Embrace the mess (yes, at work)

Embrace the mess (yes, at work)

Embrace the mess? At work?

Yes… but please bear with me.

With as little cynicism as possible, let’s acknowledge that organizations are complex, dynamic, miraculous systems of function and dysfunction, innovation and inertia, good and bad, growth and status quo, great leaders and stinking ones.

All at the same time.

And most of them bumble trying to solve these paradoxes.

Innovators ignore what works, domain experts default to their expertise, change leaders tend to focus on problems, consultants tell us what we’re doing wrong, and shrewd business leaders ignore them all, relying on massive networks that keep the organization going.

Is it easy to work within this tension? No. It’s confusing and uncomfortable.

Sometimes it’s awful.

But this tension is also what holds our complex and contradictory organizations together.

So we might as well embrace the mess.

The two very best leaders I ever worked with seemed to have an almost Zen approach to this tension. Although, they never talked about it.

They rarely focused on problems yet solved many. Neither of them ever panicked while handling whatever came their way. They seemed exhilarated by all of it.

Mostly, they consistently created tangible and viable things: teams, businesses, products.

They created within the mess, not in spite of it. They worked with the tension and enlisted help on a massive scale. That created momentum and change, without ever using the word transformation.

And momentum is way more interesting than organizational challenges.

In my work with teams and individuals, I learned the hard way to side-step unsolvable problems and loops to nowhere. How? By creating tangible, specific, short-term outputs that define the work.

This shift re-frames the problems from big and daunting to totally doable.

You can’t solve for all the organizational complexity. But you can build a 90-day plan for the work you’re currently leading.

You don’t need to anticipate every possible challenge over the next two years for a new product line. Just design and build a prototype in the next 8 weeks.

You don’t need to engage every possible stakeholder for a new project that has no funding. For now, build a small, nimble team of key partners who will help you frame and design the work – so it can get funded.

And decide to create.

A woman I coached was leading a year-long project with plenty of opposition. She had vague strategic direction, lots of resistance, and a mandate to deliver a pilot for a customer in 10 weeks.

In less than an hour, we helped her simplify the work with specific questions:

What does good look like in 12 months?
(the strategic vision – more or less)

What does good look like in 90 days?
(short-term goal)

What does she need to design, build, and deliver in the next 90 days?
(short-term deliverables)

What do the next 90 days look like?

Who will help design, build, and deliver the 90-day plan?

To avoid distractions, we made the work become real with direction, goals, deliverables, a plan, and a team. And we constrained the time-frame, which focused her thinking and effort.

The once ambiguous project became so clear, she could reassure leaders at all levels. When a group of hecklers demanded to know how she was going to handle budget issues 18 months out, she told them confidently, “That doesn’t affect any of the work over the next eight weeks. We’ll deal with it when we get there.”

You can’t resolve the tension and contradictions, but you don’t have to. The best response to all this complexity is to embrace the mess – and to keep creating.

Photo by Habiburrahmansyah on Unsplash

Work with Carolyn