Something's gotta be done

We all know that what people say is not always what people mean. That is not to say we are consciously beating around the bush, it often is because we haven't dug deep enough to know what we really mean and feel.

For example, when the feedback is that ‘communication’ needs to be improved, what do we really mean? Do we want or need more newsletters (really?), more informal space around the water cooler or coffee machine, more meetings (surely not) or more emails. I doubt it. Yet, often that is what the default answer is when we are confronted with the request for better communication. In our rush to find an instant answer to every problem or challenge we opt for the immediate solution. May be we are better served by slowing down a minute or two and dig a bit more for what the real problem is.

Often that problem is a lack of clarity, or lack of priorities, or a lack of simplicity. If your team is confused what they are working towards – and confused can also mean that different members have different objectives - or they have so much to do that activities and demands conflict each other, or there is agreement on the ‘what’ but not on the ‘how’ let alone ‘why’, the feedback may be that communication is bad. But aren't they actually asking ‘…but what do you want us to do?’.

Another example: training. How often have you heard “We need more training”. Research shows the 70-20-10 rule applies – 70% of learning occurs through experience – doing the job day in day out. 20% comes through learning from others: peers, leaders, everyone we interact with. Only 10% is a result of structured courses and programmes. Yet, training is often the default response when performance needs to be improved. So, when I am not good at something I ask for more training. What really seems to be the issue is that I am not getting the support on a day-to-day basis, the feedback on what I am doing right or wrong when I do it, the example. Or the time to even think about how I did things because I am already rushing to do something else, let alone talk to someone about it as everyone else is also rushing around. How much money and time could be saved by not making training the default response. Instead, spending a little bit of time after certain projects and activities to reflect what went well and what we can learn can be far more productive.

And so the list goes on. Another good one is ‘organisational structure’. Things are not going well so we need to re-organise. May be, but may be the challenge is one of collaboration, cross-functional or departmental coordination and decision making, consistency and alignment and how we deal with the organisational interfaces. The organisational ‘cake’ needs to be cut somehow, somewhere. Wherever you make the cut, you have an interface. It is often not about where you make the cut and far more about how you manage the interface between the two or more pieces of the cake. Is the critical question not more about addressing how we work together, how teams are constructed and managed and supported, how we share information, rather than whether we have the right structure. Of course, structure can help and hinder and all that, but it is not necessarily the one and only answer. So, when people say that the organisational structure is hindering them, do they really mean that or do they say we need to learn to work together?

So much is problem – solution, problem – solution, and fast. It reminds me of two jokes:

  • When Jim Hacker in ‘Yes Minister’ faced a crisis he said: ”We’ve got to do something. This is something. Therefore, we have to do it.”


  • A new executive asks his predecessor for some hints and tips. The predecessor has prepared three envelopes, numbered 1, 2 and 3. The new executive is to open them in order when he faces a crisis. After four weeks the new executive opens envelope 1 which reads “Blame your predecessor”. That works for about 6 months but after that he opens envelope 2, which reads “Re-structure the business”. That works again for 2 years until he runs out of excuses and one evening he opens envelope 3. It reads “Prepare three envelopes for your successor”.

When we hear that we need to communicate better, or that we need more training or we should restructure, it’s worthwhile considering what’s really causing the shortfall in performance against expectations. Sometimes that is easier to see from the outside, sometimes it’s worth spending proper time with the people who do the job, as they know best how to improve things when asked the right questions and they trust the person asking those questions.

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