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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sounds Good. Doesn't Work.

     Things were well beyond just tense. There had been at least one fistfight out on the floor. Something had to be done.
     So the boss called in a consultant to conduct a workshop on conflict management.
The following events illustrate how true facts can be irrelevant. 

     The conflict was real and had to be resolved. Unfortunately, the expectation was that clearing out the bad behavior would rectify the situation. Focusing on the obvious is a standard temptation for managers, and there always is a price to be paid.
    In this case, the conflict management workshop was held, and the whole crew was there.
     Everybody dutifully followed the directions and went through the exercises and discussions without incident. And without conviction.
     The manager (who actually was the owner) did not attend the training session, so the consultant met with him afterward for debriefing.

     The report: The training participants probably picked up a few pointers on how to get along, but that wasn’t the issue on the trainer’s mind. The dozen-plus people in the room had behaved OK, but they obviously were guarded, withholding their emotional involvement.
     There probably would not be any more physical combat on the job, but there wouldn’t be much collaboration either, if indeed there would be any.
     And that -- collaboration -- was the real issue.
     The organization had serious problems, beyond (but including) the behavior of a few undisciplined people. While the conflict was real and needed to stop, it was a misplaced fond hope to seize on it as the answer. Fixing the relationships would leave untouched the underlying challenge.
     Here’s why: The organization’s funding was diminishing, and it would have to do more with less if it was to survive.

     A device manufacturer in the healthcare industry, the company received government funding for its products. Payment was subject to strict guidelines that, in the best of times, typically left the organization short of what it considered a reasonable return. The rules were getting stricter and funding was being cut, so there had to be changes.
     In fact, part of the current stress resulted from a 30 percent staff reduction over the previous few years.
     The group had never been a model of teamwork, but that had been no big deal in earlier times because most of the work was done by individuals working alone. There was only limited need for communication and collaboration among them back then. The petty frictions arising from idle remarks and, occasionally, the use of shared resources had no appreciable effect on performance.
     But now, as the financial squeeze got worse, the workload was growing, the workforce was shrinking and revenue was declining.

     There would have to be closer and more collaborative working partnerships.      
     Both speed and quality had to improve. Materials had to be more professionally handled, cross-training would have to be seriously pursued and tighter interdependence practiced all around.
     This crew was pretty short, to say the least, of engaging in any of that.
     Well, the boss didn’t see it that way. His perspective was shaped by the looming financial crunch, and accounted only superficially for the point of view out on the workfloor. Time was short and the stakes were high.
     His take: Cut out the fighting and get along, and we’ll all have jobs tomorrow. Oh, and get going on these new things we didn’t have to do before.
     The consultant, on the other hand, saw culture change, the most complex and difficult element in any organizational initiative. And this one would be fundamental, beginning with a state of dysfunction well behind a reasonable starting line.

     The reorganization, however logical and necessary, could not be a quick fix. Attempting to change processes, work assignments and roles in the current ugly climate could be disastrous. Here was a case where logic and necessity ran hard up against reality.
     This situation, so like many in organizations of all kinds, hadn’t come to crisis abruptly, although it seemed that way to all the people involved in it.
     Some phenomena look insignificant as they arrive – and perhaps they are. Their subsequent evolution into meaningful factors often is unnoticed. In this case, outside funding with its accompanying regulation was an example of that.
     Other things that have long existed undergo change that swells and then may explode into a real problem. The cost of materials, facilities and qualified personnel fits that description.
     Minor adjustments along the way can reduce the effects, and may actually encourage the belief that change will continue to be small and manageable. And then it isn’t.

     Hanging on to a habit of quick-and-simple solutions can then go too far, and when it does it can be fatal.
     In the hierarchy of things that aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, there are root problems and symptomatic problems.   
     Symptomatic problems are real, and they cause damage.  The tricky truth is that, while they need to be resolved, they’ll keep popping up if they are dealt with in isolation. 
     The matter can resurface in the same place or ignite somewhere else. It might change somewhat in form or appearance, but it just doesn’t go away. Something keeps it going.
     Those continuing causes are root problems, and they're are different. They usually are broad and often systemic. Like a deep infection, they can sap organizational quality and momentum over long periods if they are not addressed.
     Root problems usually cause damage indirectly, triggering effects whose source can be somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Those effects are symptomatic problems and it is not unusual for them to generate their own negatives, further obscuring the real causes.

     That makes it easy for a superficial inspection to mischaracterize the situation, thinking a quick fix will take care of it.
     The root causes themselves frequently are not obvious at all. Although there often are hints of their dark presence under the surface, it’s not that hard to focus on other things rather than stir the water.
     Real problems are really scary, and there can be an unspoken conspiracy to tiptoe around them rather than touch off a possibly uncomfortable situation. Not a good response. Real problems don’t just fade away, and they typically just keep getting worse.
     When nothing is done about these root problems, the continuing effects include an erosion of morale and productivity. Higher-quality personnel start taking flight for better places. Sooner or later, there is catastrophe of some sort.
     The outcome is much more damaging than facing the issue at the beginning would have been.

     In the case of the healthcare device company, that avoidance didn’t happen.
     The owner agreed to a thorough study of the situation, which exposed serious shortcomings in management problem-solving and decision-making.
     Because everyone was frustrated, the committed members of the group were behaving as badly as the true troublemakers. That happens when the major processes of an organization are malfunctioning.
     It was neither pleasant nor easy to make the necessary changes, but they were made. The essential structure was straightened out, a few people were asked to leave and some were assigned new duties. The worker bees joined in integrating the improved work methods and it all was humming along within three months.
     Even the best of us are reluctant, at times, to interrupt our busy work lives and spend time and attention on some nagging little variance – or even one not so little. We find reasons to put it off. We can be tempted by some painless, plausible quick fix.  

     Peter Drucker, the management guru, said real decisions call for “the C word – courage.” Real problems call for those real decisions.


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