Monthly Archives: October 2014

Messing with Mr. InBetween


October 20


During the difficult days of World War II, one of the most popular songs on everyone’s lips was an up-beat, optimistic, “sunny-side-of-the-street” tune by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer called Accentuate the Positive.  Introduced by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in the 1944 movie, Here Come the Waves,  it was sung in the style of a sermon preaching that the path to happiness would be found by emphasizing the positive side of life.

Here are the words to the first stanza:

        You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
        Eliminate the negative,
        Latch on to the affirmative,
        Don’t mess with Mr. InBetween.

Who could disagree?

Accentuate the positive?  Yes, of course!  Eliminate the negative?  Make it happen!  Latch on to the affirmative?  Go for it!  Don’t mess with Mr. InBetween?  Sounds good, but wait a minute,  not so fast….  Not messing with Mr. InBetween turns out to be not such a good idea.  Why?  Because “InBetween” is where most of our most serious problems can be found.  Most of the problems that trouble us, that stop us from moving toward our goals, that interfere with good relationships, that insure the persistence of dysfunctional teams, that lead to failures in business and in government, are right there with Mr. InBetween:

  • In between our good intentions and the consequences of our actions;
  • In between what I think is the problem and what you think it is;
  • In between our stated values, and what how we actually act;
  • In between what we know we should do and what we end up doing;
  • In between my thinking you are responsible for the problem, and you thinking that I am.
  • In between what we say we will do and what we actually do.

It is only by getting acquainted with “Mr. InBetween” that we can come to understand what the problems really are, and then decidewhat we can do about them.

T. S. Eliot, in his poem The Hollow Men, was aware of the importance of “in-between” places.  His metaphor of ” Shadow” focuses our attention there:

          Between the idea
          and the reality
         Between the motion
         and the act
        Falls the Shadow


      Between the conception
      and the creation
      Between the emotion
      and the response
      Falls the Shadow

The “Shadow”  is that dark unknown place – between what we imagine we will do and what we actually do, between the “the motion and the act,” between the “conception and the creation,”  between our feelings and our responses, – where we find many of our problems.  If we want to see improvements, then we must move into the “Shadow,” make sense of what we find there, and then decide what to do.   It’s in Eliot’s Shadow that Mr. InBetween lives!

The idea of “in-between” suggests the existence of a Gap, that space, large or small, between where we are and where we want to be.  As I have suggested before, adopting Gap  Language is one of  our best opportunities of understanding and defining problems.   We frequently use the term”Gap”  to signal the presence of difficult and important problems:  The Gender Gap, the Achievement Gap, the Diversity Gap, the Income Gap, the Education Gap, to mention only a few.

Two of the most troublesome Gaps are  The Knowing-Doing Gap and The Not Knowing -Doing Anyway Gap.   The Knowing-Doing Gap is where we know what needs to be done, or what we should do, but we don’t do it.  Even more problematic is The Not Knowing-Doing Anyway Gap, where we don’t know what to do, but go ahead  and  do something anyway!  These gaps are the territory of Mr. InBetween, and unless we are willing to get down and dirty and”mess” with him, we have little chance of narrowing these Gaps and making things better.

Structure Trumps Good Intentions Every Time

Everyone wants to see their problems get solved, yet frequently we do not go beyond our good intentions.  If we are serious about addressing problems,  our good intentions are not enough.  Too often people say,  ”Yes, of course we need to do something with this problem, and we will.  So let’s all do the best that we can,” and let it go at that.  Vague intentions not only don’t help, they may make things worse by creating unrealistic expectations. What is needed to “mess with Mr. InBetween” is to get into the Shadow and wrestle with the problems that reside there. And success over time in this wrestling match  requires  structure:  It is only through a well-executed sequence of planned and tested activities that will actually lead to change.

Here are two excellent examples from the business world:

GE’s Work Out:

First,  a brief definition of the GE Work Out:

GE Work Out is an internal process with clear rules and procedures for identifying, naming, and addressing the most important organizational problems by involving the people who have first-hand knowledge of the problems and by clearly assigning responsibilities for taking action.

The Work Out was developed during the 1980′s as way for GE to become more agile and successful in solving organizational problems.  Work Out began as an open and straightforward process of identifying real problems in real time.  Over the years, Work Out approaches have become more complicated as they were expanded to confront complex, embedded, long term problems.

Here is a simplified version of how it works:  A group of people reporting to the same boss gather together with the clear understanding that they are going to identify and, when possible, take action on their most important problems. Team members are invited to describe their perception of the problem.  The boss’s role is to listen carefully to these problem statements until he or she understands them, and then respond with one of three options:  One, “I can fix this and I will.”  Two, “I need more information before I can make a commitment.  I will do some research and get back to everyone in three days with my decision.”  Three, “This problem is one I can’t tackle by myself since it involves other areas in the company.  I will get a team together in the next week and we will see what we can do.”

What the boss cannot do is dismiss the problem as insignificant, minimize its importance, or retaliate in any way against the people who have presented it.

Making Work Out work with ever more complex problems  requires ever more complex approaches. But the fundamental principles are sacrosanct:  Leaders send a clear message that they want to hear about problems; they demonstrate a willingness to understand them, and are committed to taking action; people feel free to raise problems without fear of ridicule or retaliation;  and once a problem is identified and accepted, then all share the responsibility of following-up with appropriate actions, and keeping one another informed.

Google’s TGIF

Google’s approach for messing with “Mr. InBetween” became known as TGIF.  Early in its history, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin institutionalized a weekly meeting that featured a no-holds-barred Q & A session with whoever showed up.  People would bring questions and problems that concerned them, and Larry and Sergey would deal with them, one by one.  As the company grew, and the logistics accompanying expansion became difficult, they created a system called Dory (though no one could remember why it was called Dory).  People would put their questions online, and then others would vote on which were the most important.  When they got to TGIF there would be a queue of questions on Dory that had been ranked by Google employees as to their importance.  The rule was that Larry and Sergey could not cherry pick the questions they wanted to address, but had to start with number one and move down the list.  In their book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg describe an interesting innovation that raised the stakes.  TGIF attendees were given red and green paddles and were encouraged to wave the red ones if they didn’t believe that a question was fully addressed.  When the system was upgraded to a digital version, anyone watching could register a green or red opinion on line.

Climb, Confess and Comply

Former CEO Eric Schmidt summarized  Google’s approach for “messing with Mr. InBetween” as “Climb, Confess, and Comply,” modeled after the training given to airline pilots when they run into a serious problem.  The first step is Climb: Get out of danger and make sure that a disaster is not about to happen, The second step is Confess:  Talk to whoever is involved,  especially to those who are offended, accept responsibility for having “screwed up, and explain clearly and non-defensively what happened.  And finally, Comply:  Decide together what needs to be done, and then get busy doing it.

Climbing, confessing and complying was Google’s shorthand way of signaling that people are expected to bring problems to the table and that they deserved a positive response when they do. “When someone comes to you with bad news or a problem,” says Schmidt, “…[and] they are in climb, confess and comply mode, they have spent a lot of  time considering the situation.  [Y]ou need to reward their transparency by listening, helping, and having the confidence that the next time around they will nail the landing.”

These examples of creating structure to get into the middle of problems come from organizations.  Creating and using structure to attack problems  is equally important in intimate relationships, friendships, and families.

Problems of all kinds, and especially wicked problems,  are best understood, and best attacked when those involved are able and willing to “mess with Mr. InBetween.” It is only by understanding the Gap between where we are and where we want to be that productive work can occur.  And this is best achieved by having in place and implementing a structured approach for “messing with Mr. InBetween.”  When dealing with problems there is always room for spontaneous and unrehearsed experiences and events, especially when the problem exists between individuals, but organizational issues respond best over time to a structured approach that is effectively executed.

So, here’s our new updated version of the song:  ”Accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, Latch on to the affirmative,”  and plan on “Messing with Mr. InBetween!”




Unnatural Acts

IMG_0343   September 30


Many people are afflicted with a dangerous and misguided myth:  Rugged Individualism.  They insist that they are independent, self-reliant, and able to make it by themselves,  without any help from others.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our lives are entirely dependent upon others in almost all ways, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink, to the clothes we wear,  the schools we attend,  the highways we drive on, and to the cars we use to drive upon them.  Without endless contributions from our “anonymous collaborators” – hundreds of thousands of people living and dead whose contributions have made our lives not only possible but worth living – life would be, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The Peanut Butter Sandwich

I have a friend who brings peanut butter and jelly to his sociology class, makes a sandwich, and then begins a conversation about what he has just done:  Make a peanut butter sandwich without having to grow the peanuts, raise and harvest the wheat,  then grind it into flour; without planting or harvesting the grapes; without manufacturing the glass jars which hold the peanut butter and jelly, and on and on.

He encourages his students to become aware of something they already know, but rarely think about: Except for the spreading of the peanut butter and jelly upon the bread, everything that goes into making a peanut butter sandwich – planting, harvesting, refining, manufacturing, baking, transporting, marketing – is done by other people.

There is a second-level of understanding here:  Almost all of these people who have made his peanut butter sandwich possible, do their work in organizations.  Peanut farmers in Georgia can plant and harvest peanuts,  but the peanuts have no value until they are moved into the organized world to be turned into the peanut butter that eventually ends up on grocery store shelves.

It is a fact that we are dependent upon others for almost everything we want and need.  But we are not dependent upon them as individuals, but as individuals in organizations: Teachers, nurses, merchants, lawyers, judges, police, doctors, chemists, administrates, engineers, psychologists, and on and on ad infinitum; all exist as members of organizations.  Without the support of people working in organizations, we would not enjoy peanut butter, jelly, bread or hardly anything else.

Societies create and maintain organizations in order to make it possible for us to live together.  What would our lives be like without the police, public health support, sewer systems, education facilities, hospitals and clinics, and grocery stores, to mention only a few of the organizations we depend upon?  And here is an important conclusion:  The societies that are most successful are the ones which are able to create and sustain effective organizations and institutions.  These organizations  are at the very center of our lives:  We are born in hospitals, return to them when we are seriously ill, and most of us return once again when we are dying;  we are educated in schools from the primary grades to graduate school; we shop in markets, and the food we buy is always grown somewhere else.  As sociologist  Amitai Etzioni has written, “We spend much of our leisure time paying, playing and praying in organizations.”  When we reach the end of our lives, it it the largest organization of all – the state – that affirms that we are dead,  and then decides how, when and where we can be buried.

It is in our work and our careers, however, where most of us are most affected by organizations .  If our work organizations,  public or private, large or small, new or old, do not function well, all of the other aspects of our lives are worse than they need to be.

We all value life itself, but what we value above all is the Quality of our lives.  The quality of life is almost entirely determined by the excellence of the organizations and institutions that exist in our societies and by the people who work within them.

And as is usually the case, there is a flip side to this truth:  The quality of our lives is diminished when the organizations upon which we depend are ineffective and unproductive, and when the people who work in them are uncaring and irresponsible.

The Mismatch

Living lives that are embedded in organizations brings us many benefits; it also creates for us serious problems.  There is a profound mismatch between what organizations want and need, and what human beings are most comfortable with.  Organizations require predictability, conformity, stability, and place the highest value on respect for and  obedience to authority.

Human nature, on the other hand, and especially as expressed in relationships, is prone to ambiguity, uncertainty, imperfection, defensiveness, distortion of reality, and for many, resistance to authority.  Tensions between individuals and organizations are inevitable.  And it is this tension that leads to problems.

Unnatural Acts

Living and working in organizations requires human beings to be confronted day after day with the difficult taks  of perfoming Unnatural Acts:  Attitudes and behaviors that go against our biological inheritance, our traditions, our preferences, our needs, the ways we were brought up, and even against our common sense.  As a result, the primary task of society, and especially of organizations, is to the teach us the “correct” ways of acting and to make sure we are socialized.  And most of us learn to obey the law (most of the time), to be quiet and orderly in school, to pay our taxes, serve on juries , show up on time for work, and on and on.

While coming to terms with the demands of organized life is important, as I suggested earlier, it is most important in our work.  Without acceptable standards of order, stability, predictability, and obedience to authority, organizations cannot function. And if they do not function well, we all suffer.  The trade-off here is that we are required to accept and practice a large number of Unnatural Acts.  Here are a few that most of us will recognize:

  •  We are expected to put the goals and objectives of the organization above our own.
  •  We are expected to show loyalty to the company, even though we understand that the company will not show loyalty in return.
  • We are unhappy that all people are not treated alike; some people seem to be more”equal” than others.
  • Even though we have valuable information about important things – the nature of problems for example – no one seems interested in asking us what we think.
  • We are expected to be polite to our customers even though they do not deserve it; we are supposed to wear a “happy face”even though we may be ill or feel grumpy, irritated, frustrated, or angry.
  • We are supposed to make sacrifices for the company, even though the company rarely makes sacrifices for us.
  • We hear words like “empowerment,” and “engagement,” but when things get difficult, it is “same old, same old” imposition of power and authority.
  • We hear a lot about Values, but we see little evidence that most people take them seriously.
  • We hear “long-term” but see “short-term.”
  • We look for fair treatment and justice, but rarely see it.
  • Many of the leaders that are placed over us seem unprepared to lead.
  • We see people being promoted who seem to us to be less prepared and less capable than we are.
  • We are expected to “tell the truth” but are aware that this is risky, even dangerous.
  • We are urged to collaborate with other, to work as a team, but notice that most of the rewards go to individuals and not to teams.
  • We are expected to work toward goals and objectives that are unclear, ill-defined, and often unreasonable.
  • We don’t really know how we are doing, and what we have to do to be successful. Our performance review meetings are mostly a waste of time.
  • We are required to sit though meetings that are badly planned and led by leaders who are unprepared, where important issues are often swept under the rug, and where most people leave feeling that they have wasted their time.

While dilemmas like these will be found in all organizations, not all of them apply to all organizations equally.  Some organizations, especially newer ones in technology, are more effective than others in dealing with the problems that arise when people are pressured to act in ways that go against their preferences and good judgment. Yet the basic observation holds:  There is a continuing tension between what organizations demand and what people prefer.

 Endless Problems In Organizations

A predictable result of the continuing tension between the demands of organizations and the preferences of individuals is an endless parade of problems, most of which will be wicked.  As evidence of this assertion, here is  testimony from  two of the most respected authors and consultants who together bring most than 50 years of experience working with the most important business and government organizations worldwide.

First, Rosabeth Kanter, of Harvard University, whom many consider to be the most astute and perceptive observer of organizations today:

Organizations are riddled with problems, dysfunctional practices and counterproductive arrangements.  Though externally they may appear to be sophisticated  and deliberate instruments of collective purpose, operationally they are …bulls in society’s china shop, with people lurching from one point to another, often seemingly out of control, and steered more by sheer momentum and by chance encounters than by design.

Riddled with problems?  Dysfunctional practices? Counterproductive arrangements?  ”Bulls in society’s china shop?”  Clearly, according to Kanter, there is serious trouble in River City.

A second witness is Stephen Covey, arguably the most successful and respected organization consultant in recent years:

Even the best organizations I’ve worked with [and Covey has worked with most of the biggest and best organizations in the world] are absolutely filled with problems. The pain from these problems is…becoming more acute…

Covey sees problems at all levels:

    Personal Level:  Where bright, creative people…feel straitjacketed, undervalued,  and uninspired.

   Relationship Level:  Where there is fundamental lack of trust, and many lack the skill and the mind-set to work out their differences in authentic, creative ways.

   Organizational Level:  Where a controlling management philosophy drives performance, communication, compensation/reward, training, information and other core systems that suppress human talent and voice.

Most of us, especially if we are closer to 50 years of age than to 30, will not be surprised with what Kanter and Covey tell us.  We have “been there, seen that.”  No matter the nature or the size of an organization, there will be problems; they will be persistent, complicated, messy.  In short, they will be wicked!

The problem is not in learning that there are problems – anyone who has spent any time working in an organization knows this –  but in dealing with them.  While there is no shortage of books, seminars, experts, and gurus who insist that they have the answers, almost all of  the “solutions” that they offer will not solve wicked problems, and will often create new ones.

What is needed in coming to terms with wicked problems in organizations are new ways of thinking and new ways of acting.  Since all wicked problems are unique, then each organization, under the direction of their leaders, must find its own unique path for managing their problems.  This path must include:

  •  a STRUCTURE for addressing wicked problems;
  • a PROCESS for working on them;
  • DISCIPLINE to continue the effort;
  • COMMITMENT to provide adequate resources
  • enough TIME to actually make a difference.

In the next post, I will offer examples of a STRUCTURE for addressing wicked problems from two very successful companies: General Electric’s Work-Out, and Google’s TGIF.