Initiative 1 – Discover Disorienting Dilemmas

By Paul R. Scheele Ph.D. | Transform

In this blog we explore the first of six initiatives that transform individuals and organizations.

Initiative #1: Surface disruptive and disorienting dilemmas that are emerging.

A disorienting dilemma is a situation in which you are doing all the right things but not getting the results you need. Oftentimes, such problems are paradoxical in nature. That is, your attempts to remedy the problem seem to exacerbate the problem.

For example, while you are attempting to reach your strategic objectives, there may be influences from the larger system that put in delays. It may be that other priorities or unanticipated effects emerge to usurp resources. It may be that the interests of multiple stakeholders create too much complexity to achieve the results you desire in a timely fashion. In any case, when dilemmas emerge, no matter how hard you try, the system that you are operating in prevents you from reaching your outcomes.

The first step is to recognize that you are in the midst of a disorienting dilemma. Actively work to bring to the surface of your awareness the nature of the problem you are stuck in so that you can begin to adapt. This may entail being vulnerable to the criticism of others and self-judgments that produce feelings of inadequacy. Don’t fear taking active steps to change your situation. The sooner you recognize you are stuck in a disorienting dilemma, the sooner you can do the adaptive work to change the situation.

An effective way to begin is to write out a four column chart, originally proposed by Kegan & Lahey in their book Immunity to Change. In the first column write out your ideas to explore the question, “What is it you are committed to accomplishing?” In the second column write your ideas to answer, “What are you now doing or not doing that prevents you from accomplishing what you are committed to?” This is an interesting exploration because it points out that your talk and your walk are not in alignment. You may be say one thing but behaving differently. Don’t punish yourself for this. As you will see below and in the following blog posts in this series, this is normal for everyone.

Think about it. The moment you establish a goal, you automatically point out that you are currently not behaving in a way that would have allowed you to achieve it. That is why you are committing to new behaviors that are intended to produce a change. The key idea is to bring to the surface of your awareness any incongruence, lack of inclusion, or misalignment that is currently preventing you from realizing the goals that are important to you.

In the third column, you may have to do some honest soul-searching to answer the question, “What is it that you appear to be more committed to than the commitment you wrote in the first column?” These are the “competing commitments” that create your dilemma. Sometimes the answer is that there are obvious secondary gains for holding on to the status quo. Sometimes you’ll discover that hidden fears keep people and organizations from venturing into future unknowns in favor of “predict and control” approaches to management.

The fourth column will require the most reflection in order to answer the question, “What big assumptions keep the competing commitments in place.” When you honestly pursue an answer to this question, you are digging deep into the cause of your disorienting dilemma. The process is one of peering into the blind spots of your mental model, the limits of your prevailing paradigm that were put in place by the system within which you are operating. Often these are the limitations of your meaning-making process that needs to be challenged.

When you discover the big assumptions that have been holding the status quo in place, you have an opportunity to make a deep and fundamental change—a transformational change. You see, a big assumption you have been choosing to hold uncritically can shift from one that holds you to one you hold. And that is a major change in how the world operates.

In our next blog post, we will explore the second initiative to transform individuals and organizations. In it, you will discover how to learn most easily from the four column chart, and facilitate the process of transformation for yourself and others.

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