Solving problems within school organizations

Communication à la XIIème journée de Rencontre de Paradoxes, 5 octobre 2013
Karin Schlanger
, psychologue, directrice du Centre de Thérapie Brève du Mental Research Institute de Palo Alto (Californie)

pour la version  française : La résolution de problèmes en milieu scolaire

Before anything else, let me start by thanking Irene, Chantal and Georges for putting this congress together and inviting me to participate. We have known each other for many, many years and it is an enormous pleasure to re-connect.

Karin Schlanger ©Paradoxes

As you all know, because you have all Googled my name, I come mostly from the world of therapy, although when you think in terms of systems and you see problems that arise in a context, it becomes easier to have a different perspective.
I started working with Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Dick Fisch when I first arrived to the US and to the MRI, now 30 years ago. I was fresh out of school in Buenos Aires, Argentina so I was lucky to have, relatively little to ‘unlearn’, few ‘bad habits’ to break.

The main premise of the problem-solving approach is that problems always occur in a context and, ironically, it is exactly what someone does to try to initially solve the problem, which ends up maintaining it. The ‘common sense’ thing to do to resolve a problem in almost every situation is what ends up c

ontinuing the negative status quo. The implication in what I am saying is that a problem ALWAYS lies in an interaction. This can be between 2 departments (usually R and D and marketing), 2 or more people, or even between different parts of the same person. There is always an ineffective dialogue going on which has to be changed to an effective one.

With that in mind I will try to use my work in the schools as, I hope, a useful example for how to use this model in larger organizations. The important thing to remember is that this approach allows you to SEE things differently:  you see things that others cannot see. As a consequence, you create opportunities to promote change by looking for what is unexpected and out of the ordinary, even if that, most of the time, may sound crazy. Let me give you an example: I believe the story is credited to the Hohensalzburg Castle. Some time in the middle 1500s there was a revolt from the farmers against the archbishop. Eventually things got ugly and the people started a siege, hoping that the archbishop would concede their demands. The siege went on for a long while and things were getting quite desperate in the castle: they were running out of food. But, instead of surrendering, someone up there was able to focus on the exception, the ‘out of the ordinary’. One night they decided that they would stuff their last cow with all their remaining grain and throw it down the slopes. The message to be delivered, they hoped, was that they had so much food that they did not need to give in. It was a strategic gamble which paid off: the farmers below lost hope and thinking that the siege could go on for many more months, they decided to turn around and go back to the business of tending their farms and families.

Being a problem-solver (the emphasis is on the person who has the ability to resolve the problem) in an organization means using influence, persuasion and doing so in a way that the person presenting a problem is given a different action to try out. Of course the only way we have to accomplish this is with words, so how we use words and language becomes a very valuable tool. It is important to think how the explicit message is crafted, choose words carefully and also use implication whenever possible.  I will come back to the use of language.
The first step in being a useful problem-solver is to define a workable problem. Most people don’t define the problem in a concrete way. And by concrete I mean so that you can almost see a movie of who is doing what.
As a consultant it will cost you in time, effort, opportunity, money and credibility if you choose to ignore this simple first step. Our customers are, by virtue of their asking for help, lost in the confusion of not knowing where to start. If they knew, they would probably not be asking for help. By guiding the process of focusing on one, important, representative problem you are already intervening in the situation.

For example, when a principal in a school comes to ask for help for a specific child because ‘they are not listening and running out of class, instead of learning’, it presents an interesting challenge. The first thing I think about is:

•            how is it a problem that this kid is not listening?

•            Is this something that happens with THIS teacher or all teachers?

•            Does this child relate well to other adults in the school?

•            Does this child get along with peers?

•            I can see it is problem that he/she runs out of the class but that is a CONSEQUENCE of the escalation between the student and the teacher that is not well handled. Yes. The student’s ‘contract’ says that they must sit in class and learn and, the adult in the situation is the teacher. So 50% of this interaction is on the teacher’s shoulders. I cannot assume immediately that the student is the only one to blame: it is an interaction that is resulting in a negative consequence for both of them

•            How does the principal get involved in this interaction? This gets worse, of course, if you have a principal who likes to micro-manage.

•            What has been tried so that this student will listen, learn and consequently not run out of the classroom?

•            Ultimate goal: this kid has to stay in the classroom. Keep THAT in mind.

Of course, as soon as we talk to the person making the request for intervention (the vice principal in this case), they give you explanations as to why they think what is happening is happening. ‘There is no support at home’, or ‘Mom has no control over this child or any other of her children’, or, ‘dad is absent’. All of these are probably true and accurate but none of these explanations are going to change the situation by their mere existence. I am sure you hear the equivalent in business jargon when you get called in.  When we talk to the teacher, she too will have her explanations: ‘This student did not go to pre-school’ or ‘He is too preoccupied with fitting in with his peers to pay attention’, for example.  AND, we as problem-solvers, are interested in DESCRIPTIONS rather than explanations. The movie of how the problem is constructed, at the beginning, rather than why it happens. This is a very practical approach and, when we buy into the explanations, rather than the descriptions, we become as blind as the person who is asking for help. In many settings, explanations also run the risk of coming across as being judgemental, which makes barriers in communication quickly go up. This just creates more work for ourselves. EVEN IF WE ARE RIGHT.

As you can see, I immediately take a step back and look at the context in which the complaint is happening. By definition someone complaining about a given situation is a part of the situation and can, therefore, only present their point of view. As consultants, we can take a ‘longer’ view of the problem and potentially are able to offer a second order change suggestion. In the case of this child that was running away from class, my first step was to let the principal know that it was unnecessary for her to get involved. She was loosing credibility, both with the child AND with the mother because she was getting involved in details. In this case I pointed also out a cultural difference, which is that, for Latinos, when the child is in school, the ‘problem’ belongs to the school.
I thought that the mother, a very passive woman, needed to be more involved with her 5 years old and set clear limits. Until now, when the child arrived at the home, running away from the school, the mother received him with open arms and a smile, rather than immediately taking him back to school. I met mom at school and modeled some setting limits: the three of us walked to class, mom stayed a little while and then said good-bye to her child and instructed him to stay in class. She would pick him up in the afternoon with all the other children. Mom left the classroom looking worried. We stayed outside of the classroom to make sure her son was not going to ‘flee’ and, after ½ hour she went home. With mom I used the language of the best way to help her child grow up and succeed in life would be for him to manage to stay at school and get an education. It would be hard for her, a good mother, to let him go ENOUGH so that he could feel that he needed to speak up for himself at school in order to learn how to manage this new world he found himself in. She could make it easier for him if she appeared strong to him, happy to let him go, rather than worried and afraid for him. Her son needed to feel assured that she would be OK for him to leave behind and that the relationship between the two of them would not be harmed.
The teacher was instructed to engage him immediately in some activity with his best friend. The language with the teacher was that this student needed to be engaged in learning so that he could become a ‘good citizen’ of the school and become a contributing member of the school community. The combination of modeling setting limits with mom, a previous word with the principal that the ‘problem-solver’ would take over and a word with the teacher resulted in a brief intervention that was only implemented once. No special language needed to be used with the principal because the mere fact that we were taking the problem child off her hands was enough for her to back off. As a principal, like any other manager at a company, she needed to hear that the problem would be taken care of. Most good managers do not micromanage: they delegate responsibilities and oversee a project. Of course, if they do micromanage THAT can become the problem for which we are called in!
Next issue is who is the person most interested in producing a change. The teacher cannot really afford to argue with this child: she/he looses credibility with the rest of the class and teaching time. The child’s parents are a part of this system too because it should be important to them that their son/daughter is not learning and will therefore not do so well in school, with clear consequences in their future. The principal has now heard about the situation and is worried enough to call me in. Who is the person with the most leverage in this situation? Who has the most to loose and will be willing to implement changes? In other words: who is my main customer?

A beginning workable problem is that, instead of the problem occurring 10 times a day, would be that it start to decrease. How will this change be noticed? I need to set up low expectations of change so that bigger ones can cascade from there. All change starts with a small first step. Lao Tzu said that “A Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with a single step”: never forget that and, keep your heads on your shoulders, even when there is a lot of pressure to make big, dramatic changes. Conflict, dissention and bad performance have the seed in something usually small: find it and change it.

Another important piece in solving problems is to take the time to find out what has NOT worked in the past. What we call Attempted Solutions. By definition, attempted solutions are all the actions the involved parties have tried with the best efforts to solve the problem but have failed. You have probably heard other people talk about Failed Attempted Solutions. I am willing to make a small detour to point out that for the Problem-Solving approach developed at the Brief Therapy Center at MRI since 1966, the definition of an attempted solution is something that HAS NOT WORKED. To call that a ‘Failed Attempted Solution’ is an oxymoron: a repetition of terms, which could be seen as a double negation. I don’t know much about math but I remember from my school days… A LONG TIME AGO!!, that two positives make a negative. Sometimes there IS such a thing as too much of a good thing.

Coming back to my example, this teacher has probably tried to reason with the student, has had ‘talks’ (I ALWAYS want to know exactly what was said during those talks), has probably offered rewards for good behavior and has implemented punishments for bad behaviors. None of them have worked because if not the principal would not be calling me in. All these are ‘common sense’ behaviors that have not worked. The message this child is receiving from the teacher (and probably many people around him/her at this point) is: ‘You must behave in class’. I will be thinking of a way for the teacher to deliver a different message, which could be: ‘I don’t really need you to behave in class’. While this might sound crazy, it is different from what has been said and implemented in the past. How could this work? Every time that this child misbehaves in the class, somebody else in the classroom receives a reward.

Coming back to my example, this teacher has probably tried to reason with the student, has had ‘talks’ (I ALWAYS want to know exactly what was said during those talks), has probably offered rewards for good behavior and has implemented punishments for bad behaviors. None of them have worked because if not the principal would not be calling me in. All these are ‘common sense’ behaviors that have not worked. The message this child is receiving from the teacher (and probably many people around him/her at this point) is: ‘You must behave in class’. I will be thinking of a way for the teacher to deliver a different message, which could be: ‘I don’t really need you to behave in class’. While this might sound crazy, it is different from what has been said and implemented in the past. How could this work? Every time that this child misbehaves in the class, somebody else in the classroom receives a reward.

I can think of another example in an organization that delivered Health Care. I was called in because within a room of about 16 nurses who responded to phone calls, 2 of them, with the most seniority and had been friends, there was now a feud. Of course, the personal problems were very difficult to keep from the rest of the group because they worked in very close proximity to each other. Consequently 2 groups began to emerge, each behind a ‘leader’. As a consequence their productivity decreased and the company was getting customers complaining in high numbers because their calls were not being answered or returned and, when they were, the responses were inadequate. The managers had already tried to negotiate with the two women and a lot of energy had been expended in trying to have them get along, at least in the workplace. I was consulting from another country with the HR people, who knew they had a problem but were not sure how to make a difference. I had the people from HR briefly interview a number of the #2 rank leaders and asked what they thought was going on and how much they enjoyed being obliged to take sides in the conflict. They said the conflict it was not productive, it was interfering in their personal lives because what used to be a friendly work environment was turning into a nightmare but they felt they had no way to not take sides because there might be work repercussions. Through the HR people consulting with me, I instructed the manager of these two women to have them work in different shifts to give the other people working in this office some ‘breathing time’. I wanted them to regroup and be able to reconnect with what used to be the good work environment. Of course the message was delivered by saying it would increase productivity and responsiveness to the customers. These were the words used in the presenting complaint. It’s what we call ‘using the client’s language and it is a strategic utilization of resources.
I was also trying to interfere with the circularity of the behavior that had been set up lately by the conflict between the two leaders. It was also important to the organization to give a message of ‘we will not tolerate destructive behaviors, which are interfering with our bottom line: we will not loose clients over an internal conflict” The two women were also were replaced on several shifts (which were done every week) by a couple of other colleagues. The message to them became: ‘you do NOT have to change your behavior on the job AND there are practical consequences’ (they sometimes did not get the shifts that they picked as a first option). The rest of the women in the team were also assigned to sit with colleagues from ‘the other team’ so that they would reconnect and ‘remember’ that the conflict was NOT personal among them. I did not need to manage the new interactions: that would come as a consequence of interfering in the system at a different level: where something had been attempted and it had failed. I helped the leaders influence and leverage the action to produce a positive momentum, accelerated the resolution of conflicts and established a higher performance process.

Influence is defined in the dictionary as the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself. As you can tell, exerting influence in a positive way is a key ingredient in what a problem-solver does. As an outsider to all situations you have a lot of power to influence it. Of course, it always has to be done in an ethical manner – one can argue unfortunately that in some cases multi-national corporations forgo the ethics for profits but that might be a topic for another conversation!
When the teacher delivers the message of ‘I don’t really need you to behave in class’ or the feuding parties in my other example suddenly are not hearing: ‘you have to play nice with each other because it has an impact on your colleagues’, the first thing that happens is surprise on the part of the recipients of the message. And surprise usually leads to curiosity. Somebody who is curious can no longer continue to behave in the same manner: as a consequence there is a shift in the interaction within the system, which brings in diversity. Of course, you will be using your experience and expertise to influence the end result of the interaction towards a more productive one. It is important, as Milton Erickson said a long time ago, that clients always feel that we have their best interest at heart. It becomes a matter of trusting the ‘outsider’ without questioning their every move

There are other situations that we are brought into where a simple reframe is enough to promote a change in the world view, which in turn promotes a change in the way people act in this new world. I recommend taking this approach first, simply because it is the most straightforward and simple one.
To use my friend the dictionary again, a reframe is to ‘frame or express (words or a concept or plan) differently’. Differently from other models of intervention, problem-solving is not interested in insight which require long historic searches. We are not looking for the reason a problem occurs because the implication there is that we are in search of a ‘truth’ that will, once realized, lead to the resolution of the problem. Instead we are interested in reaching a new ‘truth’ that is seen as valuable only in its ability to free the parties from their old patterns of behavior which maintain the problem alive. Reframing means giving people a new explanation for their problem that will lead to a new behavior.

I have worked as a consultant for a High School that was ‘invented’ by the School of Education of a famous University in Palo Alto. In America students go to High School for 4 years from ages 14 to 18 generally. And it is mandatory for students to attend school. This school in particular was designed for low-income students, mostly Spanish-speaking (75% of these students spoke Spanish in the home and they are first generation Americans) and to help this population in particular to stay in school, graduate and attend university. According to the US Labor Statistics a High School diploma increases the earning potential by $181/week. A Bachelor’s degree increases it by $595/week and a Master’s degree by $829/week. I am not very good with math so I leave it to you to figure out how much more money a person can make if they attend University. There are MANY issues with inequality by race and economic status with people attending the high tiers of universities in the US and I don’t know what the equivalencies are in France. Suffice it to say that this school, the East Palo Alto High School had lofty goals. Aided by a big influx of money from donors – mostly alumni from Stanford wanting to help the less advantaged—the administration at the school set out with a goal of every student enrolled in the school, not only graduating High School but attending some university. There were many supports put into place to help this happen. HOWEVER, there were unforeseen hurdles. Most of the teachers came from this University’s School of Education program and were mostly female, racially white, very young and the majority of them came from affluent families. Tuition at this University is about $50.000/year!
The student body on the other hand was Latinos, Pacific Islanders and African-Americans. Many were involved in gangs, were ‘street smart’, their parents could not read and write and had attended maybe 2nd. Grade. The value of Education as a way to get out of the ‘ghetto’ of East Palo Alto was not a part of what they brought to the table. Remember that going to school is mandatory and East Palo Alto had the dubious honor for a long time of being ‘the murder capital of the United States’. What do you think happened when these two populations met in the classroom? Teachers had the best of intentions towards the students. They were going to ‘save’ these kids, almost from themselves! At the same time, they were under pressure from the administrators to produce high test scores as measured by the State of California. The test scores were put in place as a ‘mass measurement’ to show the donors that the results they had been promised were being achieved. Then, in turn, they would give more money or, contrarily, stop the donations. You can see how many pitfalls are included in this system.

There were serious conflicts in the organization that were affecting performance on the part of the teachers and morale throughout the school. This was increased by the regular fights that occurred on campus because of rival gangs had to fight for their territory. A lot of what the administrators would do is give ‘pep talks’, take the staff on retreats to improve morale. As soon as the teachers were back in their rooms, the whole trouble would start again. The real issue of talking about cultural and racial differences for one was one that was not talked about – partially because of political correctness and partially just because there was not the awareness of the conflict on the part of the administrators at the Stanford level. In several meetings I talked to administrators – they were very concerned because they were loosing teachers to burn out – and analyzed and identified a few of the issues where conflicts were being generated. There was a strong mandate on the part of the Stanford faculty that teachers MUST be able to help ALL students, even if they did not want to help themselves. In other words, ‘save’ them from themselves. This is often the position that consultants are put in: fix the problems we are having – or may have in the future— giving us no pain and, preferably without us having to do much to change the current situation in which we are comfortable, even though it does not work well.

Beware of responding to that demand because there is certain failure in the horizon. You know the old story about our friend Napoleon. He was running late for an opera – is the version I know – and he told his wife, “Dress me slowly, for I am in a hurry”. It is very tempting to come into a situation to ‘save the day’, without taking the time to think what would be the most important information. Never rush at the beginning.

Teachers were not allowed to talk about their experiences in the open, generating even more isolation and feelings of inadequacy. Because I had credibility with the principal at the school, in part because I kept myself on the ‘outside’ of the staff, I talked to her about what was happening. She understood perfectly because she, in turn, was trying to be the shock absorber between the University and the school staff.  I offered a space during lunchtime once a week, where teachers and administrators could come in to talk with each other about what had happened during the week. The mere fact that some teachers found each other in the same room, thus acknowledging that they were not the only ones with ‘the problem’ made them feel more heard. They were also able to talk directly to someone in the administration. Eventually new systems were put into place so there were agreed-upon goals and targets, as opposed to ones imposed from the top. Everyone was a functional team member and communication was clear and more specific. It was a case in which talking openly rather than concealing the truth helped reframe the situation at the teacher level. In the meetings they were also able to talk about what students had to do in terms of work, which was a minimum necessary. Teachers in general, and particularly in this school, see themselves as ‘saviors’: it was important to look at the message that came from above– you must save ALL students—and look at their attempted solutions – plead with students to do their work, give them extra time, make exceptions for the students who brought work in late who ordinarily would not get credit. All this contributed to their self-perception that they were becoming bad teachers to all the class, because of a few ‘rotten apples’. The work with the problem-solver, gave them permission to do what a good teacher should do: reward good behavior and good work and set clear limits with everyone. In doing so, they were teaching their students a real life lesson: you have to be responsible for your own actions – which is what a good teacher does!

I would like to come back  now on the importance of using language to present your case. Apparently when new information is presented in a clear way, it is heard better than information that may be more valid but is presented in a dull way. Are you familiar with Noam Chomsky? He is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician and political commentator and activist. I think he is one of the brightest men alive, but really hard to listen to because he speaks in a very monotone, flat tone of voice. He is 84 and has NO PROBLEM telling the American government how they are wrong… most of the time! But that too is the topic of another conversation. Look him up on YouTube and try to listen. The content is amazing but the delivery interferes very negatively, especially with the American market, who is used to the famous ‘sound bites’ of marketing.
Coming back to the language, every sales person knows that, in order to get a sale, the more you stand out the more people will remember you and will be likely to come back for more. Language is only vivid if you can listen to the person you are interacting with and ‘match’ their world view in your words. That worldview is expressed in language: as a problem-solver it is your job to learn the other person’s and utilize it. It is very unlikely that a person will argue with you if you are presenting things in words that came out of their mouths. And this becomes second nature, once you get in the practice of it.

I am going to tell you, the best I can, about Luis. You should go look it up on You Tube under Luis doesn’t eat octopus. My young son made me aware of it and it is a good example of the use of language. It is VERY sweet. Here is a close approximation
The view we get of Luis, who is about 4 years old, is of a child sitting in front of a plate of food. Mom is filming and trying to make him eat what is in front of him.

Mom: Now eat your octopus. Luis Antonio looks down to his plate with a look of extreme distrust and says: OK, while he plays with his shirt and otherwise shows no intention of eating.
Luis: This octopus is not really real, right?
Mom: No
Luis: So he does not talk, he has no head, right?… Where IS his head?
Mom: He does not have a head. It is only part of the octopus, which is chopped. This produces another very skeptical look onto his plate on the part of Luis.
Luis – looking back at his mother – Oh! So his head is in the sea?
Mom: it is at the fish store.
Pause on the part of Luis, with more looks at this plate. Finally he says: A man cut his head? Like this?
Mom says ‘yes, he cut it’. But why? Says Luis, and mom explains ‘so that we could eat it. If not we would have the whole animal’. But why? Replies Luis. And here things go REALLY wrong.
Mom: To eat it. The same way that they cut chicken…
Luis: CHICKEN!!?? – and he makes a very disgusted face. Nobody eats chickens!
Mom says rather increduleous: ‘Nobody eats chickens…’
Luis: They are animals!
Mom: OK. Just eat your potatoes
Luis: Only the potatoes and the rice. Mom agrees
Luis is on a roll though and he continues… Octopi are animals. All those are animals. Fish are animals…, octopi are animals…, chickens are animals…, cows are animals…, pork are animals…
Mom agrees and Luiz continues. ‘So! When we eat the animals, they die! (he now looks very worried). Mom again agrees and Luiz continues: ‘But why?’ and mom answers the only thing possible: ‘So that we can eat them, my love’. And Luiz comes back with ‘so they die. I don’t like it that they die. I like it when they are still standing and happy.
So mom says: OK. So you won’t eat any more animals, OK? OK, agrees Luiz. And he adds: ‘those animals, we have to take care of them, not eat them!, he says, as he points to his octopus on his plate with a non-chalant gesture.
Mom laughs and says: ‘you are right my love. Just eat your potatoes and rice’. The interaction is about done but this kid is too cute. He sits up, agrees and is about to start eating but looks up and seems mom looking at him. ‘Why are you crying?’, he asks? ‘I am not crying’, says mom, ‘you just touched my heart’. ‘So I did something nice, eh?, says Luiz with a big smile. Mom chuccles and says: ‘now eat. You don’t need to eat the octopus, OK?. The 2 minute clip ends with Luiz picking up his fork and looking at his plate.
This clip could perfectly be used by some extreme vegetarian or vegan group to promote their cause. Those of you who have kids, it is the stage in which kids are stuck in the ‘why’ stage and, for this purpose, while Luiz is not doing it on purpose, he manages very effectively to get his mother to back off of having him finish what is on his plate. And he does it all using language in an effective, convincing way. He sets up a scenario in which he does not even have to argue with his mother that he doesn’t want to eat: he gets her to understand his point of view and backs off (more likely, she is not in the mood to argue with him about eating his food… one more time!).

My friend Steven Feinberg who is a ‘real’ consultant was called into a company in the Silicon Valley. The presenting problem by the CEO was that his engineers were fighting with each other, acting like prima donnas and having a bad impact on company morale in general. It was also at a time, about 10 years ago, when there were fewer engineers than jobs so said engineers had a lot of power: if things were not done the way they wanted to, they could go work for another company which would pay them even higher wages and promise them Paradise. This situation is somewhat changed now, given the availability of work visas geared towards engineers from abroad coming to work in California. Steven asked me to come along because he wanted a fresh perspective on what he had been hearing from his customer. The business climate was very negative, the engineers had personality conflicts with each other but nobody was able to interrupt the vicious cycle, which meant it continued it’s path of destruction.
We had access to as many engineers as we wanted, to ‘listen’ to what their complaints were. After several interviews with engineers in which I was able to play dumb and ask clarifying questions (‘forgive me because I don’t understand big companies too well: what do you mean by your colleagues don’t want to listen to what you have to say when you are yelling at them? How does one of these yelling matches begin? Do you listen to what they have to say sometimes?’), it because clear that a couple of the engineers (I remember a German one in particular who was very full of himself) had hijacked the attention of the CEO and VPs. They had been planning an off campus staff retreat to deal with the problem, in one more effort to placate the fighting group.
In our interviews Steven and I soon started to hear that there were just a couple of the engineers that were the ‘dissenting’ voices: they did not agree with one another and were dragging everyone else into their conflict. Very much like what was happening at the call center that I mentioned earlier. The executives in this company, in the hopes of making things better, had implemented an attempted solution of ‘open door’ policy, bending over backwards to keep everyone happy. What was happening though was that a couple of the engineers were misusing this good will. Whenever they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it, they would run to the next open door amongst the executives until someone would take their side. That kept the cycle going, with the best of intentions. Because we had been brought in by the CEO – if at all possible, always climb the ladder to find what the problem is for the ‘higher up’ because that is where the power usually lies – we went back to him with the recommendation that, from now on, if the team had problems they should come talk to him, exclusively. This would allow him, as CEO, to keep in the loop of what the complaints were before he had a bunch of VPs complaining to him once the problems had already been in place for a while. In other words: he would hear it from the horse’s mouth rather than through third parties who, with the best of intentions, would distort the message. This intervention was the first step towards eliminating the rotating door of favoritism. We worded this to him by saying that it would save him time and money because the problems would not fester for as along. In the diminished festering time, the group of engineers would not have time to be pulled into bands and would focus on their work, leaving the difficult work of managing people to him, the CEO, who did it best (he prided himself in being a ‘people’s person’). As a golden broach, we also suggested he cancel the off-site activity, which would also save him a few thousand dollars. Last but not least, we suggested that, while he listened to his engineers, he try to figure out who was the ‘bad apple’ who was starting quite a few of the complaints. We suggested that, if this person was so unhappy that he could not help himself but spread rumors, maybe he should be allowed to go work for the competition, even though he was a superb engineer. We ‘sold’ this idea in words that a business person could hear: if he prepared for this engineer’s departure, he could already be looking for someone younger, more malleable to the company’s culture who might probably expect less pay.

This case illustrates several points

1)    Finding out what is the most important piece in a complaint, in a request for intervention, focusing on a workable problem reduces complexity to simplicity. There are always different points in the cycle where a problem-solver can enter a system: it is always better to enter where we are invited. Listen to what the original complaint is for which you are being consulted. Simplicity allows your brain to focus on what is most important, change it and watch the system cascade into a bigger change.

2)    Listen to the language of the person you have in front of you. My preference is to mostly, at least at the beginning, work with individuals. Gather as much information as you can, but in one-on-ones. It is a lot harder to keep maneuverability – making the person think you are on their side – if your attention is split.

3)   You are the expert AND you still need to listen for what the person sitting in front of you wants to change. You know what the end goal should always be. From the moment you walk into a situation you have been called into, you have to be thinking about your goal and, every step of the way becomes a way to move closer to that goal. You are always thinking in terms of strategies to get you to where you need to go. You want to do that in the most economic and effective way possible. In this last example, we the consultants are brought it because engineers are arguing with each other and having an impact on company morale and on the bottom line. Several direct interventions have already been tried:

  • stop the fighting
  • lets go on a retreat – so that you can understand why you are fighting and stop.

These are a couple that I can think about, which are attempted solutions. Remember: by definition, they don’t work.
We are needing to introduce a different perspective that needs to be away from the message: you should not fight. One possibility, which is the one we chose, was to find out who was the main person or people who were doing the fighting. Rather than having to make a general intervention with each and every engineer, we picked the surgically more efficient way of intervention: start with the few that were causing all of the ‘noise’

As you can imagine, I have many examples gathered through the years. In fact, one of the things I like to emphasize is that, the problem-solving approach, once you choose to look at the world through that lens, is much more than just a model of intervention. It becomes a lens that you LIVE through. It takes practice, like anything else, but it is a journey well worth investing in.

I will leave you with a few thoughts:

  1. Focus on simplicity: strip the request to  its core and YOU will see more clearly the path that you need to take. When you do that, it is easier to show this path to others.
  2. Be concrete. It will help others understand where you are going and they will follow you. This applies both to the definition of the problem as well as to the main theme of the attempted solutions
  3. Find the unexpected, package it in the client’s language and you now have something to ‘sell’ that will produce that first, significant, important change. Everything else will flow from there. This unexpected ACTION has to be so clear in your mind that you can put it in one, SHORT, sentence
  4. Build your credibility by making sure that the first step is feasible. You are the expert: don’t squander it
  5. Be humble enough that your clients feel like they have actually done the work. They might then refer more clients to ‘the miracle worker’.

©Karin Schlanger/ Paradoxes

Pour citer cet article : Karin Schlanger. Solving problems within school organizations. 2013. www.paradoxes.asso.fr/2013/10/solving-problems-within-school-organizations

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