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Get a Grip on the Organization's "Demonically Wild Contingencies" with Visual Management

Back when I thought I was going to become a researcher, I came across the expression "demonically wild contingencies" about how life in organizations is often experienced. There is always something in the way when we try to get something done, and reality often trips up even the best-prepared plans and most carefully organized processes. We don't have the energy to fight these forces, so instead, we content ourselves with doing our best right here, right now.

This is entirely natural but unfortunately the opposite of what is needed to create good conditions for flow. Flow thinking is end-to-end thinking and, therefore, inevitably system thinking. If we want to improve flow, we must lift our gaze from the parts to the whole. It's no use all of us blindly doing our best if the coordination between our contributions is lacking.

But how can we, ordinary mortals, contend with the sometimes demonically wild chaos of our organizations?

Start by creating visibility

The first step is to create clarity about the “ailment” by creating visibility (transparency). In knowledge-intensive industries that deal mostly with intangible things and complex tasks, this typically manifests itself as a variation of "bulletin boards with yellow notes" representing tasks and their status.

We see a growing interest in getting started with "visual management" and see it practiced in many places with good results. When it works well, visibility allows us to see the reasons for the chaos and do something about those we can influence. Over time, and with some effort, it can help us calm the waters enough to broaden our view beyond the daily firefighting in our respective corners.

You can learn more about the details in our lecture series "Smart about Flow." Here I will only mention one of the main reasons why we see visual management initiatives fail again and again: "Tool thinking" coupled with insufficient managerial engagement and involvement.

Prepare for "bad" news

One of the classic anecdotes in the world of flow is that when process guru W. Edwards Deming was invited to a meeting about a consulting task, he always wrote to the responsible leader, "if you can't come, send no one." Because he knew that without the active involvement of the leader, any initiative would quickly fizzle out.

Nevertheless, we often see organizations treat transparency as a simple introduction of a new tool while neglecting to establish the managerial readiness needed to actually use the new insight for something sensible and sustainable.

Partly because it is easy enough in theory to say "bad news first" but can be really difficult in practice to maintain composure and handle any undesirable insights appropriately.

Moreover, because many of the challenges that newfound transparency may expose go beyond the employees' influence to truly address. They often require coordinated leadership action. And if employees see leaders neglecting this, they lose motivation to keep task boards updated, making them less and less reliable over time.

Unfortunately, we have seen several initiatives fail for these reasons.

Place the tool at the bottom of the agenda

To succeed in introducing board management and improving flow, I suggest that you and your leadership colleagues first and foremost seek answers to questions such as:

  • What real business outcomes do we want to see as a result of creating better conditions for flow, and how do we monitor if we achieve them?

  • Which leaders should participate in creating better conditions for flow, and how do we equip them to lead with involvement in their respective areas?

  • How can we, through coordinated action, show employees that we appreciate and take seriously newfound insights, challenges, and experiences?

  • What routines do we need to establish so that we can not only react in time but be ahead in clearing obstacles for flow so that employees feel that help is coming when they call for it?

The last question you should ask - although not insignificant - is: "Which (possibly digital) tool should we choose?"

Ulrik H. Gade

Any questions or comments? You are welcome to contact me on LinkedIn. Want to know more? Look at our workshops, talks and action learning programmes on flow-based leadership.


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