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2 Cognitive Tactics for Solving Organizational Challenges

By Vlad Zams.   

management, cognition

Apart from exploring a rather long real-world story, in this article we’re going to tackle 2 generic yet simple highly practical approaches on analyzing problems related to what’s primarily within a manager’s scope of work – meetings, plans, projects, people. As a side note, I’d like to say that the following may somehow correlate with the practical aspects of the philosophy of definition.

1. The Paired Questions

The 1st practical point is to acknowledge that to each question that we’re asking ourselves when dealing with a problem, there is an inverse question that may bring an additional perspective. That is, if we ask “what is it?”, there may be an additional value by also asking “what is it not?”. Few examples:

  • “What topics do we want to cover during this call?” and “what topics do we not want to cover in this call?”
  • “What could cause this issue?” and “What could not cause this issue?”

I’d argue that in a case when we feel underinformed about a problem and clearly sense that we don’t know the answer to certain straightforward questions about it, at that very moment we may not realize that we are way focused on just one of these paired questions. That may prevent us from being able to easily conclude a few more useful things by asking the opposite question to each of the questions we came up with so far. And those things have a chance to break the dead loop of thinking that the problem is hard, and feeling bad about realizing that our analysis doesn’t lead to anything productive.

So, for example, in case we don’t know how to manage a particular engineer, it may be useful to think about what kind of management style or approach we certainly do not want to apply for that person. And just by thinking and answering this “what it is not” question, our consciousness may bring us some details about what to think about next and maybe even what to do next. And that on its own can be considered as nothing but success. Yes, maybe just an intermediate success, but still a better thing than looping around a thought like “oh, the problem is hard, and I have no idea how to approach it”.

2. Expanding vs. Constraining

This technique is somewhat derived from the Paired Questions one. It’s about that sometimes we may achieve a noticeable increase with structuring something not only by expanding it, but rather by constraining it. Here I have a story to share. Some time ago one of my colleagues (who was also a part-time manager) had noticeable issues with organizing meetings and calls so that they would be perceived as efficient and productive for all the participants.

After a number of attempts of me explaining how I see that colleague could improve, we both saw that we were failing to fix that issue. The meetings initiated by that colleague were still poorly organized. That was easily observed by how the other participants reacted before, during the meeting, as well as afterwards.

A side note: the afterward reaction tends to be the most representative and along with that – the hardest to monitor and manage… because people just go back to their micro communities and share comments, rumors, jokes, likes and dislikes of many flavors: salty, peppered, chilling, etc. There is nothing innately bad about that. But being unaware of it increases risk of missing a bad trend.

After struggling for quite a bit with figuring out what to do, I did… Well, I did nothing primarily because I tend not to do anything before I figure out what would be a good thing to do. And back then I had not much of an idea.

And then there was a period in the company when we had a number of decisions to make which involved that colleague. And not surprisingly, I attended a noticeable amount of poorly organized meetings for a couple of weeks, every other day and sometimes even more frequently. Not surprisingly, the deadline for those decisions were getting closer and not surprisingly I saw that we were not progressing fast enough. It became a somewhat stressful time.

And then I had an amazing revelation… Actually, no, I didn’t – and it would be more funny if it were not disappointing. It even got slightly worse. Being worried about other tasks, from time to time I allowed myself to take a suboptimal, yet the shortest route: I skipped some of the meetings or their parts notifying all the attendees a few seconds before leaving.

It was not a surprise that doing so was not helpful for making certain decisions which, like any others, could not be made by themselves. On top of that, I could also feel that the tension between the other team members about me increased because (not surprisingly) they started assuming that I didn’t care about meetings, and possibly didn’t care about the decisions… and the next stop for them would be to think that I didn’t care them as professionals or – even worth – as people. It was a risky move.

When I returned to those meetings, not surprisingly they still were not organized much better. And seeing no solution what I did was just upgrading the previous tactic a bit so it became more explicit: at the beginning of each meeting I started announcing that I don’t have more than X minutes. Along with that, 7-10 min prior to reaching the time limit, I started reminding my X minutes were about to be over and in 10-7 minutes we may need to wrap up this session or continue it without me. Along with that I shared with everyone that I’m ok with an unlimited number total of meetings (i. e. nor more than X per week) on any particular decision we have to make.

Eventually it worked. No, that colleague didn’t magically learn how to organize meetings better, however, we as a team became much more efficient and productive. Others realized that it is ok to announce hard stops more promptly, as well as stay connected after certain people left. That is, the bad impact of those meetings for us as a team including the colleague who organized that series of meetings was eliminated by a noticeable degree. We all needed to adapt a bit in term of how we pause and finish the meetings, but that was a far less nuanced challenge than making a creative person change her approach to organizing and conducting meetings.

So, conceptually we stopped expanding our communication system towards the desirable state by either allocating more time, or putting more effort into preparation, or looking for a framework that would allow us to structure the meetings better. Instead we shrunk (constrained) the system based on what clearly produced the bad outcome. I. e. we stopped attempting to put more “into” the colleague and instead started to amortize bits of unwanted side effects. That allowed the colleague to stay focused on the points she had and resolving concerns she was in charge of in a way that felt natural for her, without an extra stress related to how she was doing that. And while being aware about how the meetings can be wrapped up, she didn’t interpret that as a sign of neglect.

A side note: next time when someone emphasizes how inclusion is important, try to ask how they achieve inclusion after people are hired… Please be mindful of the risks, you may not get that job:) But the opposite risk would be joining a team where people have less of an idea of what they are talking about using somewhat virtue-inflated words. Every case is individual and this is not financial advice. All I’m saying is that “how” questions may be very insightful, but may confuse people a lot also.

P. S. how do you achieve more inclusion after people are hired?