How to solve complex problems with integrated leadership teams that harness the power of many.
The world is an increasingly complex place to navigate, especially in the stakeholder heavy NFP space. But that is your job.
Our leaders are busier than they have ever been. The problems they face require people with diverse skill sets and perspectives to work together to solve. Talent alone is not enough. There is a lot of noise (especially in the NFP sector) about ‘diversity’. But it often results in people looking different but thinking the same. A perfect storm for poor decisions.
It leads to decision procrastination, ‘compromise decisions’ that are not decisions at all. People work in isolation – keeping their heads down. And group-think that can head organisations down rabbit holes and poor strategic pathways.
The solution is usually right there in front of you.
(Spoiler alert – Integrate to accelerate!)
Your problems have changed.
They are not only HARD they are COMPLEX. Hard problems are ‘once and done’. Crack the DNA code, build the calculus, learn how to engineer a safe and durable bridge. You get in behind talented people, let them find the solution, deploy - done.
Complex problems are never really solved and require the input of many. They are constantly moving and changing, they are dynamic. Meet your compliance audit this year – meet a different and more onerous one next time.
Navigate a pathway that satisfies ALL stakeholders. Government regulators (plural), families, interest groups, a socially activist and dispersed workforce. All within budget. And make sure you’re compliant and resilient in terms of business continuity.
Meet all the requirements for proper operation of a board who is volunteer (or notional stipend). Make sure you don’t secure donations from organisations that one or more of your employees don’t like. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the actual people your service is there to serve!
The volume of information far outweighs the ability of anyone (or indeed any group) to comprehend and manage. The cliché ‘drinking from the fire hose’ has never been more apt.
People are overwhelmed.
Your people are drowning in ’to-do’. It directly reduces their ability to lead and leverage each other’s strengths as an integrated team. Everyone seeking to ‘make the boat go faster’ and get through their stuff. Replacing coordinated strategy with brute force. They burnout!
When ’tired, busy, and stressed’ our mind state – our way of being and solving problems - shifts. We have less patience, become narrower in our focus (small not big picture), and think short term. We ‘hunker down and work harder’ in the same way we’ve always done.
Leaders micro-manage as a way of feeling in control. We become hypersensitive, defensive, and self-protective in our discourse. We become increasingly “US vs THEM”. Silos emerge and the chasm between them becomes large. Our colleagues become barriers and problems. We see simple questions as personal attacks.
Is it any wonder they cannot seem to make the progress and gain the traction you need?
Your Board Members too.
This is not limited to your executive either – the very same applies, and I’m sure you’ve seen it, at board level. Your board members are also under pressure with their own busy, complex lives.
Board members ‘getting in behind’ and being inflexible about a decision. Looking to ‘win’ the conversation rather than find the best solution. Or diving into detail rather than staying strategic are obvious examples. What about constantly seeking ‘more information’ to procrastinate a decision? Or worse, making knee-jerk decisions in the absence of facts or perspective.
Spread this pain out across a leadership team – and you have a recipe for high turnover and siloed – lone-wolf – leaders. The leadership and, by extension, the organisation dis-integrates. Trust is lower than it ought to be. All change then becomes more difficult. Everyone working hard and not getting traction towards worthwhile goals.
To this, we add the illusion of diversity.
Nowhere – perhaps other than government – has the drive for ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ had more impact than in the NFP space. The NFP sector is itself founded on these values. What is a disability support provider if not about providing care, respect, support, and inclusion?
Social contribution is central to how most of the workforce sees their roles and themselves. People volunteer their time BECAUSE they want to help the less fortunate or the vulnerable.
However – the DEI drive is not the only context that matters. You cannot please everyone. Yet, in this hyper-sensitive and fast-changing context, leaders are afraid to say the wrong thing. So, like politicians, they make non-decisions and procrastinate the difficult. They don’t say what they think for fear of being labelled a heretic.
It can become a trap.
The ability of people to test ideas and discuss problems without fear has diminished. When you cannot test ideas, you cannot approach the best outcome. You cannot leverage the different minds of the people in your team, and you cannot innovate.
Diversity is often trapped in superficial markers. You have people that look different but speak and think the same. This is not diversity. And it does little to help your organisation make high-quality decisions and solve complex problems.
It does even less to help your people work well together in a place of mutual trust and value. Ironically, it is expressly not diverse, equitable, or inclusive.
You need people to be able to say the ‘wrong thing’ without fear of ostracism for doing so. How else can people learn and how else can your organisation innovate?
Integrate, and build cognitive diversity.
Leverage the power of your existing leadership team. It’s the fastest, most sustainable strategy to improve your organisation’s ability to deliver on its purpose.
Build a cognitively diverse leadership group. One that values genuine diversity of perspective and skill. It is the way to superpower your organisation for the future. Professor Scott Page calls it ’the diversity dividend’. His research shows that high cognitively diverse teams outperform high talent. That is, having a team of four highly talented people who think similarly will not perform as well as a team of four cognitively diverse talented people.
A key caveat is that the cognitively diverse team have perspectives and skills that are relevant to the problem. One talented civil engineer will still outperform a diverse team of non-engineers when it comes to building a bridge.
- Innovation comes from the interaction of ideas. It is the bumping together of different concepts or perspectives: the testing of ideas, that is central to innovation. It’s why the internet has led to an explosion of innovation. Its idea testing fecundity is as prolific as it is unprecedented. The evolution of life itself is the progressive accumulation of functional information. Through a process of ’testing’ via small mutations (ideas) through the lens of survival fitness.
- Diverse perspectives reduce risk, provide a balance, and check on extreme positions. Holding back from risky, ill-considered, tunnel vision, or motivated reasoning.
- Division of labour; no one person can have knowledge depth or deep skill in many different areas. Diverse specialists working as a team on the same problem will find solutions that will elude any one of them.
How to do it – the strategy
I have developed a specific model and process that I deploy to help organisations with these challenges. However you can you can do this yourself. It is built on establishing three simple foundations: “Ready, Willing, and Able”.
1, Get your People “Ready”.
Teach your leaders how to be in control of their own mind, emotionally mature and available. If they are not ‘open, flexible, authentic, and self-assured’ they will not bring themselves (and therefore their knowledge and perspective) to the problems you are looking to solve. Give them the skills and the space to be ‘present’, undistracted, and mentally fit.
2, Create an environment where people are “willing” to bring their best to the table.
Create an environment (culture) that values truth seeking, questions, and diverse perspectives. IF your leaders have a ‘fear of speaking out’. Or where their perspective is routinely ignored, then why would they take the risk of bringing their ideas to the discussion? If it is likely to hurt my reputation or, worse – job - to speak up, then why would I? This means not allowing bullying to masquerade as the victim, the passionate, or the powerful.
3, Build their skills so they are “Able”
Teach them (individually and as a group) how to engage in effective problem-solving and discussion. They know how to influence their colleagues. To tease out the best strategy, to argue with a view to finding the best solution, not to ‘win’.
It’s worth considering how many people have ever been taught simple argumentation, epistemology, problem-solving techniques, and heuristics. These are essential skills for effective problem-solving and collaboration, but they’re often overlooked or assumed to be innate. These elements form part of my “Integrated Leaders Power-up™ Model”, and you are welcome to email me for a copy if you’re interested.
By teaching these skills to your leadership team, you can equip them with the tools they need to work together to find the best solutions and navigate the complex challenges of the NFP sector. Investing in the development of your team’s skills and abilities is a wise investment in the future of your organisation.