Stuck on a Thorny Problem?
Three situations you might find yourself in and what you can do about it
We architect change to bring meaning to our lives. A blank canvas to a stunning watercolor. A new vaccine. A new baby. A new career path.
Change may be instrumental to purpose and meaning, but often it refuses to materialize. In families. At work. Across society.
Maybe you work with a dysfunctional team or a micromanaging boss. Maybe big plans sit there, waiting (w…a…i…t…i…n…g) for someone to take action. Maybe the opposition is strong and actively hostile, or perhaps it’s passive-aggressive. Or maybe you simply don’t know what to do.
Our efforts to make change can bring frustration instead of meaning. Frustration can come in many forms. In this post I share a tool that characterizes three common situations and suggests what you can do if you find yourself in them. This tool is great for organizations but can also be applied to problems as personal as a child who refuses to do their homework and as societal as police reform.
How are you stuck?
If you are trying to make change and feel stuck, you are probably in one of these situations: spinning, friction, or complacency.
- Spinning describes ongoing effort with little result, as in “spinning one’s wheels.” I’ve become a master eye-roller as a result of all the times I’ve been in these situations. Teams or committees talk and talk, but get nowhere. They may get bogged down in minutiae. We may continuously search for better and more precise information to reveal an “answer” — which may seem smart but can be a clever trap in complex systems. Spinning wastes time and energy.
- Complacency is the realm of many bureaucratic organizations. These organizations are meant to be stable, to perform with consistency and fidelity, and in the case of the public sector, ride the waves of political tides. Meanwhile, the outside world continues to churn. When faced with changing circumstances, bureaucracies often retreat to their comfort zones. A big risk of complacency is getting caught unprepared.
- Friction can become the toxic relationship, workplace, or society if the tension is too great. Conflict goes unresolved, people are afraid to speak up, or edicts are issued which are then largely ignored. We break into factions, where distrust festers. If differences intensify they may reach a breaking point, and you may be catapulted into turbulent change in a possibly destructive way.
What’s going on
These three situations arise from just two dynamics at the heart of how complex systems behave: the differences and the interactions.
Differences provide the energy for change. Without difference nothing happens. Imagine a team where everyone had exactly the same thoughts, experience, and skills. Why would you need a team — what does the second person bring that the first person does not? Differences provide the spark for change through new ideas, alternative perspectives, varying skill sets, and different knowledge bases.
Interactions are what the parts of a system do to connect with each other. We communicate, pass laws, make payments, convene committees, vaccinate, tweet, fix roads, build prototypes, send email, research, make sales. It stands to reason that if we’re not acting — if the interactions are limited — then not much change is happening.
Situations can be characterized by significant, intense differences or negligible differences. We can have direct and strong interactions, or passive and weak interactions. Of course, these occur on a continuum, as shown below. We can map our three change-defying situations on this chart.
Each of the three situations serves to preserve the status quo, although in different ways, and may be intentional or unintentional.
- Spinning occurs when there are too few differences at play in the group; that is, too much agreement. The group intends to bring about change and is working at it, but gets stuck because there are too few differences to spark change. Typical behaviors are “all talk and no action” or “going down rabbit holes.”
- Complacency materializes from mild differences and inertia; there is comfort with the routine and no need to spice things up with more differences or stronger interactions. You might hear “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
- Friction is the province of big differences. These differences go unresolved because we don’t have strong enough interactions to work through them. Instead of resolution, you might see power plays, “elephants in the room,” or we-they strategies.
How to move to generative change
Yes, there’s a blank quadrant in the chart above! That’s where we find generative change. Now that we know its position, we have a strong clue about how to move toward generative change from our current predicament. Let’s use a couple of examples.
I once worked in an organization that took an annual culture survey. Every year the results were dismal; employees were deeply unhappy with leadership. The organization was holding tension.
When I arrived there, I noticed that the interactions were infrequent and formal. No one picked up the phone for a conversation, whether for a quick answer or to noodle a problem. Instead, you scheduled an appointment to talk — typically three weeks out. Well, I just started picking up the phone.
It loosened and increased interactions, and signaled to employees that leadership was approachable — diminishing a difference. Pretty soon, employees were calling me for guidance and advice. This in turn helped create an environment where problems were daylighted rather than allowed to fester.
In another case, a membership organization had formed a committee to decide its strategic agenda. The conversations went around and around, never getting anywhere; the group was spinning. They were interacting, but with too few differences between them they couldn’t break through to new thinking or action.
Moving from spinning to generative change requires introducing something materially different. Perhaps compelling new information, new committee members with different points of view, or an external threat.
A few tips
At this point, you might be saying — “hey, I like being in a complacency/spinning/friction state.” Yes, there are times when these serve important interests. Ignoring differences may be the easiest way to co-exist if a situation is too volatile and needs to cool. Spinning can help reinforce relationships and values. The stability of complacency is a plus in operations such as payroll and is welcome after intense periods of work (like tax season).
Maybe your situation is fluid and doesn’t fit neatly into one of these descriptions. That is very common. Complex systems are constantly on the move. If we’re complacent and get caught off guard by a big problem — for example COVID — we may shift to seeking blame (friction) or take an undisciplined stab at how to respond (spinning).
You might ask yourself “what part of my situation is in friction? spinning? complacent?” For example, perhaps your team has been going round and round on a problem; it’s spinning.
This has set you at odds with the larger organization (friction) because they are expecting results. Within your team, you need to add differences. Between your team and the organization, you need to reduce differences (depending on how serious they are) and/or improve interactions.
Whatever situation you find yourself in, chances are you cannot force a movement from one quadrant to another. Nor can you know exactly what will happen until you try something. But you can begin to shift the patterns toward generative change.
If differences are great, find something you can agree on and start there. If differences are slight, ask yourself what would inject new energy — perhaps a new team member, a more concrete goal or assignment, new authority or accountability.
If interactions are weak, you might increase their frequency, move from impersonal to more personal means of communicating, or focus on delivering an outcome or next steps from each interaction, or engage a new facilitator.
Try something, watch what happens, and when something sticks and begins to amplify, support it. You are on your way.
I am a big-hearted pragmatist who looks at tough problems in new ways. After years of leadership in various sectors, I have turned to complexity theory to better address the tough issues of our world. Aha! There's a reason we get stuck! Now consulting and training. Website on its way...