06/06/2017 - 14:31

Role for teddies in herding cats

06/06/2017 - 14:31


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OPINION: If a problem is complex, don’t try a simple solution, and maybe hand out a teddy or two, Perth author Paul Culmsee says.

Role for teddies in herding cats
Paul Culmsee’s facilitation experience has provided him with a different view on solving difficult issues. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Many readers no doubt share my experience of having spent part of their career engaged in learning and delivering to the requirements of some form of management tool or ethos.

And I’m surely not alone in finding processes often viewed by management as cure-all solutions for revenue growth/cultural change/restructuring (just select the one that fits best) irksome.

It’s not that such models don’t have a place in management, but it has always been clear to me that different businesses and different people do not necessarily match the simplistic boxes that many (or dare I say all) of these approaches take.

Nevertheless, as a business journalist I have always approached these ideas with an open mind. Let’s face it, the holy grail of management is to reduce the business to easy steps that are simple for all employees to follow and which, when they do, deliver successful results.

Naturally I’m not referring only to models used in-house at places I have worked, or closely observed. I have read plenty of books that were meant to solve the management puzzle, with authors from rock star CEOs to leading academics.

In many cases, there has been an almost-religious reverence for those models on behalf of their proponents and adherents, and fervent efforts to bring others on board.

So it was with some amusement that I stumbled across a book that seemed to put a lot of this in perspective, The Heretic’s Guide to Management – The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity.

There is a strong Western Australian link though Perth-based facilitator and co-author, Paul Culmsee. Following up their previous book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations, Mr Culmsee and his Sydney-based co-author, Kailash Awati, have created an amusing and informative text that debunks the notion that any model or theory can truly be a one-size-fits-all wonder.

Examining the background to these models, and broader psychological theories that both inform and undermine them, The Heretic’s Guide to Management challenges the idea that simple steps can solve complex problems.

There are no sacred cows in their exposé of why such processes don’t work and the templated way in which these models are packaged, like weight-loss programs or relationship fads. Each of these new concepts comes with academic theory dressed up in 10-point plans or five-step solutions. They all include their own conveniently simple visual metaphor such as a pyramid, a venn diagram, or even hats.

Some of these management models are very well known, but that doesn’t save them from a good comedic dig.

They believe what they call ‘causal models in management’ – those outlining that certain steps taken will have a given effect – are seductive because they promise to relieve managers and their employees of uncertainty created by ambiguity, something that always exists with what are called ‘wicked’ problems.

Messrs Culmsee and Awati make the obvious point that although solving management issues with a simple formula may be desired by managers, the issues confronted are different from the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, where much sought- after solutions can be found.

“The behaviour of atoms can be reduced to simple rules, whereas that of individual humans, for the most part, cannot,” they write in their final chapter.

Of course the authors are not entirely without their own agenda; based on years of trying to facilitate results from rooms of people of all types, they have a few solutions of their own.

The final chapters of the book focus on dealing with the often-present ambiguity by understanding human anxiety about it and, in effect, tricking their subjects into believing that it has been dealt with, or will be.

You have to read the book to fully grasp how they use teddy bears as substitutes for strongly held beliefs (mainly existing management models). They are prepared to ‘hand out’ teddies wherever required in order to allow those who need them to get on with dealing the problem at hand.

This manipulation when dealing with ambiguous situations is explained in the following way: “ … it may be more fruitful to include indirect approaches that focus on creating the conditions that are conducive to meaningful collaboration, rather than attempting to influence individuals by imposing attractive, but superficial, management models.”

I would suggest this is an approach even the most devoted adherents of particular models might find useful when the situation they are dealing with overwhelms the ability of their more narrow approach to problem solving.


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