Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Wakid’

The Challenge: Tent (sans instruction) or Unknown Territories.

In General Mish-Mash, Mish-Mash of Wisdoms on September 18, 2011 at 8:30 am

From my previous two posts, it should be easy to draw a conclusion that I see organisations as facing two fundamentally different types of challenges, needing fundamentally different approaches.

The challenges are those that are:

  • well-defined, short term, measurable, failure or success is quickly known or
  • long term, seemingly nebulous, not clearly defined, and difficult to find a metric that describes success or failure.

The sorts of challenges faced by companies are invariably complex but the first type has a clear set of rules, or at least some well-defined metrics and parameters that contain the challenge. The second type have no such boundaries or containment.

A far more eloquent and evocative description for these challenges are provided by Lauren Pollack & Katherine Wakid:

  • the tent problem – imagine having all the pieces needed to put up a tent, but no instructions.
  • the Lewis & Clark problem – named after the 2 explorers who blazed the trail to the west coast of the USA in the early 19th Century.

Pollack & Wakid are part of Jump Associates, a US firm offering help to organisations who have identified a need to address this second type of problem.

Essentially their thesis is that organisations are generally well placed with resources and know-how to handle the “tent problems”. Basically, because – like putting up a tent, even with no instructions – we know what good looks like* and there is a finite and defined path that will result in achieving the required result.

The sort of problems that might fall under the title “tent problems” are:

  • making a operations more efficient,
  • optimising supply,
  • refining product mix.

The Lewis & Clark type of challenges don’t have the luxury of a well-defined “what good looks like”, they are likely to have an infinite number of approaches or methods that can lead to one a multitude of results, they are fuzzy by nature, and may lead to dead-ends, failures, backtracking, deletions, and changes.

The types of problems that may fall under this title might be:

  • how do we grow our business,
  • how do we deal with generational change in our market,
  • how do we overcome stagnancy,
  • what do we do about the decay in our brand.

Even describing these types of problems is somewhat blurry but they are no small challenges nor are they lacking importance. But not all organisations can adequately manage this type of challenge. Indeed, organisations that can consistently do seem to be a rarity. The title Pollack and Wakid’s paper describes the sort of company that copes.

Thriving in Ambiguity: Lessons From Exploratory Organizations.

Just what are those lessons? In brief, Pollack and Wakid say organizations that deal best with the Lewis & Clark, ambiguous type of challenge have the following characteristics:

  • they foster empathy with their customers
  • they are not afraid to let answers emerge over time
  • they reward learning not just results
  • they create a culture of teamwork
  • they hire hybrid thinkers who can connect seemingly disparate disciplines and ideas.

Familiar characteristics, I’m sure.  Perhaps the last one might be a new expression. But despite their familiarity and their positive qualities, few organisations demonstrate any consistent application of them.

In fact, most organisations seem intent on ensuring that they confront only the well defined, contained challenges. Perhaps they even extend this restriction to a belief that they should either know:

  • the answer to the problem they face or
  • know the way to get the right answer or
  • both the above.

There is no room for error, no room for discovery or experimentation. There is no time to wait for potential solutions to percolate. There is shame or humiliation in back-tracking after finding a dead-end.  There is no tolerance for ambiguity. Opportunities could be – probably are – missed because of a lack of capacity to deal with challenges other than those where you can tick the boxes.

Creating the space for experimentation and discovery comes from knowing that you don’t know – admissions of ignorance.

(Note for self: we are back to Nassim Nicholas Taleb here – focusing on what we don’t know rather than what we do know.)
If anyone else is reading this my apologies for that interruption.

This article – Thriving in Ambiguity – has finally given some meaning to some psychometric testing I did years ago. The testing showed, amongst other stuff, I had a high tolerance for ambiguity. For years I have wondered about this description – and now I have a reference point.

Anyway, the article is worth a look. It is also worth having a look around the Jump Associates website, it holds some interesting and enlightening work.

Note: * credit for the terminology “what good looks like” has to go to my mate Bob Adamson who came up with this expression while implementing innovative business systems project at Panthers. Or maybe it was while have one of those lengthy after-work discussions involving our colleagues Johnny and Jim – Walker & Beam, respectively.