If we go back to April’s quote, she advocated drawing either a picture of what the future looks like or a map to get to the future. This picture is actually both. It shows a future where your organization has the capabilities to work on complex problems, it tells you what those capabilities and even though we did not discuss the feedback, it shows how the feedback occurs to improve the overall process and inform specific capabilities. The map also shows you how to get to the future – you decide you want or need this capability, and then you start building each of those that you do not have today. You might build linearly, but since it is a loop, you don’t have to be trapped by linear logic. You can develop all along the loop using the same feedback capability to determine where you are in getting to having the capability to work on complex problems. (Click on the drawing below for a larger view)

The big picture for drawing a map of the seven capabilities that allow an organization to address complex problems.

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