“Those who tied the knots are responsible for untying [them].”
Chinese Foreign Ministry
So. We talk a lot about “business problem solvers” or “disruptors” or any number of ‘problem/solution’ type things in the business world.
Well. Maybe we should talk more about the knots.
I have eased my way into a number of new responsibility positions throughout my career and one of the first things you start doing when you settle in is scan for the knots that are inherently strewn throughout the business.
Sometimes these are nicely tied knots someone has developed and set in place to hold together a process or system or principle to insure it holds something important together.
Sometimes these are nasty tangled threads created by someone who didn’t know their ass from their toes, or by the system itself <think of a lawn hose by the end of the summer> or sometimes they are representative of well-intended actions by a variety of people over time <trying to improve or fix something>.
And, while those are all “sometimes”, all times, all businesses, have knots.
That said. I can also say that untying knots is not for the faint of heart. To do so well is to be part safe cracker, part surgeon and part Navy Seal.
Ah. But not everyone views knots the same – in how they occurred and what needs to be done to untie. I would suggest how you view a knot depends on whether you believe in cause & effect <a linear action model> or in a more ambiguous “a cause can create multiple effects’ model.
Let me explain a little.
When I started in the business world we spent a shitload of time discussing cause & effect, stimulus & response and … well … a lot of behavior based on a linear ‘if this, then that’ type model.
Not so much today.
In today’s world almost all situations <internal process as well as consumer/buyer behavior> are ‘knotty.’
I often show a picture of an atom in attitudes & behavior discussion but I like the knot metaphor also.
Uhm. Yes. This type of thinking, unfortunately, increases the likelihood of ambiguity. Ambiguity is not one of those things the business world tends to happily embrace.
To be clear. There is a lot to be said for teaching young business people cause & effect basics. I liked growing up & learning the business world encased in a cocoon of certainty type thinking. Linear type thinking gave me some clarity and it certainly permitted some fairly easy conclusions and recommendations. Unfortunately I also found, over time with experience, this increases the likelihood of … well … a shitload of bad things – wasted energy, misguided efforts and monies being funneled into activity generating less-than-desired outcomes.
But. It had been linear logic and, therefore, provided some certainty to base the recommended recommendations on.
Certainty. Certainty is something we all crave in business. But we may crave it for a slightly less obvious reason then you may think. Linear permits us to more easily get the one thing almost everyone wants – a way to get out.
Yeah. It’s not really about solutions or answers, simplistically, it is awareness that there could be a way out.
Just think about it a little.
Most of us when faced with some situation, issue or problem just want a way out of that situation, issue or problem.
And, yet, we spend gobs of time talking solutions and most likely invest far too much time & energy extrapolating out “what if scenarios” in seeking what happens when we untie the knot and move forward. It’s quite possible we should be investing more energy, instead, on looking at a knot and simply seeking the best way out of the knot. And that is where linear thinking kicks nonlinear thinking’s ass.
With ambiguity, the way out is not only less clear but, at times, it can seem like a crapshoot –what is behind door #1, versus door #2 … as well as door #3?
And who the hell wants that in any business decision making situation?
Which leads me back to knots. As you move up in management, and Life I imagine, you either get better at seeing the knot and seeing how to untie a knot — or you remain a linear cause & effect decision maker.
I would suggest the world can use both; however, the world <business or otherwise> cannot exist solely with cause & effect decision makers. In addition .. each group and drive the other one frickin’ crazy. But, suffice it to say, we need knot un-tiers.
Being an “un-tier” actually consists of two aspects — one attitude and one expertise.
Attitude: personal responsibility.
You own the knot. This is a metaphor … a metaphor for a problem and owning the problem.
We all inherit problems. And the most successful of us look at them as knots, not ‘some simple fix <do this/get that>. The most successful of us don’t sit around bitching about the knots, whether they were there already or created by someone else, but go about assuming responsibility for any and all knots and go about untying as many of them as we can. But here is the thing about this responsibility. We own the knot. We do so because we know that once we are in a position to get shit done … all that matters is getting shit done. And you know you have the responsibility to do what needs to be done to get shit done. It does no good to say “not my knot.” You have a job … they are all now your knots.
I would note that untying knots is kind of a “go big or go home” type venture. I say that because in business once you begin untying … well … you have to keep going. Knots, good and bad, exist for a reason … so eliminating, or rearranging, a knot will have consequences — stopping is not an option.
Expertise: ability to navigate the interweaving that binds a knot.
Untangling is part vision and part deft touch. Anyone who has ever untied an ‘impossible knot’ knows that you cannot simply tug & pull … you have to ease one aspect and pull another and maybe even push in other place. Deft. And as you do so you have the vision ability to see the unseen parts and get a sense of where one ‘weave’ has appeared and where it has come from, what it crosses and if it is actually entangled with another weave.
I would suggest that this is partially an ability to navigate some ambiguity.
Ah. That phrase ‘navigate ambiguity’ leads me to one last thing. Cause & effect thinkers can be a cleverly dangerous group of business thinkers to work with. Using the business knot as the example … the most dangerous thing a linear thinker can do is offer everyone the false linear cause & effect conclusion.
Huh? Think of this knot as like shoelaces. The knot is there with the aglets <the small sheath, often made of plastic or metal, used on each end of a shoelace>. The linear thinker, incapable of untying the knot suggests the knots doesn’t matter because if I have the left aglet, and the right aglet, they suggest “I can clearly see the ultimate cause & effect” <see image to right as example>.
That is wrong. And dangerous for making a business decision.
Not to put this too harshly but that logic is like saying “I love all jelly filled donuts” not knowing some are filled with shit.
All that said. I will say that once you have tied a knot you do assume some responsibility for it – keeping it, explain it or even untying it. I mention this because a lot of us leave positions, jobs & companies and far too often leave a knot behind with no explanation. Maybe we are embarrassed to highlight a knot or maybe we just start thinking “not my worry anymore.”
Well. It doesn’t really matter what you think … you own the knot and you have a responsibility to talk about any and all knots with anyone who may someday want to untie it. Regardless. I would also remind everyone — knots are created to be untied.
Originally published September 2017