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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Challenge prevailing thinking

Case Study: Organisational Problem Solving


After the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, we worked with the executive team of a government agency, assisting them to interpret a culture survey, which suggested that the leaders were not paying enough attention to staff and had neglected internal communication. The six executives were perplexed because they prided themselves on how they “looked after their people” and how “they kept people informed.” After listening to their definition of the problem they faced, we made several interventions, including the observations and questions described below.

Observation: “We noticed that you all express confusion and disbelief in response to this feedback and are doing so by defending your past actions. We have also heard how much time you each have had to spend with the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers and how it has meant you have been absent from the organization, often for days at a time. Your absence seems to have created enormous pressure for you even though the circumstances would warrant you giving the government most of your attention.”

Question: “How long can you continue to deny that you all get so much satisfaction from being valuable for government and being in such demand? Is it any wonder you have been paying less attention to the internal functioning of your agency?”

For a few minutes, the team sat in silence, absorbing our comments. They initially were shocked but gradually began to respond. The tone and focus of the discussion changed as they acknowledged that they had been neglecting their people despite their best intentions and that the feedback made perfect sense. The focus shifted from denying the reality they faced and their part in perpetuating it to exploring the conundrum before them and, ultimately, identifying responses to it. Observations and questions assisted this group of talented people to become unstuck.

In this case, as we usually try to do, we used a simple rubric to observe different levels of problem-solving behavior. Here we saw a team using more benign individual explanations for their problems which led to not taking collective responsibility. Therefore, we intervened to push their thinking toward more contentious and systemic descriptions, recognizing the contextual pressures they faced which both allowed them to make sense of their own behaviors as well as describe it in more expanded way, leading to options they had not previously considered.


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