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Best practices = stuff your competitors can do too

Earlier this week a friend shared an article online that caught my eye. It highlighted a problem identification and solving framework called "Cynefin”. What it reminded me of at its core is problems exist in degrees of complexity. After reading the piece it dawned on me that for the most part, best practices are created when a problem is understood well enough that a path can be drawn to show how to solve it. Therefore, they fall in the bottom right hand corner of the diagram under obvious problems. Seeing best practices lumped in the most rudimentary category was a bit of a revelation because I have internalized the word “best” as the pinnacle of things but as is shown in the diagram, best practices only apply to one of four categories of problems.

One thing about business in general but especially today in our global economy is the pace of change is accelerating. As one moves counterclockwise on the Cynefin framework, starting from the bottom right, one leaves behind the domain of obvious problems and become murkier, impacted by multiple variables and in some instances, unknown influences. In our increasingly complex world, the necessity to solve increasingly complex problems may grow. As I continue to contemplate the future role of professional services advisors, this has lead me to realize that when you are offering best practices to a client, the first things they will hopefully say is, “This is fantastic! I can’t wait to deploy this! With that out of the way, what increasingly complex issues of mine are you prepared to help with?”

I doubt very much this is how the conversation would play out but I do believe its important for professional service providers to ask, in what ways are we working to move beyond obvious problems our clients have? Reflecting on these categories has lead me to ponder a potential unfortunate truth: obvious problem are likely something your competition can solve too, making competitive pricing much more of a reality. Even trickier though is the persistent rise of software’s ability to automate human tasks. When problems are “obvious” and well-understood, it is likely only a matter of time before a program is written that can do much if not all of the work. Moving beyond obvious problems is not just a matter of being valuable for the client and your business, it may ultimately be a matter of staying in business.

This points us toward figuring out techniques for identifying and working through complicated and complex problems with clients. This domain calls upon you to evoke insights from clients and their data to bring more variables to the table than were previously necessary. It necessitates earning their trust in order to ask delicate questions you might have previously veered away from and focusing more on problem listening than solving. Faced with increasingly complex problems, moving too quickly into solution mode might mean missing a valuable point to consider or even recommending something incorrect. As I saw it written about this matrix, it’s about avoiding the tendency to try and solve a complicated problem the same way you would an obvious one.

The daunting part of increasingly complex problems is the right answer may be hard to find, requiring you and the client to commit to a journey of wading through the issue, looking for signposts to figure if you’re moving in the right direction. After you’ve identified potential ways forward, it may then be more about testing solutions rather than simply implementing one like you do when it comes with a best practice.

This evolution requires enhanced problem identification and solving skills along with a large dose of humility. It won’t be easy but as the competition inches closer and the ability of software grows, upstream is the only way.

Go Forth Boldly

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