Slowification: how slowing down makes problem solving easier

Slowification - slowing down to speed things up
Photo by Abby Chung on Pexels

Whenever you see someone doing great work, you can be sure that they’ve had time to work out how to solve problems so that they can be excellent at what they do.

In the same way, without time for slowing down, HE leaders risk missing opportunities for rethinking problems that could lead to better project outcomes. The good news is that with some skilful intervention, teams can be empowered to influence.

Have you heard about slowification?

A new book by Gene Kim and Steven Spear coins the phrase as one of three mechanisms that contribute to high performing organisations. Slowification makes it easier to solve problems. Simplification makes the problems themselves easier to solve. Amplification ensures problems are seen and solved.

Slowification is a made-up word but we really like the philosophy behind it: slowing down to speed things up.

It’s apt because many of our clients are implementing great drives to transform, but when we go in we often discover a lot of frustration and bewilderment that little or no progress is being made.

Many clients have a similar complaint: “There’s so much going on, people just can’t handle the volume and they are getting conflicting instructions about what to do – it’s paralysing, and it seems to be worse than it’s ever been,” they say.

What we have discovered in Higher Education – though it’s not unique to that context – is that people find it really difficult to stop anything. Leaders keep adding more projects, all of which are good things to do, but because universities are large and complex organisations, most of the time the projects are not coordinated, there is no permission to prioritise and rarely is there any mechanism for talking about that.

This brings a lot of challenges including that Professional Services staff get really stressed trying to do all of the conflicting tasks that are handed down by different project sponsors.

Everyone is so used to complying and deferring to hierarchy that they end up spinning too many plates and come to a standstill.

For example, in one institution a new leadership team had a strong desire to make progress and some clear projects emerged that were designed to improve the student experience.

Improving the student experience led to friction

One such project was to create a central student hub – rather than having lots of different local receptions in different buildings. Someone external was brought in and was made responsible for delivering this project, but they couldn’t do that on their own because there were a lot of things that needed to be coordinated, built, set up, and implemented, and people had to staff it.

The person who had been appointed was focussed and keen, but there was a lot of friction. They needed the help of senior managers, but these managers were frustrated because:

  • someone external had been brought into deliver this one project
  • they all had projects of their own to deliver
  • they were competing for the same people and resources.

The organisation was putting a lot of effort into this flagship project, the project manager wanted to do a good job and was pushing hard, which was causing tension.

Meanwhile no one had raised the question of whether the institution even needed this central hub. It sounded like a great idea, but there had been no conversations with the students that it was intended for and who were supposed to use it.

Some big assumptions had been made about what the young people wanted. In fact a significant proportion of students never came in because they were learning remotely and most wanted to solve problems on their phones rather than go to a physical space.

There was a risk that the new leadership team might be trying to solve the wrong problem.

Empowering teams to solve their own problems

As part of our work with this institution, we helped a cohort of Professional Services managers to form a group, explore how to lead, and empower their staff so that they could solve their own problems.

We used the central hub project as a live example to work on.

We discussed with them how they could reframe the project to overcome its challenges… this required them to be more political and to do some leading in order to redirect things so that the project became deliverable.

After some exploration, a member of the group made a proposal: “The space for the hub is already there – it’s empty and we have lots of spare tables we only use for exams – so we could use them and make the space live really quickly. It’ll be a bit basic but we could have it open in a month, not in the six months we’ve been allocated.

“We could experiment and see how many students actually come in and use it. We could keep records of what they’re asking for and then adjust how we staff it.

“If we do that for a few months, then we can decide what format it should take and how we should equip it.

“By making it a smaller project – a Minimum Viable Product – and slowing down the completion, we could actually open it sooner. And it would be a lot cheaper.

“Then the person that needs to deliver it can say they delivered it. We can spend the next year working out what we want to do with it and how we should use it, which means we could continue with some other projects now that would otherwise get bumped if we put all our effort into this one thing.”

It was a good proposal, with a potentially great outcome.

And an attempt to sidestep the tension and the conflict that was emerging between people who needed to collaborate but who were trying to achieve different things.

By changing the terms of reference, the tension could be removed and people might work together better because they would no longer be in conflict.

This was exactly the kind of work that the group should be thinking about, and leading and influencing by reframing and redirecting how they engaged with projects.

For this group it was helpful to reframe their mindset of needing to comply with a request, and instead to try and reshape it. By looking at what the institution was trying to achieve, they discovered that the original proposal wasn’t the fastest way to get to what was needed.

Having the confidence to propose a different approach

To be able to lead by reframing, what’s key is to have conversations and negotiation between the people who are doing the work. They need both the space to think through the requests being made, and the desired outcomes. They need the confidence to make proposals to senior leaders, rather than striving to comply.

If you have similar conflicting priorities and stuckness in your organisation, here’s some things to think about:

  • What could you reframe?
  • Could you slow down to create the space to have a similar conversation?
  • What should be part of that conversation?
  • Who should be part of that conversation?
  • What opportunities do you have to propose a different way?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Get in touch here and let us know.

At Then Somehow we help universities and other organisations build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation develop leaders and perform better, get in touch here.

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