Deeper (but not too deep) into obstacles

[Update 2020-08-28: This exercise and the section of the 2nd edition that describes it is now called Obstacles: Keeping it real and relevant. I’ve kept the former title below – consider it an initial draft, which is what it is]

From the 2nd edition of Agendashift – no dates on that yet, I’m still on chapter 1! – a followup to a post from January, The language of outcomes: 2. Framing obstacles.

One topic for last week’s Lean Coffee-style #community Zoom (see the channel of that name in Slack) was how to deal with “Lack of quality”, an obstacle that never sat well with me. Which of our checks for poor framing are failed by this obstacle? Potentially several of them! Based on our very helpful discussion, I’ll be updating the workshop exercise Deeper (but not too deep) into obstacles and below is the relevant extract from the 2nd edition.

For context, We’ve done the Ideal and Obstacles parts of the True North exercise (see last week’s post) and will soon move into Outcomes, completing the IdOO pattern (or one realisation of it):idoo-2020-03-25

And for your opportunity to experience all of this, check out the two Leading with outcomes (aka IdOO!) workshops listed at the end of this post, both taking place in September.

Deeper (but not too deep) into obstacles

Not every obstacle represents a problem that needs to be solved. Assuming that its root cause is even identifiable, when it’s something like human nature or the market economy, you don’t need me to tell you that you won’t be finding a fix there anytime soon.

Even so, it’s worth reviewing obstacles carefully. This isn’t the time for deep and likely speculative analysis, but the opportunity to avoid some unproductive framing. Here are some common traps to watch out for:

  • Scarcity language – obstacles that identify a “lack of” this or that:
    • Language that suggests a particular kind of solution or relies on a particular theory, thereby excluding others
    • Language that could be perceived as judgemental
    • Language that identifies only one side of an imbalance
  • Tribal shorthand:
    • Jargon
    • Finger-pointing
    • Language that identifies in-groups and out-groups

Often, these are easy to recognise. For example:

  • “Lack of a knowledge management system”, which very obviously identifies a solution, not the obstacle it is supposed to overcome
  • “Lack of the X mindset” (for some X) – over-generalising a potential multitude of real obstacles, too theoretical to be universally received, and prone to failing the tests for judgemental and in-group/out-group language
  • “Lack of people/money/time”, which fails to acknowledge the demand/workload management side of the equation, often the easier side of the imbalance to address
  • “Management” (or some other group) – hardly a good place to start when their cooperation will likely be needed to address whatever the real obstacle is

Sometimes it’s more subtle. Consider another common obstacle, “Lack of quality”. Which of our traps apply? Is it judgemental? Finger pointing? Quite possibly! If it might be received that way, try looking at the issue as an imbalance. With the obstacle reworded as “Quality expectations exceeding our ability to deliver”, it’s now a problem with at least two sides – consumers, producers, and potentially other stakeholders. More concretely, and taking here the producer’s perspective:

  • Where do those quality expectations come from?
  • What stops us achieving the levels of quality to which we aspire?

Note that neither of these questions prejudge what a reasonable or optimal level might be. Approach it from both sides and you’re much more likely to find it!

If the imbalance trick doesn’t work, perhaps the obstacle in question is beyond help. Take “Wrong culture” (or if you like, “Lack of the right culture”). Depending on who’s listening, this either stating the obvious, an affront, or a restatement of the adaptive challenge in terms so bland that it’s completely valueless. I tend to the last of those, though all three can apply at the same time. Honestly, it’s best deleted.

This process of review and refinement has two important benefits. The first is that it encourages you to be specific. Specific obstacles are both easier to overcome than over-generalised ones and harder to dismiss. The second is that you increase both your range of possible solutions and their sources, removing unnecessary constraints and unhelpful barriers to agreement. In a nutshell:

  • Identify real and relevant obstacles, avoiding language that needlessly excludes people or possibility

For participants, that’s a memorable lesson in the language of outcomes. For the host organisation, it’s a lesson in authentic engagement. Expert practitioners must take special care also; with their particular ways of looking at things, they can be especially prone to falling into the traps!


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See also: Short workshops restart September 8th


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