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TBM 253: Don't Fix Things. Write a New Story
Some thoughts on why the push to “align on the problem” is often counterproductive, and why a better approach is to focus on breaking the narrative stalemate with a better story.
Companies are filled with (often competing) narratives about what is broken, why, and what to do about it.
These narratives vary and are heavily influenced by people's worldview, perspective, tenure at the company, personal experiences, and skills and knowledge (among other factors). For example, some people are biased toward individual performance or specific team dynamics explanations. Others tend to gravitate to narratives that involve systemic organizational issues, cultural dynamics, strategy (or lack thereof), and incentives.
We also look to our go-to strengths or tools to solve our version of the problem:
When you have a hammer, you look for nails.
When you're a systems thinker, you look for patterns and interconnections.
When you're a charismatic leader, you look for moments to inspire and rally people.
As we become more entrenched in our views, we construct a reinforcing loop of self-justification that insulates us from differing perspectives. "It's obviously a/n _____________ problem, and we just need to _____________."
When two or more people with authority and influence (formal or otherwise) have competing narratives for what's broken, why, and what to do about it, you can end up with a narrative stalemate. You tend to observe:
An attempt to rally others around the competing narratives, creating factions in the organization. Each faction pushes its agenda, leading to even more conflict.
People no longer listen to understand but rather to respond and defend their positions.
The focus shifts from solving the actual problem to winning the narrative battle. The original issue becomes secondary to the conflict between competing stories.
Complex problems become oversimplified as each side reduces the issue to fit their understanding and perspective.
Power plays overshadow collaborative problem-solving
Once locked in a narrative stalemate, you'll need something BIG to flip the dynamic: a leadership change, an external crisis, etc. The important point here is that the problem stops becoming about the actual problem (which itself was fiction because, in sociotechnical systems, there is rarely a single "actual problem"). The narrative battle becomes The Problem—the thing getting in the way of forward progress.
So, how can this help you change your company? Trigger an existential threat?
It might work—but it's not advisable.
It's easy to share a narrative when you have an existential threat. People stop thinking about their version of the problem and focus on stopping the existential threat. But Without an existential threat, you can still work to craft and support a narrative that essentially gives people a "way out" of their differences.
Your job, in effect, is to weave a story where people can still play the hero and protagonist of their narrative while at the same time getting people to row in the same direction, united by some common cause. Great leaders foster conditions where the "actors" can shape their collective narrative instead of trying to own and micromanage it.
In many ways, this runs in the face of the standard advice that you must "align on a definition of the problem" or "go deep" to discover a mythical root cause. What matters more is that people can cohere their narrative with a path forward—they can literally "be part of" the solution.
It also points to an important truth:
Companies slip into ruts and develop "problems" when they lack a positive narrative (a goal, a strategy, a mission, etc.) that unites people despite their different narratives for what might be broken at that particular moment. Without that, they slip into a narrative stalemate, and the battle of the problem narrative becomes The Problem.