Talk about change is becoming a stereotypic way to introduce an article on organizational issues—yet, here I am doing it again. The reality is that organizations are scrambling to survive a pace of change unparalleled in history. Yet some are leveraging these changes to better achieve their long-range goals. One thing that keeps organizations from navigating change successfully is their failure to appreciate the value of chaos for generating creative ideas.
One of the most intriguing references to chaos in literature comes from the Bible. Genesis 1:2 says that, just before God created the universe, “the earth was formless and void.” It was during that period that the Spirit of God was “hovering over the surface of the waters.” The verb that is used there is the same word that the ancient Hebrews used to describe the activity of a mother hen as she “hovers” over her eggs waiting for them to hatch.Understanding and being able to leverage that “hovering” period prior to any creative activity is an essential management skill for dealing with organizational problems. One author describes this pre-creation period as “sitting with the mess.”
It can certainly feel like a mess because the hovering period is often confusing and turbulent. Two streams may run quietly, with hardly a babble of agitation. But when they converge, they abruptly convert into a wild, boiling, sloshing, crashing, chaos of glory and risk. If you have ever done any white-water rafting, you know what I mean. Then, a few miles downriver, the waters begin to calm down again, as the two streams come to a state of balance.
That midway period between the previous and the next—before the waters have found their equilibrium—provides the most potential for finding creative solutions to organizational problems. I like to call this the “volatile” phase. It’s the hardest phase of an organizational shift because, for a lot folk, it feels confusing and there may be a pervasive sense that we are not making progress, which weighs heavily on everyone’s mind.
By postponing closure, however, we grow our creative capability because it’s within that disturbed and disruptive state that the human brain strives for resolution. Once a solution has been selected and decisions settled, we are inclined to slow down our innovative energy and lapse into a state of mental inactivity.
Action Learning is one technique for solving problems that emphasizes the importance of uninterrupted research. Some groups assigned to solving a problem lose this emphasis on learning and instead start to focus completely on resolving the problem. The problem with resolving the problem is that, once the problem has been resolved, we stop resolving. We stop thinking. We stop innovating. We stop experimenting. It’s easy to surrender to that powerful impulse to rush ahead to a solution, which is, after all, what we have been commissioned to do. But unless the learning receives equal emphasis, the problem-solving experience can become little more than a reason to stop innovating.
To conserve the practice of uninterrupted learning, innovative organizations are comfortable with ambiguity. They don’t pounce on the first solution that pops up in their path.
From a systems perspective, problems are never solved in a straight linear way. Real life takes many turns and twists and experiences undercurrents and hidden obstacles that defy logic. To understand the network of contributing factors requires that we refrain from resolving the problem too soon. Otherwise, we may cause an even worse problem to appear further down the river. The following list of techniques might be useful in helping your team to delay resolution in order to multiply creative options.
- Use questions to prevent premature resolution. Questions keep the group from resolving the problem too quickly.
- Try to delay your team from moving into analysis too soon. Analysis narrows the focus and begins to shut down the creative energy.
- Test new ideas before rejecting them.
- Ask your team to research all elements of the problem.
- Diagram the problem. With your team, create a Causal Loop Diagram. Include all contributing forces and all consequences. Show how they are interrelated.
What has worked for you as you have sought resolution of difficult organizational problems? Please add a comment below; I would love to hear your ideas.
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.