Identifying the Real Problem

Data Analysis For Business And Finance Concept.

As a leader, part of your responsibility is to monitor whether your organization is on track to meet its identified goals and if not, to take steps make sure barriers are addressed. Unfortunately, far too often we misdiagnose our people as the problem because they are the most visible variable. We tell them to try harder, we remind them of the target metrics, and expect them to figure it out. Except, more often than not, our people aren’t the problem. Our systems are.

According to quality guru W. Edwards Deming, 94% of our problems in organizations are systems problems not people problems. Read that sentence again. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to pay attention to your systems.

Systems have a way of fading into the background and functioning unnoticed, so it is easy to overlook their influence on a situation. What exactly do I mean by systems? It is not the individual policies, procedures or functions within your organization, although these play a role. Systems are the formal and informal inter-relationships that influence behavior over time. Think of it like a mobile. When you touch one part of the mobile, it impacts every other part. It is not about the parts per se — an individual part may seem to be working just fine — the key is how those parts interact.

Tell tale signs that you are dealing with a “systems issue” include:

  • You have chronic, seemingly unexplainable behaviors or problems that multiple people have tried to address and yet to date have been “unsolvable”.
  • When people who work in the same function, regardless of how different they may be, tend to produce similar results, it’s likely a systems issue more than a people issue.
  • If you take steps to “fix” an issue in one part of the organization, and suddenly you begin to have new problems in another part of the organization, you have bumped up against a system.

Systems are rarely linear cause and effect chains (which would be much easier to see!). With systems, cause and effect are often separated by time and space, and the best way to address an issue may be three steps back from the “problem”.  To test this, when someone is describing a problem, respond by asking “why” as many as 5 times — the root issue is probably somewhere close to the fifth question.

Systems aren’t bad in and of themselves as long as you recognize that they are designed to maintain the status quo — which is a good thing in some situations. It is also important to recognize that using a “bigger hammer” is rarely effective in changing a system . . . and really ineffective in changing the behavior of staff who are functioning within the system.

Have a situation that seems resistant to all of your efforts to solve it? Maybe you need to start by making sure you have identified the real problem.



What Game Are You Playing?


When it comes to playing chess, you need to understand the game if you are going to be successful. You are not going to win at chess if you follow the rules for checkers — even though they are both played on a board with alternating colored squares, both have pieces you strategically move around, and in both games you can “take” someone else’s pieces if you are smart enough to make the right moves. Sounds pretty similar, right? . . .

Except, the games are really quite different.

So it is with nonprofit organizations. In some regards, nonprofits may look like a for-profit organization or possibly even a public organization — there are certainly some similar components and concepts — and yet the games are really quite different. The only way to be consistently successful is to understand the intent and specific rules of the game before you. So how is the nonprofit “game” different?

1) Nonprofit leaders are actually playing two games at once.

Because the beneficiaries of a nonprofit organization rarely cover the full cost of the program or service provided, nonprofits have to simultaneously play a second (and sometimes a third or fourth) game to fill the gap between what it costs to provide a service and the reimbursement received. The second game not only requires very different skills and activities than the first game, but also . . .

2) The players in the second game often want a say in the rules of the first.

A “players” in the second game — let’s call it “Fill the Gap” — may choose to negotiate. “I’ll give you four pieces to fill the gap, however you can only use them in the spot I identify.” Now as grateful as the nonprofit leader is that someone is willing to play Fill the Gap, the identified spot may or may not be the area of greatest need.

3) The intent of the game is different.

The financial bottom line is not the goal in the nonprofit game. It is a condition for sustainability, but not the ultimate measure of success. Success at a for-profit exercise equipment company is based on the number of machines sold — the bottom line — not on whether the people who buy the machines go on to change their behavior and become healthy. In nonprofits, the “transaction” is part of the process but not the ultimate mission.

I could go on, but you get the picture. So why should you care? If you are a leader, chances are you are or will serve on a nonprofit board, you financially support one or more nonprofits, you or someone you know has benefited from the work of a nonprofit, and/or your community is impacted by the nonprofits in your midst. As a leader, your opinions matter — people are looking to you for guidance, and if you are going to provide guidance, it is helpful to understand the game. Nonprofits should undoubtedly be held to a high standard . . . just not the rules of a different game.

The Power of AND


Originally Published February 4, 2015

Take a moment and consider how your leadership perspective might change if the words “but” and “or” were banned from your vocabulary . . .

That would mean you could never again say things like:

“What our client really needs is “X”, but we could never get “Y” to pay for it.”

“Do you want me to look at the big picture, or deal with the details?”

“Sure that sounds like a great idea, but let’s be practical.”

“But” and “or” limit your potential. They are creativity killers. They require trade-offs. They feed into a scarcity mentality. “And”, on the other hand, is about abundance. It is about stretching your thinking in new ways, and considering multiple possibilities.  It’s about not stopping when you run into the first closed door . . . or even the second.

Make no mistake, infusing “and” in an organization can be challenging . . . some might even say not realistic . . . and yet it’s worth the effort to stick with it.  When you reach a tipping point, when “and” becomes part of your culture, a new energy is released and exciting things start to happen. “And” attracts the kind of people who reach for more, who aren’t willing to settle, who have an inner drive to live your mission. Don’t believe me? Consider two organizational approaches to the same situation . . .

“This family really needs X, but our contract won’t pay for it.” (Depressing dead end, right?)

“This family really needs X, and our contract won’t pay for it, so how else can we help them get their needs met?” (Feel the energy, and the permission to be creative?)

Same situation. Change three letters — but to and — and suddenly staff are at least thinking about different options, peering outside the box to look for new possibilities. No one broke any rules, or ignored reality, they simply didn’t view the current situation as an end of the discussion. Which organization do you think is going to attract the most passionate, motivated staff — the game-changers who can ultimately help your organization succeed?

If you want “and” people in your organization, it is up to you to role model “and” behavior. Try it for a week. Stop yourself every time you respond to a challenge with “but” or “or”, and consider what new possibilities might present themselves if your approach was “and.” At the end of the week, reflect on your outlook, your energy, and your accomplishments.

Good week? Things seem to fall into place? Enthused about pursuing a new idea?

That, my friends, is the power of “and.”

Re-Writing the “Rules”

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Perhaps I’m just a rebel at heart, but it always grates on me a bit when I hear another leader comment, “we don’t have a choice, we have to do it this way, . . .” The question that immediately goes through my mind is why? Why does it “have to be” that way? Regardless of pressure from peers or others to conform, do you realize that every time you lean on “have to” you give away your power?  . . . Your power to make things different or better . . . Your power to challenge your people to find a way to go over, around or through some real or imagined barrier . . . Your power to truly create a future that is different from the present . . .

Yes, “have to” is safer. No one will blame you for following the rules . . . after all, they are the “rules” . . . that is, until someone else challenges them and writes new rules. I absolutely love a visual of this concept shared by Ben Sherwood, Producer and Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks, at the 2019 Global Leadership Summit — you need to be a farmer with a pitchfork. He said, the best swordsman is not afraid of another swordsman because they know the rules, the principles of a swordfight . . . but a farmer with a pitchfork scares them because he or she doesn’t follow some established set of rules. The statistics Sherwood shared about this concept were compelling. When conventional tactics are used (i.e. following the rules) the stronger power wins 71.5% of the time. However, when one side uses an unconventional approach, the unconventional player prevails 63.6% of the time!

Be a farmer with a pitchfork! How many times have you seen an “industry leader” replaced by an outlier organization that approached a challenge in a totally different way? In many cases, the industry leader didn’t see it coming because they were focused on the rules — what they “had to” follow. Or, perhaps they were focusing on refining the way that “everyone” addresses a particular challenge and so didn’t expect someone to implement a new strategy.

I’m not suggesting that you should challenge every rule that someone imposes on you. I am suggesting, however, that as the leader it is your job to decide how your organization is going to accomplish its’ mission. Maybe it is by the path that someone else establishes for you, or maybe it is by looking at the situation differently and re-writing the rules. Maybe you need to identify your goal, look at the tools available to you — be they swords or pitchforks — and then don’t let someone whose job is not to lead your organization to decide what you have to do.

That’s your job. Is it time to re-write the rules?

Quit Making Empty Promises


In the midst of an especially crazy day . . . or week . . . or month . . . many a leader has promised him or herself (and likely a bevy of followers) that once we reach X-milestone, things will calm down . . . if you can just make it to Y, things will even out and get easier . . . once we finish the Z initiative, we’ll have a chance to catch our breath. While those promises to yourself and others may be uttered with the best of intentions, in reality they only lead to a greater sense of frustration and exhaustion.

Why? Because the calm . . . an easier pace . . . down time, is not going to just magically happen. When the current project concludes, there will be three more to take its place — projects that you as the leader probably initiated! At the recent Global Leadership Summit author and speaker Danielle Strickland noted that, “There is no changing the future without disrupting the present.” Read that line again. Isn’t that what we are about as leaders — changing the future for our organizations, or those things we are most passionate about?

If disrupting the present is the means to achieve our goal (and when you see it in black and white, it really is hard to deny the truth of that statement) then saying “just hang on until . . .” quickly becomes an empty promise. And an empty promise is one of the quickest ways to suck the energy out of an effort, regardless of how important the project may be. So how can a leader keep themselves, and their team, motivated in the midst of what may feel like ever-increasing demands?

  • Acknowledge that disruption is not episodic.

It is the path required to get to a goal that you care about. Don’t set yourself or your people up for disappointment by thinking you just have to “get through it.” Disruption is an on-going means to an end, rather than a singular unpleasant experience.

  • Shift your focus to “within” not “after”.

How can you find some measure of balance, identifying opportunities to recharge your batteries, in the midstof the disruption rather than thinking those things will suddenly become easier after you reach some mythical milestone? If disruption is the new normal, then you need to model how to thrive within such an environment, not just sputter your way through looking for a finish line.

  • Reframe disruption as progress.

The definition of disruption is “disturbance or problem which interrupts an event, activity or process.” That feels bad. The definition of progress is “forward or onward movement toward a destination.” That feels good. ( . . .even if that movement interrupts an event, activity or process . . .) How you view a situation makes all the difference.

Want to change the future? Quit making empty promises.

Effective Leadership in One Word


I have bookshelves filled with leadership books. I have advanced degrees in the subject. I’ve attended countless seminars, listened to podcasts, followed blogs and train on the topic. And through all that exploration and study, I have come to realize that good leadership can be boiled down to one word. Sure we have lots of vocabulary to slice and dice or give a particular spin to the topic, but when all is said and done it really all boils down to a single concept.

And that concept isn’t unique to the field of leadership. I am privileged to lead a human service organization. For a number of years, my team and I have commented on the overlap between best practices in human services and in leadership. I vividly recall a number of years ago doing a book study with our supervisors on The Speed of Trust and the initial response from many of them was, “This is a leadership book? This is what we do with our kids!” Yep.

Last week, we had a team of staff members attend the Global Leadership Summit. During a presentation on negotiation, I heard a staff member in the row in front of me lean over to a co-worker and whisper “That’s PACE!” — a technique we use in working with our most challenging kids. And she was right. In another example, in the recently released book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership two key concepts highlighted are mentalizing (defined in the book as reflecting on what others are thinking, and what they are likely to do next) and neuroplasticity (the ability to develop new connections in the brain) — both of which our clinicians have incorporated into our work for some time. So what is this one word, this single concept that is the essence of effective leadership (and working with kids and families)?


The mantra we use in our organization is “Relationship are primary.” Without a relationship, none of the other tools — whether they come from leadership or human service experts — will be effective. Leaders need followers. And to follow you, to believe in the vision you are casting and take steps to bring it to reality, there has to be some type of relationship with those you hope to lead. Sure, everyone can point to people in positions of leadership who don’t invest in building relationships, but will the best people choose to follow them for the long term?

Yes relationships take time to build. They can be messy, invigorating, frustrating and at times unpredictable. And they are absolutely critical if you hope to maximize your impact as a leader. It is just as simple and complicated as that.

Leadership Top Ten


In a coaching session earlier this week, the person I was meeting with asked if I had a “top ten leadership tips”. After giving it some thought, I offer the following list (which should come as no surprise to those who follow my blog as I am sure I have touched on all of these — many more than once — in the last five years):

1. Holding a position of authority is not the same as being a leader.

A clear vision and engaged followers are what makes a strong leader, not the ability to demand compliance.

2. Take the time to get crystal clear on where you are going.

Going slow to go fast may seem counter-intuitive, but every decision becomes easier when you and your team know the destination.

3. Nice matters.

Make the hard decisions you need to make, and then be kinder than you have to be in carrying them out. It’s not about whether the other party is “deserving” of such treatment. Your behavior is a reflection on you.

4. Stand firm in your values, and remain open to change in everything else.

Unexpected variables will happen and may require a shift in tactics. Clarity on your underlying intent, however, will keep you on course.

5. Talk less. Listen more.

. . . And not to just those who confirm your thinking. Listen to people who disagree with you, people whose ideas seem unrealistic, who have life experiences that are different from your own. Wisdom and insight come from considering diverse perspectives.

6. As soon as you see yourself as an expert, you are sunk.

The minute you stop learning — when you think you have “arrived” — is when you start falling behind. You may know a lot, but there is always more to learn. Stay curious.

7. Don’t mistake a clear view for a short distance.

The really important stuff almost always takes longer and is harder than you predict at the outset. Persistence wins far more races that bursts of enthusiasm, so don’t quit too soon.

8. It’s not about you . . . really.

Leadership is hard, and it can be lonely, and at times requires a good pair of iron shorts. Presumably you didn’t step into this role for the glory, but because you believed in the larger mission. When you keep your focus there, the hard stuff feels less personal.

9. Be brutally honest about your current reality AND confident you’ll reach your goal.

Sugar-coating a situation does nothing to help you and your team move to a different spot. Acknowledging where you are increases the likelihood you’ll find a path to where you want to be.

10. You always have a choice.

Rationalizing that “you don’t have a choice” takes your power away as a leader. You always have a choice. It may be choosing between two difficult options, but part of being a leader is making hard choices. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

What would you add to this list?