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№ 22

Patterns of problems (Part One)

Reading time 7 minutes read
I’ve been enchanted with patterns my entire life. Patterns, in all their shapes, facets and form. Visual Patterns. They just have a soothing, effect on me, influencing my wardrobe both as a kid as well as nowadays - still breaking everyday tristesse with geometrical shapes, stripes, flowery patterns or a bouquet of them all. Patterns in logic and thinking -having a knack for maths and languages with their inherent rhythms and structure that allows you to play around once you cracked the code. Then, patterns as en essential tool in strategy: Detecting patterns in behaviors and habits all day every day at my first job at TRENDBÜRO, identifying and understanding emerging patterns that will shape behavior in the future. So, yes patterns have always been part of my life. It's something that just comes intuitively and quite naturally to me and at the same time, it will never cease to fascinate me, to see the regularity and also the abnormalities in human behavior, in our thinking and acting, individually but also in togetherness. It's not really a big surprise to see that my leadership practice is heavily based and focused on detecting patterns as well. So, today it’s about patterns of problems. How solving problems for good is actually the same as getting rid of specific organisational patterns and how this whole perspective helps me prioritize where I get involved and where I don't.

I got 99 problems

Whenever people approach me and say: I would love to take on a role in management or leadership, the first question I fire back is: Are you ready for your day to be 80% about problems? I say that, not because I’m a cynic, or have too much ego and don’t wanna share my power, but because it’s true. The more you let people do their job and give them autonomy, the more your interactions with them will be about stuff that doesn’t work. Otherwise they could just do it by themselves and you probably won't even hear about it. So, being in leadership means being confronted by many problems and your need to handle them.You have all the things that you know about and that should be fixed, you have all the urgent stuff that comes up unexpectedly because life simply has other plans, you have all the things that you have been wanting to fix for a very long time but you can’t just get around to, because you try to keep up with the urgent stuff. You have those things that have been on your list, but you don’t have a solution for yet. You have those things that you solved some day before but haven’t turned out the way you expected them to. Plus the things that you haven’t been on your mind at all but your colleagues point out to you, or that you had been hoping on ignoring forever but your colleagues won’t let you. Not to forget about all those things that you aren’t aware of yet, but should be, because your role is actually to make sure your company or team is still there tomorrow and not only today. I think, you get the image.


The paranoia trap - the true cause of problems.

In the beginning of my career, this realization threw me off course. I thought: wtf, does anything work in this company? At that point, it's very easy to start assuming it's personal.

Scenario 1:

You end up thinking you're doing a horrible job. Wrong. Until I realized two things. First, people love to complain, so basically you can have the perfect company and people will keep finding things to nag about. Secondly, it's actually a really good sign when people are still open in addressing those things. This means that they still care - the alternative would be distrust, resignation and the basically ruin.

Scenario 2:

You end up becoming a cynic.
Human errors, personal vendettas, politics - some sort of conscious action of an individual being that ends up making your life more difficult than it needs to be. Sometimes that might be the case, but I believe - having a very positive world view on humans- it has very little to do with bad intentions. First, sorry not sorry, but you're just not that important that everybody is revolving, let alone constantly planning their actions around you. Secondly, most people are actually inherently good and try to do their best job possible.

Both scenarios are not really a good option. Can't recommend. (Also, it makes you a bit whiney.) Let's focus on where problems actually come from and as we've seen, it's neither your inability to lead or people hating you. Instead, organisational problems - and those are the ones you need to solve in leadership - usually have a different cause. Organisations are dynamic systems, meaning it's daily collective chaos, where you need to align so much information, so many strategies, tactics, insights - not even talking about the different emotions, motivations, states of wellbeings and experiences of the humans involved. It's impossible to control and correct every part of it. Behavior that is not in line with the overall goal will just emerge, despite having the best intentions in mind. No productivity tool in the whole world, no magic-bullet prioritization framework, not even the best personal assistant would be enough to get you there. Hard truth: you need to actively ignore some of them to be able to focus on those that count. So the key question to solve is: which problems are worth solving?

Which problems are worth solving?

Disclaimer: might not work for you! Since I'm a person who is very aware of things not working, I needed a more radical approach to focus. So for my own sanity and that of my colleagues, I follow the rule:

I don’t get involved in solving problems unless (a) I can be pretty certain it's a systemic problem - that is, a recurring logic, a pattern of unfavorable behavior - AND (b) unless I can address the root cause of it.

What does that mean - let's spell out the consequences:

Consequence 01:

It means that a problem has to appear regularly, it needs to have established itself as a pattern repeating itself.

Consequence 02:

I have to find out what the root cause is or at least have a pretty good hypothesis about it, before I act. This is a great way of avoiding doing things for the sake of doing things.

Consequence 03:

(Hardest part for me personally:) It means I actively step back from solving problems that happen only once or are just superficial symptoms. No matter how easy it would be to jump on it and be the hero for the day.

For me, this works for many reasons. First of all, because spending time with symptoms for the most part is a waste of time. It won’t get you rid of the true cause, so it’s no effective invest of your brain and heart and energy. Secondly, humans are pretty good in dealing with or covering symptoms so usually you can count on somebody else taking care of it. Thirdly, dealing with symptoms usually leads to some unintended consequence or effect within the system that tends to make things worse (We call it Verschlimmbesserung and I love nothing about it). Lastly, once you get involved in every nitty gritty, people will stop thinking for themselves, so you yourself kickoff a problem loop, building a whole organisation that is dependent on your interference. It’s ok to have some sandy parts in an otherwise smooth organisation, kinda like the magic power of little kids, who can regularly eat an imaginary cone made out of not so imaginary sand straight from the playground. It won't kill them and might even improve their immune system.

It's about detecting patterns of wrong or undesired behaviors and turn them into better ones. Turning vicious circles into positive loops.

Solving organisational problems should be in essence about detecting patterns of wrong behaviors and turn them into better ones. It’s about finding vicious circles and turning them into positive loops. Reinforcing the behavior that you want and need, instead of wasting your time over and over again in correcting the wrong ones. Solving the root cause once and unblocking the system instead of repeatedly having to address the symptoms later.
Yes, it's much harder and takes more time in the beginning,
Yes, it's spending more time on thinking than acting,
Yes, it requires rigor in analysis.
Yes, you won't be the daily hero anymore.

BUT, it saves incredibly much time in the aftermath and sets a rigorous focus. And has the incredible side effect that your truly get to the bottom of your organisational hurdles and get rid of them for good, designing non an organisation that gets better with time. One that might thank you with a positive news update, not only by complaining ;)

How to start practicing it? Stay tuned for next week's episode, part 2.

[Credits where credits are due. Obviously this is nothing I have made up but that has been around for quite a while. I just took a spin on it to use it as prioritization framework. There is amazing theoretical background on systems design that I inhaled at some point in my life and that you find in the take away box below. Get ready for needing yourself through it, it's a different way of thinking, so some people find it slightly hard to access.]

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways