Monthly Archives: November 2014

Rattlers and Pythons

IMG_0353November 9

When it comes to working on problems, and especially wicked ones, a key insight is “Structure is Always Better than Good Intentions!”  Success with problems is tied directly to creating a structured process for finding and attacking problems.  In the last post, I described two structured approaches to finding and dealing with organizational problems:  GE’s Work Out, and Google’s TGIF.

In the GE experience, once leaders, managers, employees and consultants became proficient in using Work Out to “mess with Mr. InBetween,” they realized that the problems they identified and worked on fell into two categories which they called  ”Rattlers” and “Pythons.”

“Rattler” problems were named in respect to the rattlesnakes that are native to the American West.  Although  usually found in plain sight, coiled up on a rock, shaking their rattles to warn you if you got too close,  many people didn’t notice them.  Once they were pointed out, however, they were perfectly obvious to everyone.

Rattler problems were relatively easy to fix.  Once a rattler was recognized, the leader, without much risk, would draw his or her revolver out of its holster and blow its head off – a straightforward solution.  Problem found,  identified and named (“It’s a rattler”), and with one shot, problem solved. The group was ready to move on to the next problem.

“Pythons” were an entirely different kind of problem.  They were huge, much bigger than the rattlesnakes, and were slimy and repulsive.  They were never found in plain sight curled up on a rock taking the sun, but always submerged deep down into the muck and mud of the swampy part of the organizational culture.  They were seldom seen or even talked about, though many people had a vague sense that they existed.

When some intrepid “snake hunter” would announce that there was a python in the swamp and that something needed to be done about it, others would react with outrage and denial, often insisting that it couldn’t be true.  The “python announcer” would be in in jeopardy, seen as a “naysayer”and a complainer, and was often punished. Since people who were responsible for a python had consistently ignored it, or even benefited  from its presence, others quickly learned that it was not a good idea to announce the presence of a python in the swamp.

Dealing with a python turns out to be much more difficult than shooting off the head of a rattler.  Pythons can never be seen clearly, submerged as they are in the dank and murky waters of the swamp.  There is nothing to shoot at.  If a “Lone Ranger” tries to get close enough to get off a shot, he or she would be wasting ammunition;  or, even worse,  running a risk of the snake rearing up out of the muck, and dragging her down into the swamp to finish her off by throwing coil after coil of its massive body around him and squeezing him to death.

As  the GE people learned more about their python problems, they discovered that the traditional way of treating them – assuming that they were rattlers and and so what was called for was to shoot off their heads – was counterproductive.  When it came to pythons, what was required was a different approach. What worked best was to gather together a diverse group of people who, working together, could, find, name, and define the problem, each person bringing to the table a specific skill, specialized knowledge or unique insight.   First, a person was needed who could organize the group into an effective team in order to determine the nature of this specific python. Once it was identified and named,  it was essential to have on the team people who knew a lot about pythons and about the swamps they liked to hide in;  people who had wrestled pythons before;  and people who knew what to do with pythons once they were captured.

It was also essential to include on the team people who could  invent in real time new and different strategies for getting it under control.

And finally,  having enough human resources – arms, legs, minds and muscles – was crucial, so that once the python was found and exposed, members of the team could get down into the swamp,  get their arms around it, and  have enough strength to lift it out of the swamp and subdue it, all the while avoiding being pulled down and crushed.

There is a risk in bringing together a group of people to figure out what to do with a python.  If they only talk, talk,talk and then do nothing,  not only does the python gets bigger and stronger, but people will become cynical that any serious action will be taken.  In the meantime,  the python  will continue to hide out in the swamp and wreak its havoc.  Talking is never enough. Once  the members of the team have created an action plan for dealing with the python,  they need to get out of the conference room,  get down into the swamp, and confront the python head on!

It is clear that the GE  Work Out has been successful in many settings in dealing with both “rattlers” and “pythons.” Equally important were the important lessons that people learned about working on problems along the way. Many people, however,  when face-to-face with a difficult problem,  do not go beyond announcing  ”It’s a rattler,” and quickly reach for their pistols.   After all, they think,” a problem is a problem is a problem,” and what you do with problems is solve them!

A classic example is the blatant approach presented by Ross Perot.  Founder of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1962. Perot sold his company to General Motors in 1984, and immediately became a vociferous critic of how GM did things.  Bragging about those who came from EDS, he said in 1986, “The first EDSer who sees a snake kills it.  At General Motors, the first thing you do is organize a committee on snakes. Then you bring in a consultant who knows a lot about snakes.  Third thing you do is talk about it for a year.”

Perot was both right and wrong. He was right when he criticized GM for its tendency to  talk problems to death. He was wrong when he assumed that what was required was to “shoot all snakes.”  If the problem was a “rattler,” then he was on target.  But since most of the problems GM was struggling with at the time – and ever since – were pythons and not rattlers, he was very, very wrong.  You cannot shoot pythons and hope to accomplish anything.

Part of the problem that Perot was criticizing was that those in charge at GM, while well prepared to talk about shooting rattlers,  fired few shots because of bureaucratic restrictions. The situation was even more complicated by the fact that most of the problems were not rattlers at all but pythons, and the GM leaders didn’t know it. They needed help in understanding the difference!  Bringing in consultants who knew the difference between rattlers and pythons, and especially those who knew a lot about what it took to wrestle with pythons, would have been an excellent idea.

What is clear is that Perot, in his attack on GM, confused “rattlers” with “pythons.”  People who share this confusion – and there are many – usually hold several hidden assumptions about problems and what to do about them:

- Things are simple.  After all,  ”A problem is a problem is a problem; ”

- I am expert in finding problems;

- I know what needs to be done;

- I have a pistol;

- I am a really good shot;

- I can shoot its head off;

- So let’s just Fire,  and don’t worry about Ready, Aim.

Actually, as we have seen, a problem is not a problem is not a problem.  While all problems have some elements in common, they are also different in important ways.

Let’s take one more  look at our “Problem Cowboy” who is busy reaching for his pistol:  First, what he thinks is the problem will almost always be seen differently by others.  Once other people  hear what our Cowboy thinks is the problem, they will often disagree:  ”What you think is a problem,” they say, “is not really important.”  If our “cowboy” continues forward, he runs the risk of investing time, effort, and resources in trying to “fix” something that doesn’t need “fixing,” as well as alienating others who may have important insights to contribute.  Every situation involves other people in one way or another and they must be part of defining the problem before any actions are taken.

Second, our “cowboy” may be a bad shot, and when he pulls the trigger he may inflict collateral damage on innocent bystanders.

Third, if the problem is a python and not a rattler, taking pot shots may only make it angry!

And finally, a single individual with an itchy trigger finger needs to slow down, ask, listen, explore, and involve others, in order to learn what kind of a snake is out there, and, once there is a greater understanding of the problem,  work together with other people to decide what is best.  Pulling out a pistol and waving it around may be the worst thing to do!

In 1973, when Horst Riddle and Melvin Webber came up with the insight that problems can be divided into two categories – tame and wicked – they were clear in insisting the wicked problems were not necessarily evil or immoral except when they were treated as if they were tame.  Treating  pythons as if they were rattlers,  according to their view,  is not only wrong, but it also makes things worse.

GE’s experience with Rattlers and Pythons helps us come to a number of important conclusions about the pythons that are lurking all organizational swamps, some of which are these:

  • There are important differences between problems.  They are not alike!
  • What is required are “different takes on different snakes;”
  • No matter how successful one has been in the past in shooting off the heads of rattlers, no single person knows enough or has the skill to take on a python alone.  
  • When it comes to wrestling with pythons, more of us is better than one of us.
  •  Since most people have had limited experience in getting pythons under control, working with teams whose members have a wide array of perspectives and skills is essential.
  • Creative thinking and innovative actions will move things forward.  Thinking and acting differently are what is required.

GE’s experience with Work Out, and their discovery that the problems they uncovered fell into two different categories, supports our conviction about the existence and importance of tame and wicked problems, aka known as rattler and pythons.  Unfortunately, there are many people in key positions who think that all problems are rattlers, and, unaware that most of them are actually pythons hiding in the swamps, they are quick to pull out their pistols and blaze away.  When many of these problems refuse to die, and even seem to gain more life, they end up puzzled, confused, and  disappointed.  And then, all too often, they start looking for someone to blame.