In our work with organisations we often facilitate Strategic Planning sessions with top management teams. This involves creating a shared vision, identifying obstacles that come in the way of the vision and defining the strategies and plans to deal with obstacles and make the vision a reality. Identifying obstacles is always a tough conversation as we get the teams to think differently about obstacles.
Once the vision is articulated, we start the process of identifying the obstacles. Everyone is asked to write down what might come in the way of the vision becoming a reality. I have seen a universal pattern at this stage. Most of the obstacles that are written down start with the phrase “Lack of…..”. It’s always a lack of this or lack of that. Here are some most common and popular ones: lack of right people at the right time, lack of communication, lack of head office support, lack of motivated staff, lack of sufficient and timely funding, lack of a sense of ownership etc.
These are not obstacles. They are readymade solutions disguised as obstacles. Taking what one feels needs to happen, and saying it as an obstacle…Lack of skilled people…because, skilled people is what one thinks is needed to achieve the vision. Lack of timely funding is because, there is a need for timely funding. With this kind of circular thinking we do not identify the real blocks.
In our planning process we approach obstacles differently. And as a result, the team experiences a breakthrough in their thinking. The obstacles conversation becomes a turning point. Here are some guidelines I would like to share from my experience, for identifying obstacles:
Obstacles are “what is present in the organisation, and not what is absent”
What organisations don’t have (lack of…), doesn’t create many problems. It is always what companies have that comes in the way. The obstacles are not what is “lack of” or in other words what is “absent or missing”, it is what is “present” in the organisation, that is creating that lack.
So when a “Lack of…” comes to mind, ask what is it that we have, that is creating this lack. Or what is going on in the organisation, and not what is “not happening”, that is creating this lack. Answer to this question will take one closer to the real obstacles. It might be the misguided hiring criteria or poorly planned skills development programs. When you answer the question “what do we have that is creating the lack of…” you will encounter many tentacles of the obstacles, eventually making the problem solving more effective and the solutions more apt.
It’s the presence of something, and not the lack of anything, that is creating the situation that one has.
Obstacles are inside and not outside
When the obstacles are brainstormed there will be some that read: Unfavourable government policies, clueless and distant head office, fluctuating foreign exchange situation, and tough competitive environment etc. While they might all be true, they are sitting outside the organisation. When they sit outside, the organisation has very little control over them, and hence cannot do much directly about them.
The most relevant obstacles reside inside the organisation. They live, breed and multiply in the structures, systems, policies and the operating practices of the company. They are manifested in the thinking and the behaviour of the people.
When the obstacles which are outside the organisation come up, the question to ask is, why does the organisation get affected by these external conditions? What makes us helpless or weak and thus unable to deal with the outside constraints? What is going on in the organisation that makes us vulnerable to the external situation?
Hence, the perceived obstacle of fluctuating foreign exchange, could really be about organisation’s poor forecasting practices or limited risk mitigation habits. Tough competitive environment could really be about outdated product/services portfolio or consistent poor customer service. Every obstacle that comes up that is “external”, if looked carefully, points to something that is inside which needs to be addressed.
It is what is living inside the organisation that will come in the way of the vision becoming a reality, and not what is sitting outside.
Time, money and people are never an obstacle
When I say this, generally people immediately disagree with this statement. Because most so called obstacles revolve around the above three: “lack of right people at the right time” or “lack of adequate budgetary allocation” or “short timelines”.
In reality, there is always money to do what the organisations really want to do. If there is no budgetary allocation, the real obstacle might be “a weak business case”. Short timelines might be a result of conflicting priorities. There are hundreds of competent, qualified and eager people in the world. If an organisation experiences a shortage of qualified people, the true obstacle might be the unattractive vision and story, or mismatch of roles and expertise or a weak hiring process.
Once we work through each obstacle, using the above first and the second guideline, asking questions like “why is that we have this issue in our organisation”, “why are we not able to attract the best talent”, “why are we not able to secure adequate funding” or “why do we fail to meet the committed timelines?” – all agree that there is no such thing as “lack of money, time or people”. They are never an obstacle.
Time, money and people are available in abundance once the constraints blocking them are removed.
Obstacles are neither good nor bad. They are just current reality. Often they are a product of what we have cultivated over the years. They become an obstacle, only in light of the new vision or a new goal. If one has no desire to go anywhere, the current situation is not an issue. We become restless, dissatisfied or frustrated with our situation, only when we have higher aspirations.
Many obstacles are part of the operating culture and are often “invisible”. Hence require a powerful magnifying glass to locate them. In an organisation the areas of frustration, anger, deep dissatisfaction, give a clue to the location where an obstacle might be present.
While working on the vision can be exhilarating, obstacles conversation has a different energy. It is both liberating and draining at the same time. Knowing the real obstacle is freeing! The process of identifying can be a bit exhausting, as it involves looking inside oneself. It’s about conducting an authentic dialogue and looking at the organisation inside out.
Identifying true obstacles requires a great degree of honesty and suspending assumptions. However compelling the vision be and however powerful the strategies be, if the real obstacles that are sitting inside the organisation are not identified and dealt with, one will repeatedly bump into the same obstacles, resulting in repeated disappointing results.