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  • Paul Cumbo

People who fix things are amazing

People who really fix things are rare. Whether it's a broken machine or a broken company, it takes a combination of skills and qualities to fix it right.

I've been learning about organizations (and more specifically, the people who comprise them) as I've been tasked with leadership roles in various systems in recent years, both in my primary role on a school faculty, and in my own businesses. I've come to appreciate just how truly hard it is to solve serious problems in an effective, sustainable way—and I've come to appreciate even more so the small subset of people who do this well and, more to the point, consistently well.

Most of us are good at seeing a serious problem—but only insofar as it is affecting us. Thing is, our limited view tends to skew the scope and nature of the issue. I might assume, for example, that it's affecting others the same way it's affecting me, when, in fact, it isn't. This could make it seem like a systemic problem when it's not. By contrast, I might under appreciate the scope of the issue if it happens to have minimal impact upon me.

Nonetheless, most of us, most of the time, are fairly good at at least noticing a problem, if only because it causes some form of pain, discomfort, or difficulty. But most of us, most of the time, don't have the time, the resources, or—let's face it—the inclination to do the hard work of correctly identifying the real scope of the matter. We probably don't have adequate data to support our own interpretation, and we probably won't get it—either because we can't do so practically, or because we aren't willing to do what it would take to get it. (And, notably, this requires acknowledging that our interpretation might be wrong. A lot of people can't or won't do this—so that's where they stop.) The real leaders have the listening skills and patience it takes to figure this out.

But even assuming we've correctly and objectively identified the scope of a problem, the tougher thing to accomplish is a reasonably correct determination of the causes. One of the reasons this is hard is because of the first point I made, above. We have a tendency to attribute a problem to the cause most evident to us in our narrow, immediate experience of it. Of course, it's not always (or even usually) the case that there's only a single cause of a problem. We quickly develop cognitive biases, though—and why wouldn't we, after all? Again, it takes a conscious effort (and imagination) to acknowledge that there are probably causes beyond the one most immediately apparent to me. That also takes both humility and patience, and that's in short supply for most of us, most of the time. The leaders have to be agile communicators, because they have to work with other people to understand the full narrative. They know they can't do this alone.

And then there's the real kicker. Even if we've accomplished the elusive goal of sufficiently correctly identifying a problem and sufficiently correctly identifying its causes, we have to determine how to act. And that's really hard—if only because we can only act on one thing at a time, so we have to prioritize. I think this is where the genuine leaders emerge from the pack. They've had the humility and patience to achieve a sufficiently accurate understanding of a problem, including its scope and most influential causes. Then they can appropriately prioritize that problem amidst all the others. And then, beyond that, they have the intelligence, creativity, and tenacity to develop and implement a real, practical, affordable solution with a reasonable chance of being effective, sustainably. Beyond this, of course, they are also able to work with other people as part of a team, whether large or small, and maximize the potential of each member.

Of course, they also have to have the chops to understand that they might have been wrong all along, and, if so, the courage to admit it and start over—and bring the team along, too. That's an impressive combination of qualities to exercise together. I think it's really hard to pull off, so I'm increasingly amazed by people at the highest levels of organizational leadership who do. I think the people who do this well are rare, and worth paying attention to—whether or not we agree with them, or even like them.

#organizations #collaboration #systems #leadership #problems


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