Can you feel the Force?
Was the title of a 1979 disco hit by The Real Thing – you tend to find it played now only at Christmas parties and the like; more’s the pity, I think it deserves more airtime. The band originated in Liverpool by the way.
Foot tapping disco banger it may be, but, tweak the title a little to ‘Can you feel the Forces?’ and it is also a useful way to think about the challenges you face in business; and not just in a business but in life generally.
The principle is simple and, rather elegantly, it also echoes the work of 17th century polymath Sir Isaac Newton.
Let me explain.
The idea is that any challenge which we face in life can be considered to be being acted upon by two opposing sets of forces – those on the left which are pushing the issue towards some form of resolution and those on the right which are blocking progress or actually making the situation worse (or the other way around; it is nothing to do with political persuasion).
If the forces are balanced then the issue doesn’t become any worse but nor does it become any better – remember your O level or GCSE physics and Newton’s First Law of Motion that an object will remain at rest if the forces acting on it are balanced?
But if you can increase the effect of the forces pushing the issue to a successful conclusion and / or reduce the effect of the forces which are supporting the problem / preventing progress then you have the potential to deal with the challenge, overcome it – and move on to the next one.
We have been using this idea of a Force Field with a number of clients who have asked for help in dealing with a tricky issue in their business. Rarely is the underlying issue a financial one – but it very often has a financial implication and frequently it is this financial impact, showing up in the management information reports / management accounts, which shines a harsh light on the existence of the problem. Because, let’s be honest, most humans have a tendency to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ and develop work arounds to problems. But some are of such an impact, magnitude or risk of such, that not to grasp the nettle isn’t really an option – or not one which will maximise the chance that the business or person will grow, improve and flourish.
So far, so simple and straightforward.
In our experience, the real challenge in these situations is not to identify the problem but to really get under its skin and work out what the helpful and unhelpful forces are which are in play. It is really important to bear in mind Einstein’s (I think it was him?) idea that ‘The thinking that got us into the problem is unlikely to be the thinking that will get us out of it’. And that goes to the nub of the issue with a tool like this; it usually operates at its best when there is an external input or challenge into the group’s thought processes to enable them to get out of their existing modes and tramlines of thought and see the issue from a new perspective.
Once the forces have been named and shamed so to speak, groups need then to agree which are the most significant; or rather, if you could strengthen them / remove them which would have the most beneficial impact. This can be a bit subjective but we have found that groups pretty quickly discuss and reach a consensus upon what needs to be addressed. A good way to do this is to give each of them a magic wand and with a handful of wishes get them to make clear what they would ‘fix’ if they could.
Now it is time for a deeper dive.
We know what we would change if we could – so now we have to work out what steps could be taken in order to change the power of the most important forces. And again, there are usually a range of views of what should be done to improve things (which is good, we want this cognitive diversity) but we ask the group to think really clearly about what small steps could be taken in the next 15-30 days. Not to solve the problem but to move a little closer to solving it. It is, if you like, a bit similar to the idea of marginal gains or we consume something large one small mouthful at a time.
We need to come back to Newtonian forces and the idea of momentum. That, unfortunately, is the biggest risk in any change process like this. It isn’t identifying the need to change, it isn’t identifying what to change, it isn’t even identifying how to change – it is keeping up the momentum which the group has created in their session to implement the changes required given all the other distractions / priorities of everyday life whether that be business or personal.
Fortunately, there is a relatively easy way to overcome this risk – and it has two clear components:
- agreeing to being held to account. By other members of the team and by us; and
- leaders committing to taking the agreed actions. They need to consciously live and demonstrate the values and behaviours which the group has said it needs to adopt in order to resolve the challenge satisfactorily.
I said that there are two components, that is true, but they are not of equal importance. Overwhelmingly it is the second which is the most important.
So, there we go, a quick canter through one of the more frequent thinking and problem solving tools we are using with clients.