The following blog is a thinkpiece in response to CFAR’s “Action Learning—Improving Organizational Performance through Team Learning” Briefing Note. Our Briefing Notes are short summaries of linked themes that begin with our clients—practices we find that unlock client dilemmas, ideas that generate new thinking and behavior, notions that come to us prompted by reading the popular and professional press that we then apply in the service of helping clients. These write-ups represent a tradition of thinking in practice, hoping they can be little pearls of wisdom garnered from reflecting on our work. With over 240 currently on file, CFAR’s Briefing Notes stand to represent the integrity of academic thought that has gone into our client engagements over our 30 years in business.
In my early career, I worked for a software and consulting firm that helped organizations with strategy execution. I was lucky to have the firm’s CEO—who had been at Florida Power and Light (FPL) when it won the Deming Prize for quality—as a mentor. For those of you familiar with Lean Six Sigma, you may recall that FPL was the first non-Japanese company to win the award since it was founded in 1951. As a member of the FPL team that won the Deming Prize, my CEO was in a good position to offer a valuable piece of advice that he learned directly from Deming’s Japanese examiners: stay with the problem.
During my time at CFAR, I’ve learned firsthand the risk that comes with ignoring this time-tested advice. Whether it was a hospital system trying to improve patient satisfaction scores or a manufacturing firm trying to speed up its go-to-market time, I’ve witnessed organizations getting stuck by trying to move too quickly to a solution. Considerable energy and resources were put into implementation, only to find that the “needle” hadn’t moved.
More recently, a client asked CFAR to help them surface some potential initiatives for growth in targeted customer segments, in support of a strategy to grow awareness of the organization more broadly. In my first meeting with the client team, I could already sense a subtle rush toward solutions. As we often do at CFAR, I paired with a colleague to help design an approach to the work. Tapping into the 30 years of collective wisdom at the firm, my colleague drew my attention to a Briefing Note called “Action Learning—Improving Organizational Performance through Team Learning.” Reading through it, I was immediately struck by a quote that echoed the reaction I was having and brought back those words of advice from my mentor. The quote was from the famous American inventor Charles Kettering:
“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”
Like many of the methods at CFAR, there’s a rich well of ideas behind Action Learning. One idea that I found particularly helpful in the Briefing Note was the notion that how we frame a problem affects the range of solutions that we can see. In my client’s case, the problem could have been easily framed in more than one way: as a marketing issue or as a technology issue—both setting very different guardrails around the set of potential initiatives they would explore. I took a few key ideas from a tool called Problem Mapping that is mentioned in the Briefing Note to help me with this: inviting a diverse set of participants to the conversation, listing all the possible causes of the problem and the interrelationships among them, examining where they lacked hard data to support their assumptions, and asking them to articulate three alternative ways to frame the problem. By staying with the problem longer, I found that the participants brought in more quantitative and qualitative data to the conversation, as well as a richer set of perspectives. What emerged was a shared framing of the customer growth issue and its causes and effects.
Beyond the client, however, I noticed that the Briefing Note had a lasting impact on the way I engage clients, colleagues, and even friends. I find myself joining more fully into a CFAR culture that values taking the time to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for the power of patience.