"Stuckness" LO28378

From: Fred Nickols (nickols@safe-t.net)
Date: 05/02/02

Replying to Jan Lelie in LO28368 --

I've changed the subject line because I want to explore a particular
aspect of the original thread --

Jan writes:

>All actions are framed inside a system that gives meaning to the actions;
>but what happens when the system signals: these actions have no meaning.
>In this case, hard work and efficiency have resulted in success, upto the
>point were there is no more gain. The meaning of the actions was "success"
>and the system now says: "we've run out of success"; there is a constraint
>that blocks further success. Because almost any manager will identify with
>the success ("his success") and derives his "meaning" from the success, he
>- and you - became stuck when more hard work and efficiency are no longer
>The situations seems to offer two choices: more effort or do nothing. Both
>"alternatives" lead to more stuckness. To resolve the situation, one
>should redefine it. But this need to redefine it occures after a clear
>definition of the stuckness has been formed. This would require that the
>manager not only indentifies himself with the success but also with the
>stuckness. In effect, he shouls have said: "Listen, i'm stuck". Most
>people will redifine the situation AND the stuckness in terms they already
>know: more hard work and efficiency. I assume that this happened to you
>too: you cannot intervene and not intervene without addressing the problem
>of stuckness and therefor you're stuck too.

Two things caught my eye in the paragraphs above: (1) the notion of
"stuckness" or being stuck and (2) the need to redefine the situation in
order to get unstuck. Both are to me essential ingredients in problem
solving. (Problem solving, by the way, is what you do when you don't know
what to do. Or, as Jan suggests, you're stuck.)

The roots of those words are quite interesting; the first is Greek and the
second is Latin. The second has to do with loosening up and the first has
to do with going forward. Getting "unstuck" and getting on with things is
the essence of problem solving.

As to redefining the situation, I'm inclined to agree with Jan; most
people will redefine it in terms they already know and those are usually
the ones that led to their getting stuck in the first place. A small
story will illustrate.

The very first piece of consulting business I "bagged" with the old AT&T
came about as follows. I was the newly-hired director of consulting
operations at a small firm and the president informed me that she had been
informed that AT&T had a quarter of a million dollars it couldn't give
away. Some new voice-data systems were selling quite nicely -- so nicely
that AT&T was concerned that a shortage of the people who serviced these
systems could lead to reduced sales and perhaps the loss of some existing
sales. $250,000 had been allocated to train 90 new Customer System
Support Specialists (a title we shortened to CS3). But, none of the
companies invited to bid on this project responded. They said it couldn't
be done. The effort was subject to a 90 day time constraint, that is,
AT&T marketing management wanted 90 of these new CS3 in place on the job
at the end of 90 days. The large, reputable, professional firms that had
been asked to bid all said that the necessary job study couldn't be
conducted in that time frame, let alone develop and deliver the training.
My boss had arranged for me to meet the fellow at AT&T who had the
responsibility for this project that appeared to be "stuck" so off to AT&T
headquarters I went.

After chatting for a while with the responsible project manager, I
suggested that he redefine the problem. He had it labeled as a "training"
problem (i.e., a problem that could be resolved via training). This, in
turn, invoked an array of models and methods that simply could not handle
the restraints and constraints of the situation. I proposed that he view
the problem as more a matter of selection and development than of
training. I suggested that there were no doubt many people within AT&T
who already had many of the basic technical, managerial and relationship
management skills and that, in most cases, manufacturers' courses could be
used to remedy any identified skill or knowledge gaps. By way of process,
I suggested that we round of 30 promising candidates and pair them with
the 30 existing CS3s for 30 days then give the new CS3s accounts of their
own. We would then pair this first set of newly hired CS3s with 30 more
new hires and repeat that process once more with the second set of 30.
At the end of 90 days we would have 90 new CS3s in place. Well, he went
for it and I'm happy to say that it worked.

The point here isn't that I'm a hero, it's that to get unstuck does indeed
require redefining the situation. That redefinition can often be
facilitated by involving someone who operates from a different frame of
reference. (That's one of the reasons that consultants do add value from
time to time.) Further, one of the keys to loosening up the "stuckness"
is to deliberately manipulate the language being used to describe and
define the problem, most especially the "label" placed on the problem.
Those labels invoke mind sets (i.e., arrays of models and methods) and one
of the ways to escape them is to re-label the problem.

By the way, we did spend the $250,000. My firm got about $50,000 and the
rest went into training and developing the CS3s. I also gave the project
manager in question a single slide for his use in presenting this approach
to his manager. All it had on it was the following: 30 + 30 + 30 = 90.
With that single slide he could speak to all aspects of the new approach.


Fred Nickols
"Assistance at a Distance"


Fred Nickols <nickols@safe-t.net>

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