Problems with work

Many of us maintain an illusion that we solve problems at work.

The reality is that we spend a large proportion of our time, energy and resources solving problems with work.

We fall short. Our ways of working are messy, ineffective, underwhelming, wasteful or completely off-target.

Our people (and institutions) have been educated and habituated to particular ways of working. These default ways of working are not good for the types of problems we are facing in an increasingly fast paced and complex world.

When we try and bring old ways of working to this new type of work, we do injustices: to the work and to our people.

The world has shifted and we need new ways of working. We need to know when to reach for different tools, and what they are, for when the work is different. We need to dig our way out of the ineffective and (frankly) damaging legacies of the limited set of conversations that we inherited out of the industrial material contexts of work in the 19th and 20th Century that impede upon our ability to do that work.

We need to keep the challenge where it belongs: working on solving problems, not solving problems with work.

Better at Questions

Creative work is all about questions.

If you don’t have a question then you’re not doing work, and if you have no more questions then you’ve finished your work (you are no longer creating, you are performing).

Once we’ve established that we are indeed asking and answering questions, we can move forward and there are a few places where we can and do make errors.

Try one of these:


Asking too many questions

How many questions are actually being asked? Is there one, or many? Can and should they be pulled apart and addressed separately?

Asking the wrong question

Is the question that has been asked the right one? The best one?

Not addressing the question

Has the question miscarried? Is this answer for a different question?

Lack of clarity about the current question

In resolving a bigger question, there are a number of smaller questions that need to be answered and getting lost in these is common. What question is being answered?

Issues with the boundaries of questions.

What is in and what is out? Consideration needs to be given to appetite, resources, constraints, and other systems.

Asking a question that is too small

Should a bigger question be asked? Does the question, as asked, capture the scope widely enough to allow work to be done on the right thing.


We don’t just need to be better at answers (coming up with answers, scrutinising answers, measuring answers, etc); we also need to be much better at questions.

Conversations: Which, when and how.

Ultimately, an organization is made up of conversations: who talks to whom, about what. And those conversations get amplified (or ignored) and codified in documents, processes, systems and culture.

Current and future decisions, actions, and sense purpose are grounded in these conversations …”so much so that the conversation is the organization.” (Alan Webber)

The problem is that we have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) types of conversations.

A simple example: the cognition and leadership required to be creative (or to extract, allow for and maximise creativity) is very different to the ways of thinking, acting and managing required in a conversation for optimisation.

To succeed in our collaborative enterprises, we need to get better at knowing which conversations we need to have, when to have them and how.

(Hat tip to Fernando Flores, Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Paul Pangaro and Michael Geoghegan)

Justice and the bottom line

morale < job satisfaction < employee engagement < justice

All too often, we break our people. We do injustices to the people in our teams; we send them home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged.

And all too often, the source of the damage is our conversations: we find we are misaligned, our efforts are misdirected, our efforts are wasted, our understandings clash, and so much more.

When we get our conversations right – when we do justice to the good people with good intent in our teams – we not only produce happy and healthy employees, we drive performance.


Waste in knowledge work

When we make with our hands we can see the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our production systems. Similarly, we can see the injustices we do to people in damaging their limbs or robbing them of their physical health. But when we make with our minds collectively – knowledge work at scale – we fail to see the cause of the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our work. And worse, we do injustices to the people in our teams – not with broken hands or poisoned lungs – we go home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged: broken in our heads, hearts and being.

How can navigate the full spectrum of conversations required for productive endeavours in knowledge work contexts and to minimise the damage done when our conversations break down?

Or, in other words: how do we talk to get stuff done?