A Solution May Not be the Answer

The inclination if something is not working well is, naturally enough, to jump in and fix it. Before we can take effective action, however, it’s important to make sure we understand just what it is that needs fixing—a key principle of systems thinking.

Image credit: pnx at  openclipart.org

Image credit: pnx at openclipart.org

Not long ago I presented a webinar on systems thinking in organizations (find the link to the webinar recording on the Resources page). A participant followed up after the session to ask how to encourage the leadership of her nonprofit organization to conduct an organization-wide retreat. She wrote that the different departments acted as silos and did not communicate with each other well. And while leadership met together and monthly staff meetings were held, my correspondent did not feel that there was a place for staff like herself to air grievances, ask questions, and find solutions to ongoing problems. She believed that a retreat, possibly preceded by a staff survey, was the solution.

I admire this staff person’s initiative and desire to promote positive change. The organization is lucky to have her on the team! She is facing the difficult challenge of influencing-up in her organization. Given this complicated scenario, the best that I could offer in a brief email response were ways to frame the work ahead; here are the (lightly edited) thoughts I shared:

  • Remember, in keeping with ideas expressed in the webinar, that holding a retreat is a possible solution, but not really the goal. A retreat can be very helpful but it may or may not be exactly what's needed here.
  • As you talk with your colleagues focus on larger shared goals: improving effectiveness and better serving your community. How do the problems that you have noticed impact the organization's effectiveness and quality of service?
  • Do others also recognize the same problems? How can you come together and voice your concerns to leadership in a respectful and appropriate manner? Sometimes leaders are just not aware of issues staff face. Part of your challenge will be to think strategically about how to best raise the concerns so they are more widely appreciated.
  • Once there is agreement that something needs to be done, then you can start to explore action steps. Information gathering is essential, and can be done via surveys, focus groups, or interviews. Based on what's learned, a retreat and/or other actions can be planned to have the best chance for impact.

I know that my response probably didn’t provide the hoped-for answer. But if communication is as limited as suggested, a retreat by itself may do little to improve things, especially if staff feel they are unable to voice concerns or grievances. Under such circumstances, a successful retreat would require creating a safe space through careful preparation and facilitation—otherwise the long-standing patterns may just continue in the retreat, or it could turn into a venting session without leading to constructive action.

So given the complexity of even small organizational systems, before jumping to a solution, keep working the questions for a while.