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How to wire your organization to excel at problem-solving

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If leaders want to better understand their organization’s performance, they should look to their employees and how they do their work.

Organizations succeed when they design their processes, routines, and procedures to encourage employees to problem-solve and contribute to a common purpose, write MIT Sloan senior lecturer Steven Spear and Gene Kim in their new book, “Wiring the Winning Organization.”

“When people have difficulty doing their work easily and well, despite investing their best time and energy to support the larger effort, we shouldn’t expect the enterprise as a whole to perform well either,” Spear and Kim write. “This is an organization that has not been wired to win.”

In this excerpt from their book, they outline the three collaborative layers of an organization and suggest three mechanisms leaders can engage to hone employees’ problem-solving skills.

The excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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All organizations are sociotechnical systems — people working with other people, engaging (sometimes complex) technology to accomplish what they are collaborating on. Regardless of domain, collaborative problem-solving occurs on three distinct layers, where people focus their attention and express their experience, training, and creativity:

  • Layer 1 contains the technical, scientific, and engineered objects that people are trying to study, create, or manipulate. These may be molecules in drug development, code in software development, physical parts in manufacturing, or patient injuries or illnesses in medical care. For people in Layer 1, their expertise is around these technical objects (i.e., their structure and behavior), and their work is expressed through designing, analyzing, fabricating, fixing, repairing, transforming, creating, and so forth.
     
  • Layer 2 contains the scientific, technical, or engineered tools and instrumentation through which people work on Layer 1 objects. These may be the devices that synthesize medicinal compounds in drug development, the development tools and operational platforms in software development, technologies that transform materials in manufacturing, or the technologies to diagnose and treat patients’ illnesses and injuries. Layer 2 capabilities include the operation, maintenance, and improvement of these tools and instruments. These first two layers are the “technical” part of a sociotechnical system.
     
  • Layer 3 contains the social circuitry. This is the overlay of processes, procedures, norms, and routines — the means by which individual efforts are expressed and integrated through collaboration toward a common purpose. This is the “socio” part of a sociotechnical system.

Danger zones and winning zones for solving really difficult problems

Leaders manage the social circuitry (Layer 3) that determines whether their organizations get dismal or great outcomes. How this circuitry is designed and operated dictates the conditions in which people can solve difficult problems, continually generate great and new ideas, and put them into impactful practice. Certain conditions make it more difficult to solve problems or generate new and useful ideas. We call that the danger zone. Other conditions make getting good answers easier. We call that the winning zone.

In the danger zone, problems are complex, with many factors affecting the system at once, and their relationships are highly intertwined. Hazards are many and severe, risks of failure are high, and costs of failure can be catastrophic. Systems in the danger zone are difficult to control, and there are limited, if any, opportunities to repeat experiences, so feedback-based learning is difficult if not outright impossible.

In contrast, leaders enable much more advantageous conditions in the winning zone. Problems have been reframed so they are simpler to address. The hazards and risks have been reduced so failures are less costly, especially during design, development, testing, and practice. Problem-solving has been shifted into slower-moving situations, where the pace of experiences can be better controlled. Opportunities to learn by experience or experimentation are increased to allow more iteration. And finally, there is much more clarity about where and when to focus problem-solving efforts, because it is obvious when problems are occurring, so attention is given to containing and solving them.

When we leave ourselves and our colleagues in the danger zone, it becomes extremely difficult to develop and design products and services and to develop and operate systems through which we collaborate and by which we coordinate. In fact, in such conditions, given the complexity and pace of the environment, it’s often difficult to even recognize that significant problems are occurring and that they must be addressed to avert disaster.

In contrast, when we change our experiences so they happen in the winning zone, generating good answers to difficult problems is much easier, because people are better able to put their capabilities to best use. We can move ourselves from the danger zone to the winning zone using the three mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification.

Let’s take a closer look at defining each of these mechanisms:

  • Slowification makes it easier to solve problems by pulling problem-solving out of the fast-paced and often unforgiving realm of performance (i.e., operations or execution). This shifting of Layer 3 problem-solving into planning and practice allows people to engage in deliberative, reflective experientially and experimentally informed reasoning rather than having to constantly react with whatever habits, routines, and legacy approaches have already been ingrained.
     
  • Simplification makes the problems themselves easier to solve by reshaping them. Large problems are deliberately broken down into smaller, simpler ones through a combination of three techniques: incrementalization, modularization, and linearization. By doing so, we partition complex problems with many interacting factors into many smaller problems. These problems have fewer interacting factors, making them easier to solve. Furthermore, Layer 1 (technical object) problem-solving can be done in parallel, with less need for Layer 3 coordination, increasing independence of action.
     
  • Amplification makes it obvious there are problems and makes it clear whether those problems have been seen and solved. Mechanisms are built into Layer 3 (social circuitry) to amplify that little things are amiss, drawing attention to them early and often. This focuses attention on containing and resolving small and local glitches before they have a chance to become large and systemically disruptive.

Ideally, an organization will have the latitude to do all three: slow things down to make problem-solving easier, partition big problems into smaller ones that are simpler to solve, and amplify problems so they’re addressed sooner and more often. Even if we cannot do all three, doing two or even one still brings us closer to the winning zone, making it easier for us to take situations about which we know too little and can do too little and convert them into situations in which we know enough and can do enough.

Excerpted from “Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification,” by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear. © 2023 Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear. Reprinted by permission of IT Revolution. All rights reserved.

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216