Complexity in the Workplace

Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

Moving Forward with the Right Tools

When we started talking about strategic planning, we looked at negative reactions and suspicions you might encounter when it's brought up. If you've taken some time to talk to members of your organization and communicated your belief in their value and honestly asked for their input, you might all be ready to move forward with a planning process.

Some of the milder negative responses to hearing "strategic planning" evoked tedium and dread, summed up as "endless meetings in dark rooms with stale air."

So: find a light, pleasant environment for a meeting. Make sure people are given healthy food choices. Never go over time, and be sure to include plenty of breaks.

Find the best facilitator you can, someone who will naturally suggest all of the above. And have someone present who will capture the conversation, live, using images and words. (Someone like me.)

You may find people looking at what's been said, and then ask, "What if we did this this other way?" —which also gets drawn. A path begins to emerge. It may not be what you had in mind at the beginning, but I encourage you to have the courage to allow it to form. The result may be something much better.

drawing of a mountain with a trophy on top, with three different ways to reach it

A skilled facilitator working with a graphic recorder can make all the difference in a room full of people who are jaded with planning processes. Try it. It could open up a whole new way forward. And if you've done all the communication legwork beforehand, it might make you look like a genius.

If you'd like to schedule a free graphic recording demonstration, please click here!

The Solution Starts With You

Last week we took a closer look at some people's negative gut reactions to the words "strategic planning." If you thought, "Wait! We don't do that! We don't think that way! We just want to know where we're going and how to get there!" — congratulations! What you actually have is a communication challenge, not an insoluble problem.

Begin by understanding that every single person you work with has a unique perspective on the organization. At the risk of sounding obvious, it's in everyone's best interest that those perspectives be aligned if you're all going to move forward. Take the time to talk to people and ask questions about their perspectives. Pay particular attention to any answers that surprise you.

If you think you don't have the time to do this, don't be surprised if people start polishing their résumés. Organizations whose leaders contemplate major changes without first getting significant buy-in from their employees are doomed to failure, according to John Kotter, emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School and author of Leading Change.

Drawing of supervisor asking employees for input into some ideas

If you have a healthy organizational culture, people will be unafraid to share their perspectives. You will learn a lot while at the same time instilling trust in your workforce. Trust leads to loyalty and a happy, productive team.

Now you're ready to begin planning the way forward. Next week, we'll look at ways to make a strategic planning process less tedious and more fun, engaging, and effective.

Corporate B.S.

Last week I mentioned the informal survey I had conducted to find out what friends in many different fields thought about strategic planning. Of the responses I received, the negatives outweighed the positives by a wide margin. Here are some of them. Do any match your feelings when you hear "strategic planning"? 

Drawing of three figures with their different reactions to a strategic planning announcement

"It's a waste of time." People who work for an organization are probably already trying to "do more with less," and the thought of a long series of meetings that likely "go nowhere" is filling them with dread and possibly contempt. They might feel, for example, that their input is being sought as lip service only, and that the leaders are "going to do what they're going to do anyway." If this were the case, it would certainly be a waste of their time to participate. 

"Corporate B.S." According to Urban Dictionary, this is " new language that looks and sounds just like English, but is actually lies and propaganda spewed forth by big corporations." Take this example from the Corporate B.S. Generator: "fungibly synergize agile convergence." None of these words in itself is problematic, except possibly the verbification of synergy, but together? Meaningless. 

"Brace for layoffs." If employees think a strategic planning exercise is an expensive and long, drawn-out way to justify laying people off, the implication is that managers and CEO's are cowards who point to graphs and numbers as a way to avoid uncomfortable words like "we think you should consider retirement" or "we've decided to take the organization in a different direction." It's dehumanizing. (This tactic was mercilessly satirized in the film Up in the Air.) 

Clearly, not all organizations behave this way. Check in next week to find out how you can be sure yours isn't one of them. 

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What are they really thinking?

I recently conducted an informal survey via Facebook, asking this question: What pops into your head when you hear the words "strategic planning"? The results astonished me.

First, the sheer number of responses -- I got over 100 in 24 hours. I had clearly touched a nerve; people had strong opinions and were eager to share them.

I put the responses into three categories -- positive, neutral, and negative. Only 16% reacted positively (mostly friends who do some kind of facilitation work or who have a managerial role in organizations). The neutrals (also about 15%) seemed to understand the need for planning, though they were just, well, neutral, though leaning toward unenthusiastic.

The negatives? Over 60% used such terms as "boring," "waste of time," "corporate BS," "military/authoritarian," and on into "brace for layoffs," all indicating tedium, cynicism and deep mistrust.

This was a small sample size, and it wasn't a scientific survey. But any organization thinking about embarking on strategic planning should understand that some of its members could share those reactions and prepare accordingly.

drawing of a general asking workers to charge toward the future with a strategic plan

Next week, we'll look into some of these negative reactions more closely to see how to turn them into positive interactions with your team to allow everyone to go forward in a purposeful way.

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Acknowledging your Champions

I'm a member of the Small Business Community Network here in Davis, California. We meet either in person or by video conference once a week. Members take it in turns to lead themed meetings that usually go on for a month. This month, we are Telling Our Story.

Following an exercise where we explored our core values, member Leah Eldridge led us through a guided meditation aimed at mining our memories for important events and people who have shaped us to become who we are now as professionals.

graphic of Alison Kent's journey to graphic facilitationI wanted to do this visually and was instantly astonished by a) the number of people who helped set me on my path, b) how few detractors there have been (it doesn't mean they haven't had a disproportional effect on my self-worth -- brain weasels are a thing). I just wanted to thank all the people, some of whom have died by now, who have helped me on my journey.

Who are your champions? Have you thanked them? Can you be a champion for someone as a way of paying it forward?

Navigating the Medical Maze

drawing of heart and caduceus
Medicine + heart: graphically recording the maze of medical treatment

I'm honored to have been asked to guide someone through an exciting new medical therapy to treat a genetic condition.

Medical advocates are people whose purpose is to sit with a patient during medical visits, take notes, ask questions if things aren't clear, and advocate for the patient if needed. Often, particularly with serious diagnoses, patients are not able to hear, process, and remember everything that is said during the barrage of information, treatment options, pros and cons of each, pain management issues, and so on. Having a medical advocate present ensures this is all covered so the patient can evaluate all the information in a less stressful environment and much longer time frame. It is often useful to have this person not be a family member, who is similarly facing a lot of information that will impact him or her directly.

If the medical advocate is also capturing the information graphically, along with the patient's hopes, fears, dreams, and is able to motivate them through the treatment -- how much more powerful could this be? I'm excited to see. Stay tuned!


What Motivates Me

The past week has been a blur – capturing conversations following three separate performances of Pronoun, a play about a transgender youth’s journey with his peers, parents, school and the medical establishment. The cast was entirely made up of high school students from Davis.

I have been so energized by these conversations. I hope my graphic capture was able to help energize participants. Here’s what I noticed, especially on the third night of my activity onstage next to these amazing high school students: What we do in graphic facilitation is a kind of performance. We are, like the young actors in this play, hoping to bring understanding and clarity, and at the same time to inspire activism. In my case, it is finding a way for my professional work to ignite and stoke my own activism. Meaningful work, captured and organized meaningfully.

Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.
Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.

This is a week when so many of us are wondering where to put our energy and activism. Pronoun director Emily Henderson, pictured here, said during one of the panel discussions that she had only enough energy to have her activism intersect with her professional life. I couldn't have put it better myself.