Re-thinking – a healthy approach to organizational development and problem solving

July 3, 2012  

Statements such as “We have a problem with…….” or “This is not working for us…..” are of little value as they offer no resolution, nor any pathway to resolution. They merely identify that there is a problem.

Sadly this tendency to only identify problems without offering hope of a resolution is, arguably, all too typical of many individuals and of the organizations in which they work. The danger is that this creates cultures that are focused on problem thinking rather than on opportunities and solutions. Organizations desperately need to change their thinking and to become healthy in their approach to both problem identification and problem resolution.

It should be said that the organizations we work in as adults aren’t necessarily the cause of the malaise – from a young age we are taught to always use our rational brains and to beware of our intuition. Carl Jung was troubled by this and wrote many times about the need for us to trust in our intuition and to move away from thinking frames that create boundaries around the known hard facts of an issue or presented problem. This is not to argue that we should ignore hard facts and data, but rather that we need to find a way to blend our intuitive brains with our rational brains in such a way that we find ourselves making better decisions, in both our personal and our professional lives.

Organizations need to be able to help people do this, individually and collectively. Armed with this capability, and once an organization begins to understand the problems it may have (Ideally elicited through a sound health check), it can begin to look afresh at the identified issues and to explore different ways of improving. This is the very essence of re-thinking.

Einstein believed that “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  This being the case, re-thinking must offer a different process to encourage us to explore identified issues to help determine how best to resolve them. Re-thinking must allow organizations to learn how to use their intuition and not solely to rely on facts and figures, as indeed often facts can distort the reality. After all, as Disraeli observed, “There are lies, damn lies and statistics” – no doubt he wasn’t advocating that we do not use facts, but rather that we should not always be solely guided by them.

There is a host of stories about creative ideas that were developed first in the intuition before being tested through analysis and design. Famously, Edison dreamed of the light bulb before he created it. Much less known, in setting up The Systemic Agility Alliance we were driven by our deeply shared belief that today’s organizations are crying out for more holistic management approaches, a hunch that we continue to test with our clients. We are writing our story, blending facts with our intuitive beliefs.

Story-telling is itself now emerging as an important feature of management education and team building, and so it should. My culture for instance sees the “Seanchai” ( the story teller) passing the wisdom of the land and its aspirations for its future from generation to generation, a tradition that is still alive in Ireland and amongst Irish émigrés the world over. This is also true of several other cultures, not solely the reserve of the Irish. The emergence of story-telling in management education and in organization development is recognizing the vital nature of creative processes in learning.

So too re-thinking has to be a creative and arguably different process from the rather stale problem solving techniques that still tend to predominate. We are convinced that re-thinking is a designed, yet fluid process which should explore issues using learnt skills in a creative way. The key components of this skill set are as follows.

Active Listening – listening to each other, and celebrating the ideas and opinions of others, is critical to rethinking. All too often board rooms are non listening environments. Nancy Klein’s book, “Time to Think”, provides insight into how organizations can create thinking environments. First and foremost we have to make a behavioral commitment to listening before we apply skill. The skills that Carl Rogers teaches – of paraphrasing, reflection and eliciting – are powerful ones to use here.

Questioning – the school of appreciative enquiry teaches us how to question in a way that develops ideas, thoughts and solutions in an environment that is explorative, creative and safe. This in its very nature encourages growth and new thinking in both individuals and groups. Again these skills are emerging, once more, as a useful feature of management and leadership education.

Clarifying – this is a key skill deployed in re-thinking to allow everybody to get on the same page. Again, all too often management teams spend hours looking at issues, having unfortunately started with very different understandings of the issue. A clarification process takes time to develop a mutual understanding and saves the enormous waste of time caused by people diving off on various tangents and not getting to grips with the real problem.  This is particularly evident in teams that rush to solutions, often solving the wrong problem, maybe even creating another in the process.

Reframing – this is all about stating the problem in a completely different and more positive way for example, converting statements such as “we are always late“, to “let’s become quicker to market”. Reframing a problem helps to release it from the binds of traditional or negative thinking. Reframing skills help to reorient problems into opportunities, failures into learning, and faults into new fixes.

Creative Thinking – here re-thinkers allow themselves to listen to their intuition and to challenge themselves to look at different ideas and solutions. This may involve creative brainstorming, ideas listing, speed ideas building, meta plan or pinpointing, and a range of other creative processes designed to stimulate thought. Re-thinkers learn to use a whole kit bag of creative tools and techniques to stimulate fresh thought.

Solutions Focus – this finds its beginnings in the “Solutions Focus” or “Brief Therapy” school begun by, among others, Phil de Shazer. The process is one that works quickly to project solutions in to the future without the burden of the past. Solutions focus challenges us to find positives and build upon these positives as we create new models for being and doing into the future.

These are some of the important techniques – by no means a finite list – that should be found within organizations and groups if they are to make effective use of re-thinking as a management tool, and as an enabler of systemic agility. The very nature of organizational health demands that we continue to explore new ways of learning, problem solving and creating. Ask yourself – how capable am I of rethinking? Then ask the same question of your organization – your answers in themselves are part of the process of rethinking.

Ciarán Beary

Ciarán is a skilled facilitator and story-teller. Of our founders, he takes a keen interest in designing facilitative processes that work. His favorite quote is “Be all you can be”. Based in the UK, sometimes you can even find him there. More about Ciarán