If it’s broken, don’t fix it

“Moreno declared that instead of looking at mankind as a fallen being, everyone is a potential genius and like the Supreme Being, co-responsible for all of mankind.  It is the genius we should emphasize, not the failings.”  So spake Zerka Moreno, Jakob’s widow and co-developer of Morenian action methods.

All too often in our world and in our workplaces, we focus on the failings, the deficits and the gaps; what is not working.  Leaders struggle with what the organisation is not achieving, with ‘bad behaviours’ they want changing, with relationships that are dysfunctional.  This is, of course, natural.  Once again, as I’ve said in my earlier blog posts, we still operate from a mechanistic world view.  Even if you have a grasp of systems thinking, our world, by and large, is structured within a mechanistic paradigm and so we are all still infected by its virus; we have been operating this way for so long that it’s hard not to.  It’s in grained in us.  In other words, if we see things as machines, we treat them like machines. If my car is ticking along nicely, I barely give it a second thought.  It’s only when the CV joints start clunking or the tyres are a little flat that I make an intervention.  Generally speaking, it doesn’t get much attention unless something is going wrong, and when it goes wrong, I pay it attention.  Otherwise,  if it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.

Considering this, many organisations default to such a mechanistic perspective when considering leadership development.  If they see signs of ‘brokenness’, they will put some kind of intervention in place to fix what looks like the ‘problem’.  This, however, is not leadership development.  Knee-jerk responses to ‘problems’ are rarely developmental, nor strengths-based in nature because the approach is about fixing something, rather than growing something.

Your starting point when viewing leadership development from a more systemic, strengths-based perspective, would be, “We aren’t doing as well as we should.  How are we going to work out what needs developing?”  Naturally, if there are some indications that your organisation is underperforming, some correction is required.  But before making any prescriptions, it is necessary to explore the situation as deeply as possible.  When approaching this, here are some useful guidelines.

First, don’t prejudge what the intervention will look like.  Complex adaptive systems are just that: highly complex.  The solution required may not be the one you think it is when you begin to address the situation.  The solution required may, in fact, surprise you.

Second, it’s important to point your lenses first to what you are trying to create or achieve and what you’ve already got, rather than what you see as being broken.  It’s a subtle, but important shift in gaze.  Focus on purpose, not on activity.  It is tempting to rush to the problem areas because these are the ones that have your attention.  They are the source of your discontent.  Just as when you have tension in your shoulders, getting a massage in that area may loosen it up and alleviate it temporarily, but it may not address the real source of the problem which could lie in your lower back.  If you dive straight into ‘fixing’ what appears to be the problem, but is more likely a symptom of something awry in your system, you may not get an optimal outcome.  Because our workplaces are complex adaptive systems, there will be many hidden interconnections and dynamics at play which lead to the dysfunctions which you can see.  Conversely, your system also holds many of the ingredients of the solution, which too remain hidden.

Third, and really importantly, before you put any intervention in place, stop first and take time to get as big a picture of your system as possible.  A thorough strengths-based analysis of the wider system is required in order to uncover the ‘unknown unknowns’.  When what you see is underperformance and unmet targets, there is naturally a sense of urgency to put something….ANYTHING in place to mitigate for this.  Don’t rush into it.  Take a comprehensive snapshot of your organisation’s functioning.  This will increase the likelihood that you make the correct intervention.  So instead of analysing simply what is going wrong, think bigger and seek answers to questions such as these:

  • What are we are trying to create here?
  • What have we got? i.e. How is the business working right now?
  • What are the relationships that we require in order to get the thing we are trying to create?
  • What are our relationships like right now?
  • What capabilities does the organisation need in order to achieve our purpose?
  • How amply do we have a shared understanding of each other’s roles, responsibilities and accountabilities (to each other and to the business)?
  • How willing and able are we to make changes in ourselves and in our working relationships in order to get the business to our destination?
  • What are the enablers and barriers to making changes in how this organisation operates?
In my work, we use many more such questions and structure an interactive, action-based systems analysis which assists our clients to ‘see’ their organisation from a big picture perspective. Without exception, every client we have worked with who undertook such an analysis with us discovered things about their organisation that they had never known, saw patterns that were previously hidden and saw linkages and disconnections that they had never seen.
Fourth, follow through.  While it is true in many cases that a thing observed is a thing changed, this is not the end of it.  Once you have found the sources of your problems, it behoves you to do something about.  A few of our past clients have been tempted to go no further.  They saw the hidden causes of some of their dysfunction and believed that that was sufficient.  Only one or two did not follow through with any development work.  When you are prescribed a course of antibiotics, your doctor will tell you to finish the whole course, even if you feel better after just a few doses.  It’s important to finish the whole course so that the infection is thoroughly dealt with.
Fifth, be open to what is emergent throughout the whole process.  This means that, even when you decide on an intervention and set it in motion, new phenomena will become evident and new information will surface, so slight adjustments to your course may be necessary.  When the initial prescription is made after the systems snapshot, it may need to be altered as changes to the system and individuals within it may uncover new needs.  This is just how complex adaptive systems behave; they are constantly adjusting out of an emergent dynamic.
Sixth, keep the faith.  In a period when things are shifting, it can be difficult to see the end of the road.  The time of most uncertainty is when you are between the old way of doing things and the new you are creating.  There will be confusion, ambiguity and anxiety.  Sticking together and communicating well and often are key.
Finally, watch for saboteurs and splitters.  Some folks will naturally be reluctant to do anything differently.  They may not be deliberately or maliciously trying to undermine new developments, however they may be feeling threatened.  Do what you can to help them see and understand the benefits of change and development.  If you do, they will see the payoffs for themselves.
The systems thinkers in the world can see the promised land but we are not there yet.  We need to be more conscious and awake to the lenses we look through and be more mindful of the processes we set in motion to address the performance of our organisations.  Radically altering how we see ‘problems’, how we prescribe solutions and how we follow through on them may be tough and require us to commit precious time and energy to them, but the outcomes will be much more sustainable, more satisfying and more ecological for our organisations and those who lead them.

2 thoughts on “If it’s broken, don’t fix it

  1. HI John,

    I liked this one….so straight forward it begs the question, “why do we not do more of the simple changes that make the big differences”?

    My own experiences in a work situation where things that once identified ought to be changed or are seen as “the problem” are changed in a flurry of activity to be ‘seen to be taken care of’. Rather than looking at all of the causes or identifying if a problem truly exists, how the ‘system’ can be bettered to make sure progress is made, seems to me what is missed so often as a consequence of peoples actions rather than the focus on what is actually “wrong”. Peoples insecurities to be seen to be doing “something” gets in the way of doing what is right after proper assessments are made.


    1. You’ve nailed it Norman. When the emphasis is on activity and ‘doing something’, the real causes of dysfunction often get missed and the patterns that led to it remain. If the first step of ‘unpeeling layers of the onion skin’ and having a really good look at the system was actually given time and effort, the interventions may actually end up being simpler and more impact-ful than previously thought. Thanks again for commenting!

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