Discover more from The Beautiful Mess
TBM 256: The Slide
Note: As always, remember that I draw on interactions with hundreds of companies (and my own past experiences) when writing posts. I have notebooks filled with observations, as well as drawings, diagrams, etc. While I do work full-time at a company, I never draw from my current company for post material.
In the first part of this post, I will describe The Slide. Then, I will propose some ideas about how to extract your team from The Swirl.
I can guarantee that at some point in your career, you've experienced The Slide. Things stop making sense. Team confidence drops. It becomes hard to know what is going on objectively. Everyone has a pet explanation for what's causing The Slide, but no one is right. Or everyone is right, but no one is RIGHT. The team is in a funk and it it seems like you’re sliding down an endless slide.
What's going on?
As people become more and more overwhelmed, they begin to lose self-awareness about how they are spending their time and how they are investing their energy. You might ask someone, "What did you do this week?" and in some cases, they won't even really be able to remember. It's all a blur.
As people become increasingly overwhelmed, they also tend to make mistakes. Objectively, in a different setting, these might be avoidable mistakes. But in an environment characterized by overload, these mistakes happen more often.
As people make mistakes more often, they tend to lose confidence. They're less confident about speaking up. They're less confident in their assessments of situations. They're less confident that they are correctly identifying what might be contributing to their problems.
As confidence levels decrease, you start to notice an assessment emerge that existing leaders, managers, and teams lack the experience required for the current challenge. "No one seems to have conviction!" "Everyone seems to be second-guessing themselves!" "This happened on their watch, so they are the problem."
As the desire to bring in new managers increases, we also see an influx of people who may be skilled but may lack context and may try well-worn practices that work in other environments, but that ultimately will fall flat amid the swirl.
As seemingly avoidable mistakes increase, we see trust dropping. "How did they miss that?" "Why did they agree to do that?" "Why are we seeing bugs again?"
As trust drops and teams/individuals lose confidence that the issue will be addressed, people inevitably bring up issues less often. There's no real incentive to do so. They'll be put on the witness stand, or they'll take that time to bring up an issue, only to find out there's no possibility of addressing that issue.
When outcomes suffer, there's more and more pressure to identify the problem. There's more and more pressure to identify that single thing causing the problem. Finger-pointing increases. Scrutiny increases. Trust decreases. Transparency decreases. People become more territorial and more defensive.
As outcomes suffer, the team loses confidence in their strategy. They are more likely to adopt a 'peanut butter' strategy, spreading efforts thinly instead of focusing on a small number of things. In effect, when nothing seems to be working, or at least nothing is a standout, you're more likely to feel like you must try everything. Of course, this increases work in progress and context switching and ultimately reduces the chances that anything will work.
As pressure to identify the problem increases, so does confirmation bias related to a handful of problems. People hang their hat on an explanation and then become attached to it. You start to see camps develop around specific explanations for what's happening. People become less open-minded that they are, in fact, part of the problem and that the problem is probably a result of many factors combined.
As pressure to identify the problem increases and outcomes decrease, the likelihood of accepting external assessments of the problem, whether right or wrong, increases. So you're more likely to see leaders latch on to specific feedback from an advisor or someone else because they are struggling to make sense of things, and this person walks in with a very concrete assessment. In many of those cases, those assessments lack any real context.
As transparency decreases, it becomes increasingly hard to know what is happening or to trust what you see in front of you. Are you getting the whole truth? Or are you getting a version of the truth that assumes low trust?
When trust drops, we are less likely to accept no as an answer. "Why not?" "What else do you have going on?" "Let's review all your projects in progress and see where this one fits in?"
As transparency decreases, you also see much more information being exchanged in one-on-ones and small groups. So, people aren't necessarily hearing the whole picture from everyone. When someone has a particular agenda, they will manufacture a situation where they can deliver that information privately.
As it gets harder and harder to get things done, people are less likely to want to take responsibility or assume accountability for getting things done. At the same time, if no one can get things done, there's no real penalty for taking responsibility for something and not getting around to it.
As the normalization and even reward of taking on too much work continues, we observe higher utilization rates and increased work-in-progress levels, leading to a slowdown in overall progress.
When it is hard to get things done, people must consider their career advancement, performance reviews, and next job prospects. So they're more likely to take on new, high-profile projects that they know will never get done, but buy them enough time to build their resume and increase their salary. In other words, the optics of what you're trying to get done outweigh the reality of what you're trying to get done.
The harder things are to get done, the more we normalize it being hard to get things done. "It's just hard to get things done in this environment." As the perception that it's difficult to get things done increases, we also tend to observe people work around whatever guidelines are in place to get things done when needed.
As workarounds increase, we begin to see a shadow framework emerge, where people who know how to work around the system get things done, and people who work within the system can't get things done. So, we reward people who work outside the system. This encourages people to work outside the system, making it difficult to figure out what is happening.
As the number of problems increases, the likelihood that bringing up any specific problem will lead to change decreases. "How can we tackle that problem when we've got this other problem we're trying to fix?" More and more problems become chronic, making it harder to fix those problems and leaving less bandwidth to resolve the more acute challenges.
As people take on more and more work, and things go slower and slower, the sheer cognitive load of trying to understand everything in progress increases. Before you know it, people spend 50% of their week just trying to make sense of everything happening. Of course, as time spent managing the workload increases, the percentage of time available to work decreases, making things slower and harder to get anything done.
As people become more and more overwhelmed, their ability to push back on commitments and push back on work decreases. They simply can't muster enough energy to push back. Before they know it, they've walked out of meetings agreeing to a lot of new work and are unsure why.
As outcomes suffer, reactivity increases. You're more likely to be forced to do something than to necessarily be thoughtful about doing that thing. "Our hand was forced!" "We had to think fast!" "We had no other choice!"
As reactivity increases, so does the sense from the team that things are largely beyond their control. They will work towards some goal or outcome, and then, at the last minute, things will change 180 degrees. This means there's less motivation to commit to anything because they're sure things will change.
As it becomes harder to bring up challenges, you start finding more people checking out and biding their time. They are in wait-and-see mode. It's not in their best interest to continue bringing up challenges. At the same time, their confidence level is low, they are tired, they might not be motivated to find a new job, and there might be significant incentives to stick around, like stock options, etc.
As the problem becomes more complex and wicked, we see the probability of anyone making a difference go down. So there's a lot of trying, and it's unlikely that any of those things will work. This means confidence decreases, fatigue increases, and change tolerance decreases.
As the likelihood of bringing up problems decreases, you tend to see an increase in either anonymously delivered feedback or a lack of diversity in overall feedback. This has the net effect of making people question how bad the problems are. If people aren't speaking up, and only the most outspoken people are bringing anything up, what is happening?
If this happens at any scale, the more wicked the problem becomes, the less likely that anyone can fit it in their head. It's very hard, for example, to process the idea that the whole organization is operating in a degraded mode. That's extremely uncomfortable and very hard to wrap your head around. As that cognitive dissonance increases, so does our tendency to find whatever convenient explanation we have.
As leaders have less and less bandwidth and are increasingly experiencing cognitive overload, their capacity for processing any subtle issues or nuanced problems decreases. As that drops, people simplify problems before presenting them. That has the net effect of removing salient information, and it becomes more likely that the team will proceed by making the wrong decision.
Overall, as confidence in the collective mission decreases, we tend to see increased territorialism and a 'tragedy of the commons' situation emerge, whereby people are willing to take actions locally that sacrifice the overall outcomes of the collective.
I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.
Why did I list all of these things?
This is not like bringing your car to an auto mechanic and walking away with a fixed car. We're dealing with a wicked problem, and wicked problems can't be solved like fixing a car.
If you've ever experienced a problem like this in your personal life, and most of us have, you'll remember what it took to snap yourself out of it:
Hitting rock bottom,
A major health scare,
A forced change of scenery (or an accidental change of scenery),
A new circle of friends, a change in who you interacted with,
Some new habit or experience sticking, it just felt better,
Someone who believed in you and supported you,
Running out of money,
A life-changing conversation, or event,
A resolution that somehow stuck, even if you didn't expect it to,
An ultimatum from someone,
A burden released from your life,
Sometimes, something much more subtle; it just happened,
These things go beyond the rational and are often more visceral and sensory. Your body began to move differently. For some reason, we permitted ourselves to consider a new way forward. New surroundings, new interactions, new constraints, etc.
Applied to companies, when I have seen organizations reverse the slide, there are some similar characteristics.
Behavior, on a very core level, changed. People were doing different things with their bodies and their brains.
The solution went beyond some rationalized fix to a specific problem. Again, it was more visceral. It was less about a fix and more about new behavior patterns and building trust that trying those new things was possible and acceptable.
For some time, there was a suspension of disbelief. There was an invitation to try new behaviors, and people tried those things without second-guessing or triple-guessing what they were doing. At a high level, there was permission to do less. There was permission to say no. Instead of relying on people's rational sense of what was happening, someone permitted people not to worry about something.
The team had air cover. Someone was able to get up in front of everyone and say, "I know things have been tough, and for things to get better, we may need to slow down to speed up, and I am okay with that."
The rules of the game had been slightly altered. People believed that new patterns were possible. There was messaging that new patterns were possible, and people's behavior reinforced that new things were okay in this new setting.
Finally, someone created an outlet for the collective trauma. Being in these situations is traumatic, on many levels, so at some point someone gave the required signals or triggers that let people know it was safe to grieve those things."
A lot of this flys int he face of our innate need to “fix”.
In many ways, it is about feeling and doing. We are feeling and acting our way into new patterns, with a level of aircover and support.
Some questions to consider:
It is two years from now. What plausible paths might your company have taken to reverse the slide? How does that compare to what you have been trying?
What new behavior might you experiment with to let people "feel" a potentially better way? What would be required to leave people feeling safe in giving this a go?
What rational (but unlikely to succeed) solutions is your company holding on to? Why?
Looking at the various loops mentioned above, where can you take action to at least stabilize the situation?
Instead of thinking about “the problem”, how might you create an attractor of some sort?
How has “the problem” become part of the company’s identity?