Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by responsibilities and commitments? Drowning in a sea of priorities, often generated by other people? If so, read on.
This is a case study of a team that was tired of being all things to all people. They decided to learn more about the stories that had led to their current situation and to explore whether a different set of stories might produce more desired results.
The leadership team of TKC, a division of a multinational company, was floundering. They felt besieged by expectations to produce at impossible levels. Just when they thought they couldn’t squeeze out another drop of productivity, they were called on to reprioritize their workload to respond to last minute demands from their superiors.
Caught in a state of overwhelm and reactivity, team members found themselves setting priorities and making decisions in the areas they directly controlled as a way to get something done. This resulted in siloes and actions that didn't support the work of the overall division.
People were frustrated, morale was low, and there was a strong belief that things were out of control and could not change.
“This is Only Making Matters Worse”
I initially worked with the team to help them develop a purpose, goals, and criteria to prioritize the workload. It seemed like a logical thing to do but it turned out to be a dead end, especially the prioritization criteria. The team spent hours attempting to reach a set of shared criteria about what work to prioritize.
Attempts to apply the criteria failed every time a new demand was made by higher ups.
“Our Stories Are Keeping Us Stuck”
The team then focused on identifying the stories they were telling themselves about why things were the way they were. Also called “mental models,” those beliefs—previously unconscious and unarticulated—were exerting a powerful influence on the team’s capacity to change.
They discovered that two classic stories were keeping them in a vicious cycle.
The first was their pattern of trying to be all things to all people. This led to an inability to set and maintain their own priorities. This was the main dynamic occurring in this division. In systems language, this is called “the attractiveness principle.”
The other story was a consequence of the first one. Feeling overwhelmed and out of control, individual players would set priorities and take action in the areas they could control. Without realizing it, this behavior undermined the success of their colleagues and of the division as a whole. In systems language, this is called “accidental adversaries.”
“Change Your Stories, Change Your Life”
Once the team identified the stories that described their current situation, they then decided on the mental models and strategies that would have the highest leverage in getting them to their desired state.
The following diagram visually depicts the dynamic as the team saw it. The clouds in blue are "thought bubbles" of the team's mental models.
The following tables capture the shift in mental models and the action plan for realizing each of two new high leverage mental models.
A Shift in Mental Models