Unsticking Organizational Problems: Try looking through a new window

Sometimes as leaders (and consultants working to help leaders with organizational growth and change), we just feel stuck. Stuck in the middle of a sticky, dense, complex, uncomfortable, irritating, nagging problem that we cannot seem to get beyond. For some reason (usually reasons, plural), this time, we can’t see the components — or the overall, or the core, situation — clearly enough or we cannot figure out the leverage point or the place to start.

One way to go is deep psychology, or even pop psychology, and figure out what our own resistance is to the problem. That’s not a bad approach, and it’s worthy of more than a blog post (hmmm…note to File: Resistance and Leadership). But my thought today is just to share a few lenses or windows that I use to see tough problems more clearly.

Lenses and Windows for Unsticking Organizational Problems

The Four Frames. Developed by Lee G. Bolman & Terrence E. Deal, the leadership model suggests that people tend to see problems as either structural, human resources, political, or symbolic problems. Here is a slide share I found that explains and my favorite article on the topic. You can do an internet search and find all sorts of reMunster Joinery ecoclad_slidingsash_windowsources on this model. Looking at organizational problems through a different window or frame can help you see opportunities.

Reflection: Which lens or frame generally is my go-to? What does the problem look like through each of the other lenses? What solution — or next step — should we take if the problem is primarily a structural one? a symbolic or narrative one? a human relationship problem? or a political/resources problem? What does this problem look like through a different lens, perhaps that of the predominant lens of another key leader on my team? 

Organizational Life Cycle. Most of the work in the field is a variation on the theme that organizations, like people, travel along a predictable and somewhat inevitable cycle of life. Organizations, in this theory, have the opportunity to renew and rebirth. Over the years, the version I have tended to iterate upon and adapt has been the corporate life cycle developed by Ichak Adzes. He describes these stages: courtship, infancy, “go-go”, adolescence, prime, the fall, aristocracy, recrimination, bureaucracy, and death. Many scholars and practitioners in corporate, investing, nonprofit, and family business sectors have written on this basic idea, typically simplifying it into some variation of infancy/startup to early-stage, adolescence, adult and maturity, stagnation and decline. Looking at what’s happening in your organization through the “window” of each corporate life stage can suggest a renewed direction and actions to take. Lots of wisdom to mine here, but one key concept is that when organizations evolve into stagnation, this is the opportunity for rebirth and renewal.


Working sketch of eco-cycle

Eco Life Cycle. A newer theoretical model is that organizations and systems follow more of an ecological cycle of creation, development, struggle, decay, and rebirth. Intriguing to me, especially since working recently in a multi-state conservation collaboration, this model feels like it may be more predictive and useful in complex, collective systems change work. I’m and testing this thinking — and how to use this window — further.

Reflection: Where does my organization sit on these two life cycle models? What is the “age appropriate” mood, focus, direction for this stage? What have we moved through already? Where should we be going? Are we experiencing arrested development? What next steps or leverage points can I see?

At the risk of carrying the analogy too far, it’s not enough to see the problem through clear glass. What leaders have to do is unstick the window, lift it up, let in the air, and solve that problem.