The Problem With Opportunities

When I first read Karen Martin’s book, The Outstanding Organization, her definition of a problem versus opportunity stuck with me.

“In recent years, it has become popular to avoid the word problem in organizations, recasting it instead as an opportunity for improvement. While proponents of using more positive terms are surely well meaning, I think they’ve got it entirely wrong.”

If you are regular reader, you now know why I needed to meet her.

I asked Karen about the real risk of calling problems “opportunities.”

She explained that when a problem is labelled as an “opportunity”, the “urgency is lost.” It feels safer, like something good we are moving toward not something bad we need to overcome as soon as possible.

Leaders in great organizations do both. They create a safe environment for surfacing today’s problems, as well identify opportunities that are likely to surface as they move toward their desired future.

I’ll pause here.

  • Are you encouraging your team to surface problems?
  • How do you react?
  • Do you sugar coat the problems you surface?

“So why are people reluctant to surface the real problems in organizations?”

Karen’s theory? A lot of our fears are grounded in our first experiences with surfacing problems with teachers, parents, or even early bosses. And as life would have it, many of those first experiences were with people who are not “emotionally mature,” and reacted negatively. It’s much easier keep your head down, stay the course, and not elicit a potentially negative response.

“So what about TQM and Lean and Six Sigma programs. That should help address problems, right?”

“Efforts at improvement such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, or Lean may look like they produce positive rsults initially as you straighten some of your pillars of execution, but with a cracked foundation, the pillars start to topple again.”

Her suggestion, don’t treat improvement as an isolated program. The primary preparation of blackbelts should be about becoming “competent coaches” to spread the culture and methodology throughout the organization. For most blackbelts it’s about them “doing,” we need to shift that mindset to helping them become great teachers and coaches.

“What makes you skip to work? 

Of course I had to ask my usual question. She shared,

“I’ve seen first hand that work doesn’t have to be so hard. People can and should feel good about their contributions. There’s no reason for work to deplete people. Helping organizations (and their people) get closer and closer to the goal of being excited to come to work every day makes me skip to work.”

Excellent. Skipping is contagious.

Author, speaker, and consultant, Karen Martin, provides practical strategies and tools for building an Outstanding Organization. The Outstanding Organization: Generate Business Results by Eliminating Chaos and Building the Foundation for Everyday Excellence is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon

 

Chaos Curtailed: How To Shield Your Team

I am a big believer in transparency. Transparency builds trust and creates a trusting and respectful work environment.

Share vision. Share rationale. Share decision-making processes. Don’t share chaos.

Trust me. I’ve learned this one the hard way. Sharing too much may make you feel better, but the stress multiplies as it rolls down hill. Resist the urge and learn to become a buffer.

“Sadly most organizations seemed to have embraced chaos and called it a good thing for an organization. One example is the rising number of job descriptions that include “tolerance for ambiguity’ as a necessary skill. Let me be clear: chaos is never a good thing for an organization. While the world is fluid, and increasingly so, this is no excuse for ambiguity and chaos in organizations. Rather than asking your workforce to accept and develop a skill set around coping with chaos, you should be doing everything you can to reduce the chaos to begin with.”

Your team does not want to…

  • see the stress on your face
  • know about the indecision in the meeting you just left
  • understand the stupid hoops you just jumped through
  • have their schedule jerked around because yours is a moving target
  • have deadlines that creep closer as you get more nervous
  • hear about the pressure you have from those above
  • know about your political or career struggles
  • ???

They do want to…

  • understand the big picture
  • know where they fit in
  • understand what they need to do
  • know which decisions are final
  • understand what is up for discussion
  • know what could still change
  • ???

They are looking for you to…

  • do what you said you would
  • stay the course on your big plans
  • be there to support
  • explain the reasons behind any changes
  • follow through on your commitments
  • ???

It takes courage to buffer the chaos. Teach resilience, but shield as much as you can. They will watch and learn and grow from the experience of watching you do it well.