Embrace the mess (yes, at work)

Embrace the mess? At work?

Yes – but please bear with me.

With as little cynicism as possible, let’s acknowledge that organizations are complex, dynamic, miraculous systems of function and dysfunction, innovation and inertia, good leaders and not-so-great leaders.

All at the same time.

And most of us bumble trying to resolve these paradoxes. Innovators ignore what works, domain experts default to their silos and expertise, change leaders tend to focus on problems, consultants tell us what we’re doing wrong. Then shrewd business leaders ignore them all, relying on massive networks that keep the organization going.

Is it easy to work within the tension? No. It’s confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s awful. Our minds fight it.

But this tension is also what holds our complex and contradictory organizations together.

So we might as well embrace the mess.

The two very best leaders I ever worked with seemed to have an almost Zen approach to this tension. Although, come to think of it, they never talked about it.

They rarely focused on problems while solving many. I never saw them panic or fret. They just handled whatever came their way. No that’s not quite right… they seemed exhilarated by all of it. And that allowed them to move massive amounts of work forward while creating tangible and viable things: teams, businesses, products.

What I realized later was that they created within the mess, not in spite of it. They worked with the tension and enlisted help on a giant scale. That created momentum and change (without ever using the word transformation).

And momentum is way more interesting than organizational challenges.

But here’s the rub: doing anything interesting or new means we have to park distractions and unsolvable problems to the side. I’ll admit that requires a lot of mental muscle. We do love problems.

There is a short-cut out of the spin, however. And that’s to make things tangible, specific, and structured. Why? Because structure – simple structure – makes us think (and feel) better. Even if it’s imperfect. And that shift re-frames the problems from big and daunting to totally doable.

You can’t solve for all the organizational complexity. But you can build a 90-day plan for the work you’re currently leading.

You don’t need to anticipate every possible challenge over the next two years for a new product line. Just design and build a prototype in the next 8 weeks.

You don’t need to engage every possible stakeholder for a new project that has no funding. For now, build a small, nimble team of key partners who will help you frame and design the work – so it can get funded.

In a nutshell, make it simple and real. 

The great news this simplicity works no matter what level you are in your organization. I’m totally serious.

Sophie and I became friends when she approached me at work one day and asked for a little help. She was leading a visible, year-long project with plenty of opposition. It was objectively overwhelming: vague strategic direction, lots of resistance from people senior to her, and a mandate to deliver a pilot for a customer in 10 weeks.

She wondered if she was in over her head. (She wasn’t.)

We talked for an hour, maybe less. And by the end, she’d simplified the work with these specific questions:

What does good look like in 12 months?
(strategic vision – more or less)

What does good look like in 90 days?
(short-term goal)

What do you need to design, build, and deliver in the next 90 days to make it real?
(short-term deliverables)

What do the next 90 days look like?

Who will help design, build, and deliver the 90-day plan?

She couldn’t resolve all the tension, but she didn’t have to. She knew what to do next. It was simple and tangible, and the 90-day time-frame focused her thinking and effort. The once ambiguous project became so clear to her that she was able to reassure prickly stakeholders, even at the most senior levels.

Her simple structure made them feel better.

And when a group of hecklers demanded to know how she’d handle hypothetical budget issues 18 months out, she replied confidently, “That doesn’t affect any of the work over the next eight weeks. We’ll deal with it when we get there.”

carolyn solares
I help people with simple structure
and simple tools to move complex work forward.
(And to feel better, at work.)

Work with me.
Teams and Groups | One on One

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Photo by 𝑀𝐻𝑅𝒮 𝒜𝑅𝒯 𝒱𝐼𝒮𝐼𝒪𝒩 on Unsplash