The Problem-to-Solution Vortex, Part 2:

Why do anything differently and where to start?

In Part 1, I explored the general cause of churn that happens within a group of people that are typically stratified by some kind of hierarchy, while they try and collaborate to solve a complex problem. I shared some high level reasons why I care about this.

Here, I’m going to get more specific about possible impacts of a vortex to illuminate reasons to be watchful for these dynamics. I want to motivate people to apply a transparent process of discovery and methods to stop the madness.

Off the top, just consider the dread that comes with a tornado warning. It’s an immediate trigger to CYA (cover your assets) and hope for the best. If you’re not throwing your hands up while hoping it misses you, you’re white knuckling in the basement. Not the best conditions for collaboration.

And that’s my big “why.” We need optimal conditions for collaboration if we are going to effectively battle for health, security, and downright survival the VUCA world we’re in now.

What’s more, is that we’re not just solving for acute challenges resulting from changes around us. The essence of this work is shifting systems. This involves some level of self-organization, which requires healthy networks capable of collaboration. This doesn’t happen in a vortex.

There is much we can do to calm the spin. The first step is admitting how bad the vortex can be.

It matters because of the pain we might avoid. This pain can include:

  • Festering distrust among would-be collaborators who become competitive (e.g. people withhold important information).
  • Organizational disengagement and disintegration (finger pointing, stress leaves).
  • An awful lot of avoidable waste (shelf-ware, calendar bankruptcy and associated failure to perform, rapid end of year spending that could have actually made a difference 6 months ago).
  • Failure to deliver a solution at all, or that meets needs.

I’m writing about it because I rarely see groups of people who experience the vortex talking about it with comprehension or conviction to resolve it. I think it is often in the shadows of the project plan, disguised as dependencies or risks. And usually, the little box in the table next to “multiple stakeholders” or “difficult expectations” gets filled with something akin to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (i.e. communicate.)

The calm before the storm settles in as the leaders nod along and sign off on the key messages…

Key Message they miss: There is a tornado. Everyone is running for cover.

Then comes the absurdity of simply telling people what everyone is doing while they are in a vortex, but not addressing the tornado, and expecting that alone to fix it. You need to do more than just communicate.

I mean yes, we need to make an attempt at clarity, but can you imagine being in an actual tornado?

  • The noise of the wind diminishing your senses and capacity to focus on anything but possibly touching down safely (or not getting sucked up);
  • other people buzzing past you;
  • cows;
  • no obvious external trigger or force to combat; and
  • the apprehension of pending blame for not sheltering sooner, in the right place, or for paying attention to the all the signs that would have avoided disaster.
There are often clear signs when the problem-solution vortex gets bad. Having cows is one…

Now, I’m not saying communication isn’t helpful. In the clip above from the movie “Twister,” as a cow flies by, I think Helen Hunt’s character, Jo, captures the typical response perfectly. They’re driving on the straight road to get to solution, and what else can she do but communicate that we now have cows? If no one else had seen that ominous sign, they may not have acted. Even though they all did see the cow, perhaps her emphasis on it motivated action.

But it’s not enough to just communicate when the pressure is intense and you’re in a trust vacuum.

Moreover, even if people have information that is filtered through a plan, rubber stamped, and flowed into trusted channels, it’s not likely the only information people are getting. And if it conflicts with lived experience, you’re really hooped.

So please trust me — someone who is frequently solicited for advice on communications — don’t assume communications will fix this. Like, save yourself from screaming (or corporate communication-izing) at the tornado.

Objective: survive the tornado

The problem-solution vortex often has greater risk of destructive forces when people get stuck on the planned road, which is often reinforced by time-sensitive, approval delayed communications. Due to organizational complexity, would-be collaborators and problem solvers simply feel powerless as they watch the cows fly by.

What happens next in the movie is the driver takes action amid what seems like chaos after musing: “we have to get off this road.” He’s lucky to have the decisive insight and power to do so.

Unfortunately, the decisive insight (or steering wheel) often is not so available, and more often, not transparent or trusted.

Bill Paxton’s character angrily throws a radio and says “stupid” after seeing another tornado team get killed by a tornado.
Here, a tornado chasing team laments the demise of another team that did not heed the insights they shared (“get off that road”.) Even though it was a matter of survival, the specter of competition diminished trust.

However, I believe that is the work to do. I hypothesize that we need to nurture practices that are attuned to managing the conditions that generate these vortex formation conditions. Doing so is critical to building resilient, adaptive, and effective teams that can accomplish incredible things.

To sum up this part:

If we want to address complex challenges through collaboration, vortex dynamics are a significant barrier, but are rarely addressed directly or effectively. Typical tactics, such as hierarchy approved communications and project plans, are ineffective and may even increase the churn.

I’ve hinted at the need for insight… and if I still have your attention, and you want to see me work through this hypothesis, click on through to:

There are plenty of reasons to do things differently. We seem much quicker to upgrade our tech than to improve the actual quality of our human interactions. Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

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Heather-Lynn Remacle

Slow to judge, quick to suppose: truth and alternatives I’m keen to expose. Open by default. How can I help? https://bit.ly/32Fmz2l