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Recently, I was meeting with a small team of high-level managers. We were gathered around the conference room table wrestling with a challenge that they had identified as their “most pressing.”
Because company revenue was built on projects, at times some teams would be working 60-70 hours a week, while other teams had very little to do. Through a short exercise they determined that at any one point in time, approximately:
All members agreed this was untenable if they wanted to successfully move the company to the next level.
Having seemingly identified the problem, the group moved to brainstorming solutions. It wasn’t long before Charles, 6'5" with a deep baritone voice, said, “What we need is a meeting every month to talk about the human resources we can share with each other.”
What happened next was quite interesting.
That’s what happened. I looked around to see six other managers hyper focused on their pens, their notepads, their phones, their fingernails. You get the point. No one made eye contact with another. And so, we waited.
After about 30 seconds of complete silence (yes, it felt much longer), I asked, “What do you think of Charles’s idea? Should we schedule a monthly meeting where you all can talk about sharing team members with one another?” Again, silence. And so, we waited longer.
Thankfully, the silence afforded me time to consider why a once robust conversation was now on life support. “Are any of you reticent to share one of your team members with another manager at this table?” I asked.
I’ll be forever grateful to Dawn, a soft-spoken but influential manager, for being the first to break the silence and admit that she would be hesitant to lend a member of her team to another team. We proceeded to have an hour-long discussion on why. A few of the reasons articulated:
Promotions and compensation are impacted by the size of my team and the scope of the projects that I lead.
Historically, managers who lead larger teams have received greater accolades.
Having a large team is more prestigious.
What happens if, at the end of the year, our executives see that my team did our job with 50% of the workforce? Will they think that I only need that number for the upcoming year?
While all of these were powerful insights, I was most impressed with Dawn’s rhetorical question:
“What if my employee likes working for another manager more than working for me?”
It was a powerful conversation. The most important conversation I had witnessed this team have.
UNDERSTANDING ADAPTIVE & TECHNICAL CHALLENGES
Why was it so important? Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, co-founders of Cambridge Leadership Associates, brilliantly distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are those that can be fixed with expertise. You need a new roof? Call a roofer. Your car is pulling to the left? Take it to a mechanic for alignment. If issues are truly technical, the applied solution should fix the problem and make today better.
Here’s the point: Technical issues are like a leaky roof. Most likely your team will not debate whether it should be fixed, and no one will feel a deep emotional connection with the leaky roof or a sense of loss when it's fixed!
Adaptive issues, on the other hand, are rooted in deeply held beliefs and values. Kevin Ford, a dear friend and colleague, describes these as “transformational.” Whatever we call them, these types of challenges reach deep and connect with the dreams, fears, passions and anxieties of the stakeholders.
Adding to the complexity, adaptive issues are characterized by competing values, a tension between two or more good things. Competing values, by definition, are inversely related. As one increases, the other decreases (e.g. flexibility vs. stability; collaboration vs. independence).
AVOIDING THE PITFALL
Let’s go back to the management team. Imagine that the team reluctantly adopted the idea to add a monthly meeting to share resources. Imagine you are a manager at that first meeting, and you mention that your team is overworked and desperately trying to hit a near impossible deadline that is critical for the company’s Q1 success.
You request additional resources only to hear your colleagues respond, “My team is about to kick-off a huge project,” “I have a few people who are taking PTO, so now is not a good time to move them temporarily to another team,” “I have assigned my group to do some critical research on our next project.”
The entire exercise would result in a meeting that does not have any discernible benefit. In and of itself, that would be frustrating enough.
However, that’s not the only downside. As you walk around the department over the next month you begin to notice another manager’s team surfing the web or playing Candy Crush Saga. You see them arrive late and leave early. Perhaps they take extra-long lunch breaks or discuss last night’s happy hour at length.
Meanwhile your team is working 70 hours a week. It would be quite natural for your frustration to turn to anger and your anger to bitterness. The byproduct: diminished trust between you and their manager.
Ironically, instead of solving the problem we would have actually made it worse! This is what happens when we apply a technical solution (e.g. monthly meeting) to an adaptive issue, which can rarely be solved with a one-and-done decision. Ultimately, yesterday’s "solution" becomes today’s biggest problem.
Ironically, instead of solving the problem we would have actually made it worse!
Tackling adaptive issues require a more transformative resolution. What starts with multiple honest and awkward conversations may lead to realigning policies, incentives, metrics, and culture—to match company strategy and long-term goals. "Success" may need to be redefined for individuals and teams.
A WAY FORWARD
These managers needed to balance the competing values of individual rewards, respect and accolades for leading a large team versus allocating resources effectively to get stuff done and advance the company’s priorities and objectives. As we continued to work, they discussed a re-design of incentive metrics so that all teams were incentivized on a collective set of company projects, which would drive managers to assign resources to the projects most critical for corporate success. Working with HR, they also made some compensation changes to encourage resource sharing.
While still a work in progress, we found a way for managers to navigate the situation more effectively. And, just as significant, they built trust in each other as they shared more transparently about their own anxieties, fears and concerns.
I'd love to hear others chime in. To get the discussion going I'll pose a couple questions:
Have you faced a similar situation, where the issue was clear but the resolution was super tricky?
Have you worked somewhere that a corporate “value” was in conflict with a methodology?
Adaptive issues can cause a company to stall out, to find themselves stuck in one place or in a repeating cycle of frustration. The conversations and work necessary to discover and tackle these issues can be uncomfortable and stressful. Sometimes, an experienced, third-party can help leaders find their way—faster and with relationships not only intact, but improved.
Do you think you or your team might be stuck? If you find yourself facing the same problem over and over, it’s possible. At Chris Joyner Advising, LLC, our mission is to: Help Growth Minded Leaders Create Alignment. To learn more about how we can partner with you, send us a note.