Monthly Archives: March 2016

Becoming Skilled: The Existence of Undiscussables



March 26, 2016

A Skill for Wicked Problems:  

The Existence 
of Undiscussables



 What Elephant?

In 1935  singer and comedian Jimmy Durante starred in the Billy Rose Broadway musical Jumbo.  In one scene, Durante crosses the stage leading a huge elephant.  ”What are you doing with that elephant,” asks a policeman.  Durante’s answer, “What elephant?” always brought down the house.

An Elephant in the Room

When the consultants delivered their diagnosis about the effectiveness of the executive team, no one was surprised.  Their first conclusion was an observation that everyone already knew: “The most important problem in the senior team is  a reluctance to express openly what the members are thinking, especially if they believe that their ideas or suggestions are controversial.”   Unfortunately,  ”everyone” who knew this didn’t include John, the CEO and team leader.

John began the next team meeting by saying,  ”I have read the consultants’ report,” he said, “and I have a hard time believing that what they say is true.  I can’t imagine that here, in this team, there are people who are holding back. So we are going to begin this meeting by going around and asking that each one of you say exactly what you are thinking.”  He turned to Mary, sitting on his left.  ”Mary, you begin.”

The next hour was full of what Chris Argysis has called “Fancy Footwork.”  Each person worked hard to give the appearance of saying something important (” What I think is that we have worked hard to face up to our problems, and we have made good progress.  We just need to keep going.”), but actually danced around saying anything important.  They all knew it was too risky to say what they really thought.

Finally, it’s your turn.  Surprising everyone, even yourself,  you rise to your feet,  turn to look at your boss. and say in a clear and confident voice:  ”John, the consultants are right.  I’ll speak for myself, but I know that everyone else in this room feels the same way. There is an elephant in this room and all of us know it except you. Our problem is that we are afraid to talk about it. I don’t say what I think because it’s too dangerous. None of us do.  Why? Because I don’t trust you to hear me out and treat me fairly.  After all, everyone in this room saw what happened to Charles when he spoke up and disagreed with you.  The real problem here is not that we are not able to speak up and express ourselves, it is that we are fearful that there will be negative consequences.  And John, these consequences come from you.  You are the real source of this problem.”


Actually, you do nothing of the kind:  You do not stand, you do not speak to your boss, and just like everyone else you do not say what you think.  The elephant in the room is big and powerful and very much in charge.

Rather, when it’s your turn, you remain seated and say the innocuous, safe things that echo everyone else:  ”Sure we’ve got problems.  Everyone knows that.  But speaking up and saying what we think is not one of them.  I have no idea where the consultants got that idea.”  John nods at you and looks around the room, a broad smile on his face.

There is no actual elephant of course.  The “elephant” stands for  issues, situations, or events that everyone knows about but not is willing to discuss.

Elephants-in-Rooms have another name: They are the Undiscussables.

In all relationships and situations there are difficult issues and problems that with effort and patience can be openly discussed and, as a result, are often resolved.  And then there are those that can never be resolved because it is unacceptable, even forbidden, to name them, let alone discuss them.   These are issues, situations, events, that everyone knows are  off-limits and taboo.  They are not to be acknowledged, named or discussed.  These are the undiscussables.  The fact that they exist and not discussed compounds their toxicity since those who suffer their consequences are painfully aware that since they cannot be discussed, nothing will be done about them.

And they are found everywhere:  in families, in relationships, in teams and groups, in organizations,  in societies, and even in individuals’ private lives.  Wherever they are found, they contribute to making things worse.

Here are some examples:

Hume Cronyn’s Happy Family

Hume Cronyn, the renowned actor, grew up during the early years of the last century in a wealthy, upper class, Canadian family.  His father suffered from a chronic disease that caused him to suffer occasional seizures.  These seizures, when they occurred in public, were never acknowledged or discussed; they were assiduously ignored.  In his autobiography Cronyn writes of the time when they were having dinner and his father suffered a seizure and fell face-down into his food.  ”We all had to keep our places while they butler came over and righted my father, wiped him off carefully and served him a fresh plate.  After a while,” Cronyn writes,” he regained consciousness. He looked around, bewildered…as we resumed the conversation exactly where it had broken off.”  His father’s seizures were undiscussable, and family members had to pretend that they had never happened.

The Dance Critic

In December, 1994, dance critic Arlene Croce published  an article in The New Yorker  titled “Discussing the Undiscussable.”   The focus of her article was to explain why she was not going to write a review of the dance performance, “Still/Here,” created by  dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones. “In this piece,” writes Croce, “…Jones presents people who are terminally ill and talk about it.”  When Croce wrote her article she had not seen the performance and had no plans to see it.  A dance piece featuring people who were terminally ill and who talked about their experience of dying while other people were dancing out the meaning of their words was more than she could bear  ”I don’t deny that ‘Still/Here’  may be of value…But my approach has been cut off.  By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.  I think of him as literally undiscussable – the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs….For me,” Croce concluded “Jones is undiscussable  because he has taken sanctuary among the unwell.”

The Nun with a Glass Eye

A number of years ago I spent several days at a Catholic High School in San Antonio, Texas, helping the teachers and administers – nuns and brothers – increase their collaboration and communication skills.  During the time I spent with them, I was puzzled by the behavior of one of the nuns.  Whenever she spoke to me, or to anyone else, she would arrange to have her right hand covering her right eye.  She would  do this by making what seemed to be casual, even random movements of her hand in the vicinity of her eye.  It was as if she were telling us that having her hand in front of her eye meant nothing and so we shouldn’t notice.

Curious, I asked the Mother Superior about it.  ”Oh,” she said,” that’s Sister Mary Catherine.  She has a glass eye and she is ashamed of it.  She has spent the last eight years pretending that her eye is not made of glass, and because we love her, we have all joined in.  We never discuss the fact that Sister Mary Catherine has a glass eye, and we never let on that we all know.

“Eight years seems to be a long time to keep up the pretense,” I observed. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to talk about it with her?”

“Oh, we couldn’t do that, “she answered.  ”She would be devastated.”

“Or she might be relieved,” I countered.

We discussed the”glass-eye” problem for twenty minutes,  and eventually the Mother Superior agreed that it was time for everyone to discuss what up to that point has been undiscussable.

Later that afternoon, in a group session designed to identify issues and topics that people were avoiding but needed to talk about – the undiscussables- the Mother Superior turned to Sister Mary Catherine and said with great tenderness, “Sister Mary Catherine, please do not be offended, but I want you to know that we all know that you have a glass eye. Be assured that it makes no difference at all.  We love you the way you are.”

What happened next can only be described as a huge collective sigh of relief, followed by crying, laughing and hugging.  At last, Sister Mary Catherine was able to talk openly about her struggle to hide something that everyone knew about, and she was able to do it without any attempt to cover her now-famous glass eye.  Everyone acknowledged how much emotional energy had been wasted is trying to “play the game.”

The CEO’s Helicopter

During a time when I was consulting with a large company in Mexico, the CEO, facing a precarious economic climate, announced a major cost-cutting program.  The work force was to be cut by 15%, travel budgets were to be slashed,  the R & D program was put on hold, and for the next two years, there would be no raises.

As I interviewed key employees about the effects of this drastic attempt to cut costs,  anger and frustration was rampant.  It was not, however, directed so much at the cost-saving program itself – it was clear that something needed to be done – but to the fact that the CEO continued to arrive each morning as was his custom in his helicopter.   People could not understand, and some could not accept,  that he continued to arrive by helicopter even though he lived only 20 minutes away by car, and had a limo and driver available.    ”Carlos should be setting the example of saving money instead of arriving each morning in his helicopter,” said Francisco, the VP of Operations, “It would send a powerful example.”

“Shall we bring it up in the next meeting?”  I asked.

“No, no, no, we can’t do that.  What Carlos spends can never be mentioned, and to suggest he cut some of his own expenses is forbidden.”

“You mean it’s undiscussable?” I asked.

“Exactly,” said Francicso.  It’s muy, muy  undiscussable!”

And he was right.  It was never discussed.

 The Vision and Values Statement

In every office and meeting room at the New York branch of a large, multinational bank, hangs a plaque upon which two statements appear. They are titled “Our Vision,” and “Our Values.” When I first arrived at the bank as a consultant I studied them and found them to be quite profound.  Later, I asked someone about them:  ”Do people ever talk about the Vision and Values statements that I see hanging on the wall everywhere? ”  What I got in return was a blank look, a sophisticated version of “Huh?”

“What are you talking about?” my contact asked

“In every office that I have been in, I see a plaque listing the bank’s Vision and Values.  Does any ever refer to them?”

He thought for a moment.  ”Nah,” he said, “they’re just for show.”

“Then why does the bank have them?”

“You know, I’ve never thought about it.  What I do know is that they are the pet project of the Chairman of the Board of Directors.  Ten or twelve years ago he brought in a consultant and we all went through an exercise to come up with a vision statement and a list of our values.   And what we produced is right there on everybody’s wall.”

During the next week, I asked eight or nine people about them, and the answer  was the same.  No one could tell me without looking at what was on the plaque that hung in their office; no one could remember a time when they were even mentioned.

Later, while meeting with the CEO, I asked about the plaques and suggested that the Chairman of the Board ought to know that no one seems to be paying any attention to them.  Perhaps something ought to be done, I suggested.

“Oh no,” he said.  ”We can’t say anything about them.  The Chairman  believes that they are the foundation of our corporate culture and they have made an enormous difference is the success of the bank.”

“You mean that the fact that no one can tell me what they are, and no one thinks that they are important is undiscussable,” I said.

“Yes,” he responded, “that’s it. They’re undiscussable.”

Harvard Business School’s Intractable Problem

In 2013, Jodi Kantor published a story in The New York Times in which she identified what she claimed that “The country’s premier business school was trying to solve a seemingly intractable problem.”

The problem was a a gender inequality problem:  ”Year after year,” wrote Kantor, “women who had arrived with the same test scores and grades as men fell behind. Attracting and retaining female professors was a losing battle; from 2006 to 2007, a third of the female junior faculty left.”

For the women students, there was confusion.  They were likely to be sized up on how they looked rather than what they knew.  Being too ambitious risked being punished, being too passive resulted in being ignored.  ”I had no idea who, as a single woman, I was meant to be on campus,” said Neda Navab, the daughter of Iranian immigrants.  She wondered whether her priorities supposed to be “purely professional, were they academic,  [or]were they to start dating someone?”

For the women junior faculty members, there was fear:  ”As a female faculty member, you are in an incredibly hostile teaching environment, and they do nothing to protect you,” said one woman who left without tenure.  A current teacher told Kantor that she was so afraid of a “wardrobe malfunction” that “she wore only custom suits in class, her tops invisibly secured to her skin with double-sided tape.”  The comparison of the women teachers with men did nothing to bolster their confidence:  ”The female profs I had were clearly weaker than the male ones,” said Halle Tecco, a 2011 graduate.  ”They weren’t able to really run the classroom the way the male ones could.”

Making matters worse, the gender issues were undiscussable:  ”You weren’t supposed to talk about it in open company,” said Kathleen L. Mcginn, a professor who supervised a study that showed a grade gap between men and women students.  ”It was a dirty secret that wasn’t discussed.”

It Gets Worse:  Making Undiscussables Undiscussable.

While the presence of undiscussables in families, relationships and organizations is itself a wicked problem, it is also a contributing factor to many if not most of the other wicked problems -after all, if something cannot be discussed then there is no way to work on it.   Yet there is something that is even more destructive to morale, satisfaction and productivity than the presence of undiscussable issues and situations: When the existence of undiscussable problems becomes itself  undiscussable.  In Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, author Chris Argysis insists that the key causal factor for failure in relationships and organizations is when the critical problems that need to be surfaced and discussed  ”were  undiscussable, and their undiscussability was undiscussable.”

The presence of undiscussables is a serious but not an uncommon or an insurmountable problem. Addressed in skillful and careful ways, undiscussable problems can be discussed! But when the existence of these undiscussable issues,  situations and problems becomes itself undiscussable, then all hope for improvement disappears.  When important problems in relationships and organizations have the potential to be destructive in people’s lives and cannot be discussed, and the fact that they cannot be discussed itself cannot be discussed, then the the relationships and  the organizations are in very serious trouble.  If it is forbidden to even hint that “there could be an elephant in this room ,” then  the elephant is going to be around for a long time, doing what elephants do when they find themselves in territory where they do not belong.

For the CEO in Mexico, the undiscussable issue of his profligacy in the midst of a campaign to cut costs everywhere else was clearly undiscussable:  it could not even be hinted, at let alone discussed, and everyone knew it. When each morning the helicopter skimmed in over the company offices, a thousand people ground their teeth and muttered obscene words under their breaths.

Discussing Undiscussables

When difficult situations and issues in relationships and organizations are  avoided, there is usually a good reason. People believe that to talk about them could be rude, or impolite, risky, or even dangerous.  And so, over time, such issues become undiscussable.  Soon unwritten rules  emerge:  ”Everybody knows that it not acceptable to say anything about the way Brad abuses the staff,” and so even though it makes people upset, they pretend that it doesn’t happen.   Without a serious effort, one that is carefully prepared and skillfully managed, undiscussables cannot be moved from the Undiscussable Category to the table where, in the light of day,  they can be discussed, examined, and decisions about what do with them can be made.

In the next essay I will review useful steps to take and potential risks to avoid in the process of discussing undiscussables.





Becoming Skilled: Making Problems Actionable


February 29, 2016



A Skill for Wicked Problems:  

Create problems by extracting them from “messes” and making them Actionable.

A man holding an envelope in his hand approached J. P. Morgan, at the time the world’s richest man,  and said:  ”Sir,  I have here a formula that is guaranteed to bring success to anyone.  I will gladly sell it to you for $25,000.”

“Sir,” J. P. Morgan replied, “I do not know what is in the envelope.  If you allow me to see it, however, and I like it, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will pay  you what you ask.”

The man agreed and handed over the envelope.  J. P. Morgan opened it, took out a single sheet of paper, glanced at it, put it back in the envelope and handed it back.  He then took out his checkbook and wrote a check for $25,000 and gave it to the man.

The contents of the note?

1.  Every morning, write down a list of the things that need to be done that day.

2. Do them.

Brilliant!  And not so brilliant!  This is an example of what Hamlet called “The Rub” as in “Ay, there’s the rub..”  In Shakespeare’s time “a rub” was a term used in lawn bowling and referred to an unevenness in the ground that impeded the bowling ball from traveling in a straight line.  In other words, a difficulty, or an obstacle – in a word – a problem.

Making a list of important things to do in order to be successful is easy.     Anyone can do it – and many do.   What is not so easy, and sometimes impossible,  is the next step:  selecting the most important item on the “To Do” list and actually “doing it.”  In other words,  it is what must happen next that makes a difference:  translating the good ideas and good intentions on the list into  positive changes in one’s own life and in the lives of other people – “Ay, there’s the rub.”

Pope Francis’ Vision of Heaven on Earth 

Recently, when I read the words of Pope Francis to the Catholic faithful in Mexico, I was reminded of the words of wisdom for which J. P. Morgan paid thousands of dollars: Name the essential things and then do them.

On February 15, 2016, Pope Francis spoke to hundreds of thousands of worshipers in Ecatpec, Mexico  one of the poorest and most desperate of the many slums that surround Mexico City and told them what they should do.  Standing on a giant stage with people stretching out in all directions, the Pope counseled them to make their nation into “a land of opportunities, where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work, no need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”

Underlying the Pope’s hopeful language were many of the devastating problems facing Mexico:  unemployment, economic inequality,  lack of education, lack of adequate health care for all, drug cartels, pervasive violence,   corruption at all levels of government, organized crime, and human trafficking. Pope Francis was, in effect, asking his audience to confront the wicked problem that were making their lives so miserable.

I’m sure the Pope’s intentions were good.  He was doing what Popes, pastors priests, and ministers do:  describe a vision of a sanctified and beneficent society, a heaven on earth, and then encourage us to bring it into existence. What Pope Francis did not say – what he could not say – was to explain to the faithful in specific and concrete terms how to bring into existence this Heaven on Earth.  The advice that the Pope and all religious leaders offer – “Be obedient, and follow the teachings of Christ, or God, or Allah, or Buddha” – does not get rid of the “rub.”

An Agenda for the 21st Century

It is not only the poor people in Ecatepec and other towns and cities in Mexico who are struggling with large number of seemingly insurmountable problems.  All people and all countries everywhere have their own lists.  While the problems that appear on the lists are different from one country to another, some clearly more serious than others, all people everywhere  are trying to find ways to transform them into actual improvements and eventually  social progress.    So far, however,  no community, no nation, no people, no religion has been able to create its hoped for Heaven on Earth.

Author and philosopher Rushford Kidder was interested this  conundrum   on a global scale:  How can the problems of the world  be transformed into actions that lead to progress?  he wondered.  Before he could begin to propose solutions to world-wide problems, however,  he realized that he did not know what they were, and so he set out to discover them.  He was guided by the following questions:

“What’s on the world’s agenda for the 21st century?  What are the fundamental issues that humanity must address if the 21st centuries to be a viable age?  Which ones are of first intensity, and which are important but secondary?”

In other words, what’s on the world’s list?

Unlike the Pope, who is confident that his vision of Heaven on Earth is the true one, Kidder knew that he was not wise enough or brave enough to create the world’s list   His solution to this tame problem?    He sought out people who should know –  the most eminent and respected world leaders – and asked them to help him create the world’s list: the most important global problems that  if addressed successfully, would result in, if not a  secular Heaven on Earth, at least a global society that would survive and even flourish.

He interviewed  22 people – philosophers, historians, political leaders, presidents, business leaders, poets, novelists, ecologists- and presented his findings in An Agenda for the 21st Century, published in 1987.  His analysis of the interview data yielded six “first intensity issues,”   issues  so important for the future of the world, that “humanity must devote its full attention and its unstinting resources” to addressing them.  Here is his list:

  • The threat of nuclear annihilation;
  • The danger of overpopulation;
  • The degradation of the global environment;
  • The gap between the developing and the industrial worlds;
  • The need for fundamental restructuring of educational system;
  • The breakdown in public and private morality.

And once again, “There’s a rub.”  Despite all of their experience and wisdom, none of these respected “wise people” could describe with any degree of confidence where to start and what to do in order for the world to begin addressing these critical issues, let alone to “solve” them.  The wise men and women were good at naming the problems,  but beyond insisting they were “critical,” not so good at suggesting what should be done about them.

Who’s Responsible?

In her Forward to Kidder’s  book, An Agenda for the 21st Century,  Katherine Fanning, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, understands this dilemma.  While Kidder was able to identify the most important problems that the world is facing in the 21st century, problems so serious that the world “must devote its full attention and unstinting resources” to addressing them, she confesses that the book contains no answers:  ”This book does not attempt to provide solutions for all of the problems it raises.”  So what needs to be done?    ”Agendas never accomplish anything until they are acted upon,” she observes,  ”the next step is to press toward solutions.”

And who should do the pressing?  Each individual person is her answer:  ”We believe that each individual has an urgent responsibility to consider the impact of today’s decisions and…building upon the wisdom of this collection of thinkers, begins to form his or her agenda for the 21st century.”

Can Individuals Make a Difference?

If Mexican citizens as individuals are responsible for addressing such serious issues in their country as corruption and violence,  inadequate health care,  or human trafficking; when citizens of the world as individuals are responsible for the global crises of the degradation of the global environment, or the breakdown in public and private morality, then what should they do? What can they do?  Where should they start?

While there may be many answers to the question, “What should they do?” there are no constructive answers to the question, “What can they do?”  When it is Individual against “The gap between the developing and the industrial worlds,”  few possibilities present themselves except “worry a lot!” Few possibilities that is, unless things change.  What is needed is to find within the larger issue a problem of appropriate size and scale, one that is Actionable,  one that when attacked by a person or a group, will give ground.

Human Scale and Its Importance

The dilemma here is one of scale. Human trafficking in Mexico is a societal problem.  A single citizen can do little unless he or she can find a “human” sized aspect of human trafficking to address. As human beings, we are best able to work on problems that have been “right-sized:”  These must be problems with the size and structure that allow us to understand them and, with our available  resources and experiences,  imagine getting our arms around them, and then developing a plan which guides our actions toward making that “human” sized problem better.  Our first task toward creating an actionable problem, then, is to create a problem that has Human Scale.

Remember that the issues, problems, and crises faced by the citizens of Mexico and by the citizens of the world are not actuallly problems at all but “messes,” When individuals treat “messes” as problems, what results is an exercise in futility, one that is filled with endless debate over “what is the problem” and what to do about it.  These  debates are never resolved.  As we have seen in previous essays, the designation of “mess” for our social and organizational problems comes from the writings of organizational theorist Russell Ackoff.   Messes are large, complex, dynamic constellations of issues, situations, dilemmas, and  conundrums, many of which  are seen by some people as potential  problems.  The “problems” that the Pope named in Mexico and that Rushford Kidder summarized in his book are not problems but”messes.” Ackoffs conclusion is “[People] do not solve problems, they manage messes.”  Problems, the kind  that can be addressed, attacked and grappled with by individuals and groups exist within a mess in  embryonic form.  In order to bring them to life,  they must be extracted from the mess, given shape and structure, and prepared so that constructive work can begin.

Make Problems Actionable

How, then, can  Mexican citizens, mired as they are in an innevervating poverty, be expected to take action against human trafficking or the drug cartels? How are individual citizens of the world expected to confront the “the economic gap between developing and industrial nations?”  The answer is, create Actionable Problems.

Here are the steps:

First:  An individual or group selects some aspect of the “mess” – a potential problem –  that is for them interesting, important, and doable, and begins to transform it into a problem that can be worked on.

 Second:  A workable problem emerges when a gap is created between the unsatisfactory present and a more desirable future.  We are Here, and we want to be There.

Third:   Once the gap between the present and the future is determined, then the individual or group begins the process of identifying the obstacles that stand in the gap and block the way from moving from the present state to the future one.

Fourth:  An Action Plan, one that when implemented can be expected to remove or bypass obstacles and permit movement toward agreed-upon goals, then emerges.

In summary,  a potential problem is turned into an Actionable Problem by   concerned or committed individuals who locate in the middle of a “mess” an area of concern –  a potential problem –  and work to identify a “gap:”  First they define a more desirable future, then they determine the present state or condition, and then they create a plan for eliminating the obstacles that stand in the way.

John Woolman Revisited

In a previous essay, I shared the story of John Woolman who, in the late 1700′s, became convinced that slavery was evil and needed to be eliminated.  Yet there was little that Woolman could do as an individual to attack directly the institutional “mess” of slavery.

So he set about creating an Actionable Problem he could attack.

As  a member of the Quaker community,  he knew that many of his brethren were slave owners.   Here was an aspect of slavery that he could personally address.  In his mind, Woolman created a problem that had human scale, one that consisted of  a “gap” between the unsatisfactory present and a desirable future.   When he began, the present state was that many members of the faith owned slaves; in the future,  Woolman hoped, those slaves would be freed.

His “action plan” consisted of traveling throughout the States and personally exhorting each Brother to free his slaves.  He spent the last twenty years of his life implementing his plan.  But even though the Brethren eventually freed their slaves,  Slavery itself was not defeated.  It continued on for almost a century until it was finally brought down by the Civil War.

Problems, Dysfunctional Practices, and Counterproductive Arrangements

Anyone who has worked for any length of time in an organization can agree with Rosa Beth Kanter’sdescription of what organizational life is like on the inside:

“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 societies’ china shop, with people lurching from one point to another, often seemingly out of control, and steered more by this sheer momentum and by chance encounters than by design.”

Confronted with such a description – and trusting the person who provided it –  anyone who was responsible for such a place would ask is “What can we do about these problems?”

The answer, unfortunately, is “not much,”  at least with the “bulls in societies’ china shop,” or “people lurching form one point to another, seemingly out of control.” What Kanter has described with these phrases is an “Organizational Mess.”  What is needed is the creation of Actionable Problems of human scale  that can be understood and addressed by a group of concerned people.

One place to begin is to home in on what Kanter calls “problems, dysfunctional practices and counterproductive arrangements.”  People in  organizations are all familiar with their own brand of problems  dysfunctional practices,  and counterproductive arrangements.  They are everywhere, and the people who work there suffer their consequences  on a daily basis.   There are no organizations, either in the private or public spheres, that are not “riddled” with these kinds of problems and the people who work there know what they are!  If the members of an organization are so inclined – which means that they feel safe enough and can see some benefit for themselves and for the organization – they can describe them in great detail..

Imagine for a moment that a company decides to learn more about its “dysfunctional practices,”  and so invites a consultant to help it.  After interviewing a large number of key employees, the consultant is able to name the most serious two dysfunctional practices:  ”Ineffectual Team Meetings” and the “360 Feedback Review Process”  and identifies a number of specific behaviors and practices that they include.

Now that the two most important dysfunctional practices have been identified, named, and specific dysfunctional behaviors have been identified, work can move forward in creating Actionable Problems for each  situation that when addressed, offer opportunities for consecutive movement forward.

“Consequential,” “Essential,” and Actionable

In The Future of Management,  author and consultant Gary Hamel suggests that future success for leaders is predicated upon their “passion for solving  extraordinary problems that create the potential for extraordinary accomplishment.”  Yet in recent years, Hamel insists, most leaders can be faulted for a “lack of daring in the choice of problems to tackle.”  His recommendation couldn’t be more clear:  ”Devote yourself to a problem that is consequential and inspiring, essential and laudable!”

Who could disagree? What I would add, however, is that before you begin work on these “consequential, inspiring, essential and laudable”  problems, you make them Actionable!  Then, and only then, can your work be productive. Otherwise, regardless of your passion, commitment and good intentions, you are destined to be wasting your time.