When you encounter a problem in your organization, what do you do? This filter model (based on the Waterline Model by Harrison, Scherer, Short) will help you take a methodical rather than haphazard approach to diagnosing your organizational dysfunctions.
Every team will have trouble. What will make or break the team is how they address that trouble. Imagine a team that is working along, developing a new squeegee mop. The team has been working together a relatively short time. They are going through their daily routine evaluating the new designs, coordinating with each other to get development done. Some are doing research while others are prototyping. Then in the middle of a meeting two members of the team hit a wall. They are trying to come to a decision about the substrate used in the squeegee base. Sam believes it should be the new polyurethane that he has been developing because it leverages the investment and research that the company has been making. Susan believes that the polyurethane is too risky and it should be made with the natural sponge the company has had success with for years. The two are locked in competition. Susan is arguing and dominating the conversation but Sam won’t let the conversation move on. What do you do?
Think of a series of increasingly fine granted filters. If you are filtering water through a water purification system, the first filter catches most of the dirt in the system. Each subsequent filter catches smaller and smaller particles until the last filter catches the finest, most minute particles in the water. Do not misunderstand those finest particles are still toxic. Giardia (the diarrhea causing bacterium) is minute, but you don’t want it in your water. It is not that the bigger particles are more deadly, they are just more common. Filter them out first. Generally speaking, most issues are at the structure level, fewer at the group level, even fewer at the inter- and intra- personal. When assessing a situation like the one described earlier, we use this multilevel filter
What is the problem and how do you troubleshoot it?
At the first sign of trouble look to structure to see if you are clear there. Structure includes roles and responsibilities as well as the organizations: vision, mission, and strategic objectives. The vast majority of issues in teams and organizations will be due to structural issues. Signs that structural issues are involved include:
- Confusion about tasks
- Confusion about goals
- Confusion about individual roles
- Unclear reporting structures
- Unclear ownership of parts of the project
- Unclear ownership about handoffs
- Disagreement about tasks and goals
- Disagreement about roles and responsibilities
If you have obtained clarity on the structure the next level of granularity in the filter is group dynamics. Observe your teams and determine if the group is having problems. Signs that group dynamics issues are involved include:
- Silent members of the team are not maximally included
- Lopsided participation or influence
- Confusion about decisions being made or not
- Concerns about who is included or excluded
- Too much reliance upon leaders
- People not contributing their experience
Having eliminated group dynamics as a problem we move then to Interpersonal Issues. These tend to be mostly about communication. Signs that interpersonal issues include:
- Misunderstandings or assumptions about other people’s experience
- Unfinished communication
- Team members do not learn from each other
- Frequent misunderstandings
- Conflict/differences are not addressed
- People don’t give or ask for feedback
- People avoid each other rather than face conflicts
Once you have eliminated structure, group dynamics, and interpersonal Issues we are left with one more level of granularity in the filters, intra-personal issues. Signs of intrapersonal issues include:
- Someone is distracted from the group (family, illness, company reorg or RIFs)
- Someone doesn’t have the skills required to accomplish their tasks
- Someone isn’t learning from their own or other peoples experience
- Someone doesn’t value the goal or is not committed to achieve it
- A barrier, such as language, hampers effective communication
If our friends Sam and Susan, who were struggling with the decision about the substrate at the beginning of the article had stepped back for a minute. If they used these four filters they could have quickly determined where the conflict was really centered.
- It may have been structure: Sam thought he was the decision maker for this part of the project.
- It may have been group dynamics: Susan didn’t have the chance to contribute her ideas earlier.
- It may have been inter-personal: Sam doesn’t deal well with conflict well.
- It may have been intra-personal: Susan’s mother was just admitted to hospice and she is stressed out of her mind.
Don’t just guess at where the issues are, using this multi-level filter model you can quickly assess issues in a systematic way and more quickly and accurately identify the source of issues in your organization. Of course identification of the sources is just the beginning then you must take action to address the issues. This tool will help you identify the right place to start.