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Four Questions for Taming Complexity

The scene is familiar to far too many of us. Top management announces a reorganization. Several departments will be consolidated to eliminate redundancy and save money. The mantras of “working smarter” and “doing more with less” appear in the official announcement, but strangely there is little substance to be found in the other memos coming out of the executive suite. No discernible plans or practical suggestions for how to shrink and restructure your department to meet the goal of being leaner and more effective. In fact, after the initial announcement and a few short follow ups, information about the consolidation slows to a trickle and then seems to cease altogether.

Soon department heads begin eyeing those who work for them with an evaluative gaze that makes everyone queasy. An atmosphere of anxiety develops. The vacuum created by the lack of information creates fertile ground for rumors take root. The moment rumors sprout they begin eroding people’s confidence, exacting a terrible cost. The question foremost in everyone’s mind, “Is my head on the chopping block?” starts to affect performance. Morale plummets. Chaos is close at hand.

Such was the scene several years ago when I received a call from the ombudsperson at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Due to budget constraints, it was decided that all of the independent IT departments that served each of the different Colleges within the University would be consolidated into a single entity to save money and streamline service. As she told me, “If we don’t do this right, I’m going to have way too much work on my hands trying to sort through all the complaints. You claim to be able to tap into the intelligence of groups; can you help us through this transition?” Not fully grasping the complexity of the task, I cheerfully said, “Sure.” Thus began my involvement in one of the more challenging projects I’ve ever worked on.

We began by identifying four questions to help bring order to the unruly project:

  • Why are you here?

  • What are you concerned about?

  • What do you do well?

  • What information do you need to move forward?

The next thing we did was to gather all the department heads together in the same room for a conversation. In hindsight this seems perfectly logical, but at the time it was a radical act. Never before had all of these people met each other and talked together about their work. Silos are as much of a fixture of the operational landscape of universities as they are in private sector organizations. We knew we needed to get people aligned as quickly as possible, but we also knew that we couldn’t simply jump into the nitty-gritty details of the project. Our first step was to build relationships and establish the trust needed to work together on such a large undertaking.

We posed our questions using a World Café format – people worked in groups of four or five and rotated to new tables with different people after 30 minutes of talking. We hired a professional visual practitioner to create large murals highlighting key points and learnings from the conversations so they'd be visible throughout the day. We held several rounds of conversation, ensuring, that by the end of the day, everyone had met nearly everyone else. This created a high density of social connections in the group and further solidified relationships.

“Why do you choose to work here at UCSC?” led off the first round. These were accomplished IT professionals living within commuting distance of Silicon Valley. The lure of money was strong and quite close by. Their answers struck resonant chords among everyone in the room:

  • “This is my alma mater and I want to give back to this school.”

  • “I believe that a world class education is the best thing we can give young people, and while I’m not a good teacher, I’m a great coder. Knowing that my coding is helping students learn is worth more to me than the additional money I'd make at a start up firm in The Valley.”

  • “I support a Nobel Prize winner and I want to make sure he has the best IT possible.”

  • “I love the collegial atmosphere here. I work with amazing people who care deeply about the things that I care about. We're a community here, I don't think I could find anything quite like this at a private company.”

And, since it was Santa Cruz, we also had several replies of:

  • “I’m a surfer and I need to live by the beach.

At the end of this inquiry, the atmosphere in the room was warm and welcoming, a far cry from the nervousness and suspicion that was present just an hour earlier. People were visibly relaxed and more willing to engage in the conversation. That was good because we knew the next question was going to be tough to work through. “What are your biggest concerns about the consolidation effort?”

Immediately, each table began to buzz with intensity. Brows were furrowed, expressions of concern and worry appeared on many faces. People sketched out detailed notes on the paper covering each table. Lists, diagrams and flow charts were generated. Heads were nodding and shaking and the round ran longer than expected. We repeated the same question in a new configuration with much the same scene being played out. When we finally harvested the room, asking people to call out their top concerns the resulting list was daunting.

“Yikes!” was the first word that the three of us running the meeting spoke to each other as we looked over this massive list of concerns. Suddenly there seemed to be a chill in the air. We had gone from a room full of people bound by common aspirations to a room full of people experiencing palpable anxiety over shared concerns. We knew we needed to bring people back to where they felt that they had access to the resources they needed if we were going to find a way to cope with all the things that were keeping them up at night.

“What do you do that is world class, that needs to be baked in to the new IT organization if it’s to be successful?” Again people leaned in closely. Within a few minutes the air was positively charged. Laughter was heard here and there. Smiles appeared, and you could tell by their body language that people were once again connected to their strengths and were discovering hopeful possibilities for their future. This round also ran over from our expected time and we generated a long list of “must haves” that the new IT organization would require if it was to be a worthy successor to the existing departmental structures.

“Now, given all that you have learned here today, what question or questions do you have, that, if answered, would allow you to take the next steps in restructuring your department?” This round began with silence as people made notes to themselves and thought through the complexities their department faced. Slowly their voices filled the room, and soon more and more people joined in the conversation with their tablemates, amplifying, cross pollinating, and clarifying core questions.

The harvest from this question filled up an entire sheet of mural paper that was four feet high and eight feet wide. It was a bit overwhelming and not entirely useful in its present state. “Here are four dots. One red and three green. Place the red dot next to the question you deem to be the most pressing, the one that if answered would let you take your immediate next step. Use the green dots to identify those you judge to be the three next most important questions that you need answers to. Then take a break – you’ve earned it!”

The resulting map now revealed 16 questions clustered with red dots, indicating the immediate next steps for exploration and clarification so that people could begin to plot a path to make the transition. The green dots gave a ranked order to the bulk of the remaining questions. Those without dots, while still important, represented issues to be addressed further out on the time horizon.

In the space of a single day, using just four questions, 28 people who had never met before, came together and drew up the outlines of an approach to a highly complex project that would take over two years to complete. No single person could possibly have pieced this together because the knowledge was distributed among the whole group. People were tired but jazzed. One woman summed up her experience of the day as follows:

“When I heard we were going to hold an all day meeting I almost called in sick. When I saw all of our concerns, I actually felt sick – sick to my stomach! When I looked at what we do that’s world class I thought, ‘Well maybe we can make this work.’ When I saw how we developed our questions and then sorted them into a workable timeline, I knew for sure that would could do this and do it right. Because that’s who we are and what we do, we do things that seem impossible all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in one day, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be part of a team that I didn’t even know I belonged to until today.”

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