Thursday, September 22, 2016

Core issue analysis

We have many things to do and to think of. So we invented to-do lists. Most lists are too long and have the habit of growing at least as quickly as we shorten them. So we invented something else: priorities. The scary thing about setting priorities is setting posteriorities: postponing or rather deleting things from our to-do list. When we don’t dare to let go of anything, we get a firm grasp on nothing. We have to choose, to commit ourselves to one line of action instead of another, to deal with one problem and leave another alone. We know in our private lives people who are afraid to commit (usually men who are not yet ready for … eh … commitment). They all have something they do not wish or dare to let go, like freedom (e.g. to  engage in noncommittal relationships and activities). Even if we have the courage to choose, we need the wisdom to choose well. And even good choices can turn out wrong. As Harry Truman said: “A schoolboy’s hindsight is better than a president’s foresight.” We need good-luck as well.

But how do we acquire the necessary wisdom? The biggest danger of many priority lists is that the most important items may have been forgotten or overlooked. We overestimate acute and urgent issues, and we underestimate gradual developments that may eventually be decisive.
Of course we want to find out which issues should get the highest priority.  Let’s take this one step further. What is the most critical issue in your life and work right now? Imagine to focus on one issue and one issue only, rather than diluting your attention over multiple issues, however important each may  be. The assumption that every organization, community, group, and perhaps every individual as well, faces at any time one single overriding challenge – the core issue - is attractive and probably also true.

Arnold Toynbee, the historian,  has developed this proposition about the evolution of civilizations, following the ideas of Henri Bergson. Toynbee says that civilizations advance when they respond successfully to their dominant current challenge. Then a new, more or less stable situation comes about that will gradually present a new challenge. Civilizations stagnate when they have spent so much energy on solving their challenge, the tour de force, that they lack the stamina to deal with or even recognize new challenges arriving at its doorstep. Civilizations collapse when they fail to respond effectively to their greatest challenges.

Core issue analysis is the methodical identification of the prime actual challenge facing an organization, community or individual. Core issue transformation means to tackle and solve this problem and so to advance fundamentally as a person, a group or an organization. When we solve our key problem, we transform ourselves. The opposite occurs as well. When we leave the essential problem unattended because it is too difficult or we refuse to acknowledge it, we fill our days with matters of secondary or even tertiary importance. When we don’t solve our key problem, our energy level goes down. Sooner or later this leads to demoralization and lethargy of the organization – for example to rampant sick-leave that has nothing to do with the objective work conditions and everything to do with a bad work climate and lack of spirit. Even though it is not written down or formally admitted, everyone knows or feels that they are just fumbling around what is really relevant. 
I suspect that each core issue involves a dilemma, a paradox that needs to be resolved. Whenever we pursue a simplistic, one-dimensional goal, we are either rambling on a path to nowhere or marching into a dead-end street. If we solely focus on one criterion, we lose sight of everything else. When analyzing management positions, I discovered that each time the primary responsibility of a position was to reconcile a conflicting set of demands and criteria. With the project leaders of an engineering firm, it was about resolving the tension between satisfying the customer and all what that meant, and controlling the costs and all what that entailed. Satisfying clients is easy at high cost.  Saving costs is even easier. It just leads to dissatisfied customers – and discontented personnel. In such a position, core issue analysis is about finding a way to make customers happier while reducing costs.
Hypes arise from one-sided, ‘self-evident’ truths. They are proclaimed by the-sun-is-always-shining philosophers and like-minded managers: quality awareness, customer orientation, motivation, cost-effectiveness, shareholder value.
  • "It is about saving costs." 
  • "Our people must become more flexible." 
  • “Customer-friendliness, that’s what it all amounts to." 
All these goals are ‘motherhood statements’: nobody objects to hem. Such hypes are third-rate imitations of core issues. On a personal level such motherhood statements are: it’s all about love, understanding, awareness, peace, or what have you.

A core issue is probably always emotive. We tend to avoid it, we ridicule it, we passively worry about it, we are paralyzed by it, we suppress it. Many people have a gut feeling about what really matters. A gut feeling or an intuition often is an awareness displacement. Whatever is really important while we are not aware of it, seeps into our consciousness through feelings and hunches.  That is all right, yet hunches are hard to communicate and go awry when we become entangled in emotional or energetic problems.
If you want to find out the core issue, start with looking in the dark - if you can. To what is the least attention given? About what people avoid speaking? If an organization is continually busy with internal matters, chances are that the core issue is an external one.  If an organization solely occupies itself with the market and with clients, chances are that the core issue is an internal one. Where is your attention going? To your children, to money, to your next diploma, to your reputation, to your health? Chances are that’s not where your core issue is.
More roundabout ways to find the core issue are:
  • Look for problems that are really persistent or recurrent.
  • Look for flip-flops in your life, going from one extreme to another.
  • Look for gradual developments that may be not too serious right now, but seem unstoppable.
A good issue-analysis leads to an ‘eureka!’, when the half felt, vaguely suspected becomes focused, transparent and analyzable. When we get to the root of the matter, rational thinking and intuition come together. When you find out what your core issue is, the world stops for a moment. It’s like being hit on the head.
When your survival is at stake, the strategic core issue is the decisive factor for your survival – or demise. In a crisis, core issues are often dual: one on the short term and one on the long term. When your survival is not immediately threatened, when you stay outside the danger zone, the core issues are invariably linked to our raison d’ĂȘtre, to our mission in life, to our ability to be successful in that and to the external changes that affect both.
Is a core issue found or chosen? To what extent is it objective? The more the core issue is a matter of survival, the more objective it is. The farther we are from the danger zone, the more our perception of what your life means and where it is heading to, will determine the core issue.  A core issue is essential as well as existential: what you are here for, what your mission is, where, how, for whom. Theoretically, the core issue is difficult to define, yet in practice, finding it, releases a particularly certainty. Finding the core-issue and dealing with it are not mere intellectual  processes. They electrify.
Find your real priority and dare to concentrate on the most essential point of it. Success in that is much more than solving a problem, defusing a threat or grasping an opportunity. Solving a core issue transforms people and situations.  You become more energetic, skilled, effective or efficient. Usually all of those. A popular idea is that personal transformation is the consequence of a shift in awareness. That is self-evident. However, not every increase in awareness will transform you. Transformation does not result from growing more conscious, perceptive in general, but rather from a growing awareness of your factual situation as you really stand in your actual environment. That includes real other people and their real motives.
The relief of ‘Eureka!’ doesn’t mean that everything is or will be easy. Crucial decisions have to surmount excruciating doubts. An action that intends to solve all your problems at the same time, meet all criteria, is a proposal by the incompetent to the weak.  Solutions with only advantages do exist – in never-never land. "There is no such thing as a free lunch."
Hitting the nail on the head: it separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. The deepest analysis leads to the most powerful conclusion. The deepest decision has the widest consequences.  A pithy conclusion is no absolute, eternal truth, but the strongest answer to the most daunting challenge you can find right here and now. The core issue is in a classic sense the crux, the essence, the focus. In biblical terms: the narrow gate. Not the wide one that leads astray.

When we solve a problem we prepare the ground for the next problem. First you are poor. That create problems. Then you grow rich. That creates other problems. First you can’t give money to your children. Then you can. Different problems. First you are alone: problem. Then you are together: other problem. Every response to a challenge leads to a new challenge. To what does that ultimately lead: to the ultimate challenge: dying gloriously. The first personal challenge is to be born well. That is now water under the bridge.

By the way, when I introduced core issue analysis to a group of Dutch management consultants ten years ago we spent two evenings to find the political core issue of the Netherlands as a society. We found it: Immigrants and Immigration. Ten years later, it seems to have been a pretty powerful diagnosis.

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