The Missing Competencies
As Brooke Co-founder Brett Nan Tie explains, tackling complex problems requires specific, and often elusive, skill sets.
The previous post on Complexity provided some useful insights and perspectives to help you understand the complexity of the challenge you are undertaking. It is important to map out this complexity so that we can apply the right competencies and controls needed to achieve your objective. Complexity, competencies and controls are the keys to the success of any change program.
Bear in mind that competencies and controls are interdependent – a highly competent team or organisation will require less stringent controls, and vice versa. Given this caveat, I will cover competencies in this post and controls in the next.
In particular I want to focus on the competencies that are required to tackle truly complex problems and transformational change programs but are often missing in organisations. They are missing for two key reasons.
The first is that formal education left most of us unprepared for the problems we now face in the real world. We were given well-bounded problems in which the solution was somewhere to be found in the problem itself. We have been trained to focus on analysis, on breaking the problem down into smaller pieces to establish cause and effect, in the hope that the solution will somehow reveal itself. We assume away most uncertainties so we can make the formula work. While there have been changes in education there is still a strong focus on rote learning – a shortcoming usually replicated in the work place. People are conditioned to remember and repeat rather than learn and create. However, problems we face in the real world – the really important problems – aren’t like this. They’re not well bounded or well defined. They are ambiguous, dynamic, multi-dimensional and interdependent.
The second reason that these vital competencies are missing is that we tend to focus on skill development in a functional way. By and large we still take a craft or trade based approach to training, where masters in particular domains of knowledge pass on their expertise to their apprentices. We then replicate this thinking in the way we structure our organisations. However, the problems we most need to solve require expertise from multiple disciplines. Also, the processes we use to deliver our organisational outcomes and create value for our customers normally run across functional boundaries. This functional thinking adds complexity to the way we operate. It also gets in the way of problem-solving because we view the problem from our individual functional perspectives rather than from an end-to-end or organisational view.
So, what are these missing competencies?
The first missing competency is problem-solving. This is the ability to identify and define the problem in the first place and avoid simply responding to symptoms and creating band-aid solutions. Sure, this first step involves analytical skills, but it is analysis aimed at understanding the characteristics and dynamics of the problem and its context. Once the problem is understood, solving it requires creativity and synthesis, the ability to think outside the square. Also, since a problem is rarely solved without changing the way people work, it involves creating all of the conditions required to make that change and to make it endure.
Another missing competency is the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. This means being comfortable in making decisions and moving forward with imperfect knowledge. It means actively managing and removing risks and identifying and validating key assumptions. Most of all it means being able to accept and deal with failure, or at least the prospect of failure, and to use it to learn, grow and advance. Unfortunately, this is often counter-cultural, but in today’s fast-changing world the wait for certainty is likely to be a long one. As industry disruptors are showing, to the cost of established organisations, the risks of doing nothing increasingly outweigh the risks of action.
This brings us to the final missing competency. This is not one you will find in the text books and it’s one that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It’s the ability to get things done in an organisation. It’s a combination of initiative, persistence (some might say stubbornness) and political nous. It’s the ability to understand how the organisation really works, the informal rules by which people actually work versus the espoused ones, and to use this to make things happen. Most organisations are organised around protecting the status quo – this competency is about working within the system to change the system. It’s also about doing this for the good of the organisation and for others rather than just for self-interest. In fact, this is normally a condition for exercising this competency successfully. Once others perceive that it is being used purely for self-interest they will either disengage or collude in what usually becomes a dysfunctional and self-defeating cycle.