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How to untangle a thorny problem that persists despite the best efforts of your leadership team

The Situation: The senior vice president of a government contracting firm needed help in solving what appeared to be an unsolvable situation. He had recently learned that one of the teams had been completely ignoring critical terms of large contracts and instead was using ad hoc procedures that were completely out of compliance.  

Needless to say, the director responsible for the team was frantic. He recognized how out of hand the situation had become but he was stymied as to how to rectify it. A variety of solutions had been tried over the past year but all had been ineffective. Employees had resorted to hiding requisitions for documentation in the bottom of file cabinets. Emails were flying back and forth with more than 30 people cc’d at a time. People were terrified of losing their jobs and even worse, the situation was ripe for cover up which of course could lead to horrible legal consequences. The VP asked if I could help.

The challenge: In my first meeting the challenge became clear: they needed a solution that would untangle the problem – with integrity – while preserving the company’s relationship with its customers. This was a tough task because the team and the broader organization were currently in defense mode. The director needed help to change the team’s mindset from one of reactive fear to an atmosphere in which the team would feel safe enough to disclose the root causes and collaborate on creating a lasting solution.

The solution: The SVP and his director needed a plan that would navigate to a resolution by avoiding a focus on blame, creating an atmosphere of trust, and engaging the creative problem-solving capacities of the people who were actually involved in implementing the solution.

I knew that it was essential that the team be viewed as more than an advisory task force. I asked the SVP and his director if they would entrust the team to come up with a solution that the company would commit to implementing (assuming of course that it was reasonably feasible). They agreed. There is nothing more demoralizing in this type of situation than to be part of a group that “advises” with no real authority or responsibility. In order for the solution to be truly effective and accurately implemented, the team needed to be responsible for developing and executing the solution.

We started by bringing in out-of-town team members for face-to-face meetings. I then coached the group using a structure that is based on inquiry and eliminates ‘shoot from the hip’ reactions. Although everyone felt great pressure to resolve this quickly, we needed to start by doing the opposite – slow down the process to increase reflection and creativity. This served to reduce confrontation and grandstanding. It was deceptively simple but counter-intuitive to the group.

The result: The group developed a solution for the immediate “hair on fire” situation (i.e., critical documents being shoved in the bottom of the file drawer) and implemented processes to prevent a recurrence of behavior that got them into this situation in the first place. Not only were the short- and long-term problems solved, but the directors had gone through a “team building” experience that increased dedication to the organization and to each other.

Key takeaways for leaders:

  • When faced with a seeming intractable problem, don’t assume that all of the contributing factors are known or well understood.
  • Avoid focusing on blame; assume that each problematic element may have previously been a “solution.”
  • Do not create advisory task forces. Committees such as these often come up with impractical solutions for others who are uninvested in their success.
  • Bring together people at all levels of the problem and empower them to define the solutions.
  • Create a climate of safety and trust to engage the creative problem-solving capacities of those people those who will be responsible for implementing the solution.

If you are interested in how you might apply these concepts and other psychologically informed principles to solving the seemingly intractable problems in your organization, please contact me at joanne.irving@i2aa.com or (301) 943-3074.

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