Stage Four. Revelation of the Problem Mess

Purpose of this stage is revealing assessment of problematic (for the client) situation by each stakeholder.

Stakeholders have interests that we need to take into account. But for this they need to be known. In the meantime, we have only a list of stakeholders. The first piece of information that needs now to be obtained about the stakeholder is his own assessment of the situation, which is problematic for our client. It may be different: some stakeholders may have their own problems (negative assessment), some may be completely satisfied (positive assessment), while others may be neutral to reality. So the “expression of the face” of each stakeholder must be clarified (Figure 5.5). In fact, we have to do the work that we did in the first stage with the client, but now with each stakeholder individually.

R. Ackoff [2] suggested calling the resulting list of the subjective assessments of the existing reality (which is a problem for the client) the problem mess. Although this term has a slight slang shade (which is why some authors prefer to call it more dryly “problematique”), it successfully emphasizes a very significant and fundamentally important point: its judgments are not independent, but are intertwined, interrelated (as being judgments about the same). This means that they form a complete system, with all the ensuing consequences.

In this case, the main consequence is the property’s indivisibility into parts (the tenth property of the system). Hence, it becomes obvious that not inadmissibility (unfortunately, it is not always possible to keep someone from doing stupid things), but the undesirability and incorrectness of solving one, albeit a very important problem in isolation from other components of the mess.

Thus, the problem of the client in the mess is that it reveals as its core, the germ, around which the views of other stakeholders are grouped. Now it is clear that our task

The mess is a description of the situation assessments of each stakeholder

FIGURE 5.5 The mess is a description of the situation assessments of each stakeholder.

is not to solve the client’s problem but to work with the problematic mess as a whole. This is where the design and implementation of improving intervention, which solves the client’s problem, taking into account the interests of all stakeholders, serve.

Technologies for Identifying the Mess

J. Warfield [3] developed a specific technology for developing a problem mess that has been successfully used in practice.

The first stage of his methodology, the group wording method (NTG — nominal group technique), reveals the problematic mess by posing to the group of stakeholders the question: “What problems do you see in this problem situation”? Each of them creates a written statement of the problems they recognize, and their printouts are posted on the wall for general viewing. After 15-30 minutes, the generation of new ideas fades. Then a discussion of each of them is held to clarify what exactly the author has in mind. Such a discussion may take two to three hours since the number of problems usually ranges from 40 to 160, and the discussion may become a serious debate at some topics.

However, the practice of solving the real-life problems of large organizations shows that identifying their problematic messes often cannot be reduced to a onetime, single interview of stakeholders. Each participant in a problem situation looks at it from its local position and sees only one of its sides, and hence, only the details of this side are contained in his model of reality. This is not enough to adequately describe the situation. In such cases, the identification of the problem mess becomes a thorough study of the situation, the building of a detailed, rich picture containing the fullest possible information about the actual problems associated with this situation.

The limited reality description by the subject is due to the fact that he perceives reality only through his models. Therefore, an increase in the flow of necessary information can be achieved by offering the subject to look at the situation not from one (usual for him) viewpoint, but by using other models.

The technology of systems analysis uses different ways to implement this idea. For example, the division of stakeholders into two groups was applied. Supporters of the problem’s solution “from top to bottom” and “from bottom to top”, that is, those who prefer to plan from a global goal and decomposing it to the lowest-level goals, and those who are trying to aggregate the lowest-level goals to synthesize a global goal. Formulating the supposed problems of each stakeholder is proposed to these groups, followed by a dialectical discussion to work out the final wording of the problematic mess.

Another variant of the proposal for a set of different ideas about organization (metaphors) is as follows: organization can be viewed as a “machine”, “organism”, “brain”, “culture”, “political system”, “suppression tool”, and so on. Each of these viewpoints highlights some features that are not visible from other positions, as well as some aspects that are common. This allows us to see the limitations of the model, which we adhered to at the beginning, and to expand in more detail the problematic mess. The publications report on practical utility and other metaphors, for example, “organization as a continuously changing system”, “like a madhouse”, and “like a carnival”.

The “machine” metaphor draws attention to the purpose (goal) of the system, to the composition of the parts, their functions, and the connections between them, usually expressed by hierarchical structures. The “organism” metaphor describes a system whose primary goal is survival in a turbulent environment.

The metaphor “brain” highlights the importance of information processes, decision-making, governance, training, and correction of goals. The metaphor “culture” concentrates on the individual characteristics of workers, their values, and personal aspirations, as well as on a corporate culture that unites the team. The metaphor “political” focuses on relationships between people in organization, relations of power and responsibility, rivalry and cooperation, conflict resolution, etc. Metaphors of the “tool of repression” and “madhouse” focus on the negative aspects of life in an organization: restriction of freedom in thoughts and in the disclosure of capabilities, exploitation, prevalence of punishments over rewards, and discrimination on some grounds. Each metaphor is compared with a system model, and the problem is identified by describing the system in question in terms of this model.

A community of systemic organization of everything in nature allows to look for analogies not only between metaphor and our system but also between our system and any entity in the world. “Method of random associations” suggests to look for analogies between our system and several others arbitrarily chosen from dictionary nouns.

Another variant of disclosing the diversity of approaches to the problem situation in management is to indicate the presence of different paradigms. The word “paradigm” denotes a vision of the world, a set of ideas, assumptions, and beliefs that guide people in their actions.

The difference between metaphors and paradigms should be emphasized. A metaphor is a partial, one-sided view of an object or phenomenon. Different metaphors do not contradict but complement each other. Proponents of different paradigms believe that they offer the best way to describe the observed “reality”. Therefore, paradigms are incompatible, and so are the descriptions they generate. Therefore, the recommendations given to the manager by experts who adhere to different paradigms are contradictory, which forces him to look for something “average”.

There are four paradigms: functional (the functionalist paradigm), explanatory (the interpretive paradigm), liberal (the emancipatory paradigm), and postmodern (the postmodern paradigm).

The “functional” paradigm proceeds from the fact that with the help of scientific methods one can understand how the system works by ascertaining the nature of the system parts, the interaction between them, and between the system and its environment. The knowledge gained will help the manager to improve the organization’s management. Metaphors “machine”, “organism”, “brain”, and “changing system” are usually associated with this paradigm.

The “explanatory” paradigm believes that organizations are social systems created to achieve subjective goals resulting from the interpretation of the circumstances in which the subject finds itself. An organization is created by people, and people act in it in accordance w'ith their interpretations of reality. This paradigm aims at achieving an understanding of the meanings that organizations bring to the joint activity, determining the overlapping areas of these meanings, and thereby creating a common purposeful work. Thus, managers are focused on achieving the necessary level of the overall corporate culture in the organization, making decisions w'ith employee participation, and increasing their commitment to the organization. Cultural and political metaphors are usually associated with this paradigm.

The “liberation” paradigm aims to “liberate” individuals and groups in organizations and society. It is wary of the authorities and tries to publicize its methods and concrete facts of suppression and coercion, which it considers illegal. It criticizes the status quo and calls for radical reforms and even a revolutionary change in the existing order. It is against any form of discrimination (by race, gender, status, age, etc.). This paradigm is often associated with the “tool of repression” and “madhouse” metaphors.

The “postmodern” paradigm is in opposition to the rationalism of all three modernist paradigms. It believes that social systems are so complex that attempts by other paradigms to give them a rational explanation are useless. In particular, they cannot explain aspects of pleasure, entertainment, and emotions in the actions of people in an organization. It insists on open conflict resolution, freedom of expression of opposing opinions, and encouraging diversity and changes. This paradigm corresponds to the carnival metaphor.

So far, we have discussed about the “problem mess” as a kind of “photographs” of the current state of relations of the stakeholders to the existing situation. However, everything that happens w'ith time is changing, w'ith a lot depending on w'hat happens in the future. Therefore, for a truly “systemic” solution of a problem, it is necessary to rely not only on information about the current state (“photo”) — a static model of the system — but also on its dynamic model (“movie”).

Thus, the formulation of the problem mess requires identifying a set of interrelated threats and opportunities for an organization or institution, the problem that we have undertaken to solve. It is this aggregate that is the complete picture (“rich picture”) of the problem situation, the “mess”. It determines how the organization would crash if it continues to act in the same way as so far, that is, if it cannot adapt to changes in the internal and external environment, even if it could accurately predict the course of these changes. This reveals what the organization or institution should avoid at all costs.

Such an approach to formulating a mess is almost the same for an organization that is already in crisis, and for one that is only alarmed by negative trends and wants to prevent a looming crisis.

Sometimes the formulation of a mess can be reduced to identifying the problems of the stakeholders, which can be done by brainstorming at a session of the stakeholders or their representatives. But with a sufficiently large complexity of the situation, it may require a more detailed consideration of it. For example, R. Ackoff [4] recommends doing it in several stages.

  • 1. Perform systems analysis. This is a detailed description of how the organization or institution is currently operating. It is convenient to present it with a series of flowcharts showing how input material is acquired and transformed in an organization, and how money and information flow in it. These flowcharts can be prepared separately, but it is usually useful to combine them into a single scheme or to depict them on transparent slides; when overlaid on them, their interconnections are easily viewed.
  • 2. Perform obstacles analysis. Identify those characteristics and properties of the organization that hinder its progress or hinder changes (e.g., conflicts or traditions).
  • 3. Identification of scenarios (reference projects) of a possible future. Formulate what the course of events will lead to, and what is the future of an organization if there are no changes in its existing plans, programs, policies, and practices. This should expose the possibility of self-destruction of the organization, and show how the obstacles described in stage 2 will prevent the necessary changes to be made.
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