The Art of the Unstuck

Organizational change (regardless of the industry) is hard and takes thought, energy, purposeful action, modeling, reflection, design, vision, etc. More than anything it first takes an acknowledgement that change is necessary. It takes that magical moment when the stars align, your people are uprising, and/or the data is so overwhelming that you can not ignore the problem with the status quo any longer. The problem is that those magical moments when change becomes eminent are not always a strike of thunder or a tsunami; rather those moments are often a slow flood or a candle flickering out — they are somewhat unnoticeable. Noticing those moments isn’t impossible, it just takes courage and intent.

We are intentional about noticing our successes; it is typical nature as humans to focus on what makes us feel good. Success is typically a place when your world is filled with magical moments that are indicative of no monumental indicator of failure. Success is typically a place when your world is filled with magical moments where you are continuing down a path and everything is going well. Success is typically a place when your world is filled with magical moments that are filled with achievment of the basic goals and outcomes.

Stuck is when our intentions become less about actions and more about the inability to take action. Stuck is when those successes are no longer enough and you simply have no idea what to do or where to go.

We use the idea of being stuck a lot in our work in education. Because most of the organizations we work with are doing good things, getting good scores, etc. But in those organizations there is one of those magical moments that leads to the biggest question an organization can face: Now what?

Unstuck by definition is to be freed from being fastened to a physical object, space/place, or idea. When you look for various tips for unsticking you get mostly ideas around forcing, covering, wrenching, cleaning, or changing. In all of those tips it is about one thing: doing onto something that is somewhat forceful and somewhat unnatural movement.

There is an art to becoming unstuck as an organization, and it has nothing to do with force and it has nothing to with unnatural.

Becoming unstuck is not a scripted process. Rather its more like a work of art that is inspired and unfolds. Don’t misunderstand inspirational unfolding to say that becoming unstuck happens organically without a caretaker. Just as an artist must create, evaluate, and master so too must the leader who facilitates an organization moving from stuck to unstuck.

Becoming unstuck takes courage, resilience, and an ability to change the frame from which you view your work or your organization.

Becoming unstuck really boils down to five actions that can occur naturally within all organizations. Naturally and willingly, these actions move you from stuck to unstuck so that you can move on to what is next instead of perseverating on what is now.

  1. Always have a vision that includes long term goals. That vision should be revisited annually and monitored continuously. Your vision should have outcomes that are in someway measurable (do not go straight to opinion of a select few for this measure — look to your people for ideas on what will demonstrate progress). Have a vision that is forward thinking that dares to imagine what is possible. But don’t just write it down; use it as a litmus test for your decisions, your hires, your first, etc.
  2. Have a Chief Trend-Spotter. Great leaders are consistently focused on the evolution of an organization; good leaders are focused on the here and now. Unfortunately organizations often have jobs and roles that are focused on task completion and the hot potato of today. To circumvent the daily churn and attention to the hot potato leading to your organization being stuck identify a Chief Trend-Spotter. This person will keep up to date with research, new ideas, what the status and challenges of your industry are, what new leaders there are to watch, what is worth copying, what is worth avoiding, etc. This is not a market researcher, this is someone who knows your field so deeply that they can look ahead and know what is coming (are what could be coming and what you could be doing about it today). This necessitates deep, deep knowledge and a willingness to think abstractly about where connections lie.
  3. Use your data. Data is not static to those that become unstuck. Data is dynamic, linked, and correlated. Think about all of the data (persons, systems, enrollment, contributions, etc.) and look at it in the big picture. What does that data tell you about your organization? Can looking at the data lead to your next big thing? Use visualization tools, try using that data to write a narrative about what your organization should do next (often through writing we find out what data we do not have) and look at cross tabulations that can highlight the next layer of connections in your data sets.
  4. Identify what you know for sure and what you don’t. To reassure yourself, think about the things you know for sure about your organization and physically list them all out. To get unstuck think not only about what you know but also what you do not. Take ten minutes and list questions that you have about your organization. Hand it off to someone you trust (even outside of your organization) and be sure that this someone thinks differently from yourself. Ask them to do two things: assess your questions (edit, deepen, axe) and identify logical ways to find the answers. Make a plan to find the answers and once you have them, lean on your people to decide what you will do to become unstuck. We have to start using what we know and identifying what we do not know as an equally important task.
  5. Open yourself up to the truth. Get the best and brightest in a room together (not the naysayers and not those that are more of the “yes ma’am” philosophy). You want people that will challenge you, be honest, burst your bubble (respectfully), and look as closely at what is not happening as they do at what is succeeding. This can be a hard and gut wrenching experience, or it can be an awesome experience in discovery. The tone of this experience completely depends on the leadership. The caretaker of becoming unstuck must go into this action with a frame of mind that says “I am not perfect, this organization is not perfect, and we need to get unstuck through honesty, collaboration, dialogue, reflection, and inspired actions.”

Think of the art of being unstuck not as a process or a ladder, but a trampoline or a spring board that will catapult you into the awesome, inspiring, and motivating place where you can say with full confidence, “I know what is next.”