The first moment of agreement is on what exactly the problem is. However, with long-standing problems it may be possible that people have resigned themselves to the problem, or may have grown so used to it that they don’t notice it anymore. In such cases it is sometimes more difficult, and requires more deliberate effort to get clear agreement on the problem.
“If you could get the drawings on time, would you be able to reduce the average manufacturing time on your part of the work?” I asked.
Fred just shook his head, and replied, “It’s a meaningless question, because we all know engineering has never been able to deliver on time.”
The above conversation may not be perfectly quoted, and Fred’s name is not really Fred, but this was a conversation that I had with a client where we needed to reduce manufacturing time. This type of response, however, is actually quite common when trying to address long-standing problems.
When problems become the accepted norm
In the nine layers to resistance to change, the first layer is disagreement on the problem, sometimes even disagreement that there is a problem at all. However, there is a more subtle variant to this that typically comes into play when dealing with long-standing problems – also sometimes referred to as “wicked problems.”
When problems have been around for a long time, and several attempts at resolving them have failed, people begin to accept these problems as part of reality. They then begin to develop coping mechanisms to adjust what is within their control, to effectively living with, and around these problems.
There comes a point where problems have been around for so long, that they are not even recognized as problems any more, but simply accepted as a normal part of the environment.
The more wicked the problem – the more difficult to focus the agreement
It is always important to get agreement on the first layer – on the definition of the problem – but with these wicked problems it is even more important to keep this first agreement away from the rest of the layers until it is agreed. It is very common the moment you try to get this agreement, that the conversation will turn to all the things that have been tried before, and all the reasons why this problem is difficult, or impossible to solve, and all the reasons why the person you are talking to is not the one to have to solve this. All of these things may contain some truth – but if you allow that truth to enter the conversation at this point, you will never get past the first moment of agreement.
If you cannot get to the first moment of agreement, you can never move on to even talking about the direction or the details of the solution and the implementation. It is at those layers that you will begin to unpack all the reasons why it may be difficult to solve this problem.
This often takes some very deliberate putting aside of any and every comment that does not relate to defining the problem.
Of course, that does not mean not listening to these comments. As with every one of the Nine Moments of Agreement, part of the process of reaching agreement is listening to others and confirming that your view of the situation is correct – and adjusting it if you are proven wrong.
It just means that you have to be very clear about focusing on defining, and agreeing on, the problem first – before you start moving towards talking about the direction of the solution. First be clear on what has to change, before you start thinking about what to change it to.
To your success