Intractable problem

The Intractable Problem

This story is an amalgam of true events experienced by various leaders that we have worked with. 

“I tell you, that solution is not going to work,” said Mark.  

The leadership team were in the boardroom. A framed poster bearing the mission statement and core values of the company looked down at the eight people in smart businesswear sat around the oval table. The fluorescent light was harsh as there were no windows in the room to let in natural light. People’s eyes looked tired and it was obvious some of them had a headache.  

A coffee machine hummed in the corner and the smell of coffee filled the room. On the table were pens and papers. Cups were dotted around containing long-cold dregs of tea and coffee. Empty water bottles either lay or stood upright on the table. Mark was still standing, leaning with one hand on the table, as if to ram home his point. An empty chewing gum wrapper stuck out from under his hand. The flipchart headed ‘Agreed Actions” stood empty in the corner.  

The frustration in the room was palpable. The team had been trying to resolve this issue for weeks. It had been a topic on the agenda for the last three meetings. The meeting had become heated, with people talking over each other and shouting to make their points heard. For three hours they’d been arguing their points and still they were no closer to a way forward. Once again, they were at a stalemate. 

“We’re all tired now,” said Barbara, the CEO. “Let’s stop and we’ll discuss it again at our next meeting. Everyone give it some more thought and we’ll pick it up again then.” 

That was three weeks before. A new IT system should have been installed months ago, but the project lagged behind and there was still no indication of an implementation date. The sales target had been agreed based on the fact that the system would be up and running and the board still expected the sales target to be achieved. 

Notepads and pens lay untouched on the floor 

Last week, the same team were together again in a hotel by a golf course.  

“Well, I do believe we have a plan,” Barbara said.  

They were in one of the hotel conference rooms overlooking the golf course. A large window made up one wall of the meeting room and the net curtain had been pulled to one side. The room was lit up by the summer sun and felt bright and airy. There was one table at the back of the room, filled with tea and coffee pots, cups and saucers, bottles of water, mints and other refreshments. There were no other tables.  

The team were sitting on chairs in a horseshoe shape, like tribe elders around a campfire. Everyone had been able to look out of the window towards the tidy and well-kept greens of the golf course. Briefcases and bags lay open around the room. Men’s jackets and ladies’ silk scarves were thrown over the backs of chairs. Notepads and pens lay untouched on the floor by their feet. A perfect blade of grass sat by the leg of the flipchart. 

A new respect for each other 

It was the afternoon of day two, of a two-and-a-half-day workshop. They’d been learning about the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy state of mind. As part of the workshop they’d spent 40 minutes discussing this previously intractable problem. They still had five minutes to spare.  

The meeting had been calm. There’d been a lot of laughter. People had talked about their ideas, and others had asked questions to check out their understanding of the rationale and reasons for the ideas. Every person had expressed their ideas, calmly and quietly. 

Occasionally, people had noticed themselves moving into an unhealthy state of mind, so they’d waited for it to pass before they spoke again in the meeting. They’d noticed that it passed very quickly. Every few minutes another action had been listed on the flipchart. The flipchart was filled with several pages of actions that would each take the team closer to the goal that, up until today, they’d all thought was impossible. 

“Well that was easier than I thought it would be,” said Mark. The whole team laughed.  

They were pleased with themselves. The feeling in the room was great. Each person was filled with hope and optimism that this goal was now going to be reached. There was a new respect for each other in the team.  

“Just shows what we can do from a healthy state of mind,” Barbara said.

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