MANAGING Suddenly, Nothing Happened – Or how to stop winging it through work and life

Most of the groups and organisations I observe in the course of my work suffer some degree of recurring difficulty that wastes resources and saps energy. In time, these become accepted as routine and inevitable, part of “the way things are round here”, or they last until some almighty catastrophe threatens, and I’m called in for remedial work.
Sometimes, the realisation comes as total surprise, process that can be likened to the frog-in-very-slowly-heated-water phenomenon: if placed in water that is already too warm the frog will leave immediately. Alternatively, it accommodates gradually increasing temperature and danger until it dies, because the rising discomfort is almost imperceptible.
But more often managers clearly knew the crisis was constant risk and saw it coming. “We talked about it,” they say, “and we assumed that because we all understood the issue, it would correct itself.” To rationalise avoidance or denial they might add: “We hadn’t thought it was so serious.”

Cultural versus functional
Managers often seem resigned to functional inappropriateness (dysfunctional practices) on the basis that current practices are culturally appropriate – that means, familiar and comfortable or at least tolerable.
Push them further and I discover that they are gradually warming the environment of number of imperilled frogs. For instance:
* People routinely behave as though to discuss an issue is to have made wise decisions; to argue about possible solutions is to have effectively resolved conflicting needs or problems; to talk about what needs to happen is to have exercised methodical management, sufficient collaboration and sound planning.
* Discussions about issues meander without direction, become contests of will or hidden agendas, are hijacked by the vocally confident and articulate, run out of time or disperse without clarity about outcomes.
* Those whose mental processes are unsuited to processes of this kind, and the timid or otherwise reticent participants are marginalised, left unheard, apathetic or resentful.
* Participants will describe these discussions as “good, interesting, useful or constructive” but be unable to point to any real progress towards the purpose for which they were held.
* Later, different individuals hold conflicting understandings of the decisions reached, about responsibilities agreed, and how the plan will be managed, monitored and reported.
* The purpose of formal or informal discussions is frequently unclear, unstated, assumed or stated in such general terms as to render meaningless subsequent judgement about whether or not the objective was achieved.
* Views differ on whether any real decisions were indeed made.
* Plans come unstuck or fail to materialise.

Not according to plan
A common reason for these persistent challenges is an improvisational or ad-hoc (unplanned) approach to everyday activities such as:
* assessing needs
* selecting and managing priorities
* making decisions
* gaining commitment to decisions and change
* gaining support for plans
* managing interpersonal relationships
* leading people
* conducting meetings
* coaching
* giving performance feedback
* resolving differences or problems
* planning and managing action plans.
Although these are among leaders’ and managers’ generic duties, few apply systematic models to them. Sometimes they are simply too busy with the challenges caused by not operating more methodically. They choose, by default, to chase their tails in closed loop.
Does this exchange I overheard recently sound familiar?
“How was the meeting?”
“Great discussion! Everyone was there. Heaps of great ideas! Good progress.”
“Everyone take part?”
“Most did. Well, some did. The usual.”
“What were the issues?”
“Much the same as last time.”
“You reckon anything will anything change, as result?”
“Dunno. Hope so.”
“What’s the plan, and who’s going to do it?”
“Ahh… I don’t think we got that far…”
“Same as last time, then…?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
Things don’t go according to plan because usually there isn’t one.

The same hymnbook
Systematic models are mixed blessing. They can, if followed slavishly, stifle creativity, obscure any truths except those they selectively illuminate and blind us to the complete picture. They inevitably involve making simplifications. But so does improvisation where the assumptions are usually obscure, collaboration difficult to achieve, enhancements harder to identify and likelihood of desired outcome put at greater risk.
The function-related competencies of professions like health, teaching, vehicle maintenance, science, economics, engineering or law would not tolerate unsystematic theorising and improvising. But professional competence (or high intelligence) does not automatically equate to competence in planning, leading and managing collaboration with others. Usually in these areas of everyday functioning, no measurable degree of skill need be demonstrated and great deal of ad-hoc improvisation is widely tolerated.Methodical approaches to management, people-management and leadership have major benefits over improvisation. For instance:
• Others have prototyped, practised and refined them until they are found to be reliable.
• They can generally be trusted to bring clarity and progress where there is currently disorder, inefficiency, confusion or risk.
• They provide consistency.
• Their assumptions and practices can be more easily taught to others to bring shared understanding and reduce guesswork, especially about where the boss, leader or facilitator is coming from.
• When teams and groups agree to work within them, participants share an awareness that facilitates collaboration, informs creativity and enables effective participation.

Start small
Where would you gain most from changing the methodology you use to plan and manage the organisation and collaborate with others? What information or support do you need to help make this decision?
Consider finding professional coach or mentor. They can help you to research your challenges, define the problems and implement carefully planned programme of systematic change. Timesaving, stress-reducing, breakthrough outcomes are normal. Whatever improvisations you currently use need not be replaced with systematic approaches immediately or simultaneously. In fact, that is usually impossible. Start small. Once you’ve defined the problem, plan series of incremental changes.
If, for instance, you agree with Dave Barry that “meetings” is the word that describes the reason why the human race has not and will never achieve its full potential, you may consider some of the following incremental improvements:
1. As facilitator, chair or leader of meeting, always begin with shared understanding of clearly stated and realistically achievable statement of purpose. Purpose is something entirely different from meeting’s agenda.
This alone sharpens focus and represents significant breakthrough in many organisations. Observe, over the next week or two, how rarely it happens and how often the officially stated purpose is in terms such as “review meeting”, “work in progress meeting”, “monthly meeting”, “board meeting”, “management meeting”, “executive meeting” or “team meeting”. Stated in such terms, their effectiveness cannot be gauged.
2. When asked to facilitate or when summonsed to formal or informal meeting ask: “What is its purpose? What is it designed to achieve?” If the answer describes process or agenda rather than purpose, ask “So that…?” or “What for?” Aim for statement about realistic outcomes. Consider whether or not the processes selected will achieve them.
3. Before decision-making meeting disperses, have everyone wait until hand-written list of decisions reached, commitments undertaken and target dates set (we complete one-page form as the meeting proceeds) is copied and distributed. It tends to increase the degree of follow-through

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