Really Good Coffee Won’t Save Your Organization

Really Good Coffee Won’t Save Your Organization

Quitting smoking is by no means an easy task. Nicotine patches are marketed as easy and painless solutions for those looking to quit, but there’s a reason studies show that users are just as likely to relapse after an initial six month period as those going cold turkey.[i]  Nicotine patches are simple, technical solutions to a more deeply rooted problem. To successfully quit smoking, one must address more ambiguous behavioral and social issues. Maybe smoking gives you something to do with your hands or it relieves your stress. Maybe it’s a social activity to engage in with friends. A patch cannot address these more adaptive challenges. Deliberate self-examination, questioning and challenging your actions, and behavioral intervention may need to be deployed.

In the same way you wouldn’t quit smoking with only a patch, deep rooted organizational challenges can’t be solved by merely building a new employee lounge.

At OPX, we often encounter client leadership avoiding the uncomfortable work of addressing entrenched organizational problems by applying a technical solution (nicotine patch or employee lounge) to an adaptive challenge. An adaptive challenge is often a problem without a clear solution. Sometimes, even the problem is unknown or disputed. Design thinkers call this a “wicked problem”, where an adaptive challenge often presents itself with incomplete or contradictory information and vague paths forward. Adaptive challenges within organizations are often deeply entrenched and require leadership to mobilize and even take potential risks to ensure the organization effectively addresses these challenges.

A technical challenge, on the other hand, presents a clear problem and clear solution that can be solved with a prescriptive set of steps. If you were to fall off your bike and go to the emergency room with an arm at an alarming angle, you would be presenting the doctor with a technical challenge. The doctor would take your medical history, perform an x-ray, and set your arm in a cast. This is an easy to recognize problem that can be solved by relatively straightforward facts, logic, and protocol.

Our mission at OPX – making good companies work better – is the epitome of an adaptive challenge.  This work involves identifying and optimizing operational, technical, and cultural trends, and integrating these components with the physical space. Companies approach us because they are dealing with challenges that are sometimes difficult to define and may be even more difficult to address (an indicator of an adaptive challenge). Sometimes we are approached to solve a technical challenge, only to uncover adaptive challenges along the way. Most of the time, both technical and adaptive work is required for a particular problem. There are often multiple stakeholders whose entrenched ways of working may be uprooted by any change. Employees’ comfortable routines are at risk of disruption. New skills or processes may need to be introduced. Often, in a well-meaning effort to address such challenges, an organization may implement a technical solution (employee lounge) to a more deeply rooted adaptive challenge (lack of collaboration). Our job on the Integrated Operating Environment (IOE) team is to lead our clients through the sometimes uncomfortable task of identifying these challenges and tackling them with the appropriate tools and modifications to existing behaviors, cultures, and spaces.

The first step of our IOE process is the Vision Session (see a previous post here: In the Vision Session, we include leadership as we begin to uncover the adaptive challenges facing an organization. We engage in the often difficult, but exciting exercise of challenging entrenched norms and imagining an unknowable future. Because of the fear of potentially disruptive change and the uncertainty about following the “correct” path, we often encounter teams or individuals that hold back or embrace simpler, technical solutions. It is less awkward to discuss adding a large event space than to rethink ineffectual metrics of success. And yet, we provide the greatest value when we invite our clients to experience the ambiguity and power that come with meaningful and lasting change.

We’ve seen firsthand the effects of applying easier, technical solutions to avoid the more difficult work of addressing adaptive challenges. Clients say their phone booths go unused, that their employees are miserable in their open workspaces, that pantries sit empty. These are generic technical solutions to unique, organization-specific problems — deeper culture, policy, work process, and management issues that are at the heart of dissatisfaction and that must be addressed in conjunction with the physical spaces. Change management initiatives, clear policies, cultural reform, new tools, and physical space adaptations, integrated into a cohesive intervention, work together as an adaptive solution.

Throughout the remaining steps of the IOE process – Operating Environment Survey, Focus Groups, Observation Study, Technology Assessment, and Scenario Planning – we interact with organizational stakeholders to first uncover and clarify any challenges before imagining solutions and proposing opportunities for lasting change. Our processes, and ultimately our findings, help mobilize leadership and give them the information they need to move their organization forwards. Most importantly, the results of our engagement bring organizational processes, tools, and culture into alignment with the physical space and create an appropriately adaptive solution to the true challenges faced by organizations today.

Whether an organization is facing an attraction and retention problem, a lack of collaboration, or low engagement, transformative change won’t be achieved with shiny new furniture and a better coffee selection. It is only through deep reflection, embracing discomfort, and championing change (along with new furniture and really good coffee), that organizations can interrupt the status quo and truly work better.



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