Unsolvable organizational problems

This post will not surprise anyone from the Middle East . So if you live in my neck of the woods  (where the locals know than most problems do not have a solution), then don’t waste your time reading. Now, for the rest of you folks…..

Although the  almighty positive western mindset tends to relate to problems as “solvable” or “manageable”, this is not  always the case. There are both personal problems, political conflicts as well as  organizational problems which are unsolvable.. The most salient political problem that comes to my mind is the Syrian conflict and its ramifications. For unsolvable math questions, click here.

This brief post relates to how organization development practitioners  can deal with insolvable organizational issues, instead of taking the wild toro (bull)  by its horns.

Let’s take a few examples of unsolvable organizational problems.

  1. CEO Lex and his family own and manage  a chain of 18 hotels. One of the hotels is managed by the least talented of Lex’s sons, on the insistence of the mother, whose family provided the initial capital for Lex to start the business. The son has no management skills whatsoever, and boozes heavily on the job.
  2. Gary is the CEO of a small start up selling hundreds of millions of dollars of products to South East Asia, where there are a lot of under the table dealings. A huge public firm has just purchased Gary’s company; due to compliance issues, all the under the table dealings must now be made transparent. This move will kill Gary’s Asian business, a fact overlooked by a sloppy due diligence team.
  3. Dr Frank worked his way up from engineer to Chairman of the Board. Dr  Frank was and is a most brilliant engineer, and he still meddles daily  in Engineering’s priorities. Every consultant hired to work on this issue has been dismissed by a very intolerant Dr. Frank. However 4 Engineering managers have also quit in the last 5 years due to Frank’s meddling.

A western “yes we can” mindset would look at possible solutions to the above problems. Perhaps Dr Frank would get yet another coach. Or Lex’s bum of a son would be sent to AA, or Lex’s mom would get some feedback and move her naughty son out of the role.

I do not share this mindset. First, I believe in “first do no harm” in situations like this; second, I believe that organization development lacks the tools to deal with such situations. So, as a famous Russian said, “what is to be done?”

Here are a few guidelines on dealing with unsolvable problems so as to prevent consultants acting as yet another set of folks off to solve the Syrian conflict or “liberate” Mosul from “extremists”.

  • Define what you believe in insolvable and leave it alone; you can probably only make it worse. For example, if Dr Frank leaves, the business may well  crumble.
  • Work around the problem. Keeping Lex’s son in the job yet keeping him on the road burdened with many business development corporate tasks may be the structure of a reasonable by pass.
  • Focus on what can be done by admitting defeat. For example, it probably is a good time to get Gary’s business more active in the less corrupt parts of world. Or perhaps having Gary work with due diligence teams are the next acquisitions.

For those interested in a short satiric parody about making all problems solvable, click here.







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