An airbrushed problem is not an easier problem to solve. In many ways, it’s actually much more difficult because the nature and extent of the problem itself is encoded in euphemisms, which usually means that the potential impact is also encrypted.
I call these deflections and understatements “icing the cactus”. Generally, they involve playing up the momentary nature of what has happened (“unseasonal”, “untimely”), playing down the likely effects (with words like “blimp” and “unfortunate”) and playing off one action or group against another (“there’s no doubt it would have worked if …”)
Personally, I’ve always held with the Stockdale paradox: that organisations need to present issues frankly and without blinking, at the same time as they must utterly believe in their ability to be resolved. You can’t fully solve what you don’t fully know, and therefore what you are prepared to fully admit to.
Actually, problem solving itself is a misnomer – because the problem itself is seldom the problem. The real problems are usually the attitudes, mindsets, blindsides, denials, assumptions and stupidities that created the problem. That’s why people apply icing – to avoid admitting the connection between what was decided and the extent of the damage that was subsequently generated. They don’t want the search for an answer to turn into their search for a job.
If I’m running such a session, I generally open with three statements:
• Great companies make mistakes – because otherwise they wouldn’t be ambitious enough.
• Greater companies admit mistakes – because otherwise they wouldn’t be trustworthy enough.
• And the best companies hunt for mistakes – because otherwise they won’t improve enough.
Sessions like this are uncomfortable, awkward, emotional and vital. If you run the session right, everyone will emerge with an uncensored understanding of what went wrong, and, with guidance, they can draw on that to clearly and fully think through what to do next.
At times though, it really will feel like you are crunching on a cactus with your bare teeth. So, if you’re the one charged with fixing whatever’s really happened, here’s a little thought I call on to keep me persevering when everyone else doesn’t want to know or is playing with the truth: Keep going, because if you leave enough icing on the cactus, every prick will hide.
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