Pain points can abound in the workplace, with people either contributing to or helping relieve them. Perceived pain (vs. felt pain), anxiety, and the handling of information flow are key factors for a company to consider if it wants its workers to be on the pain reliever side.
In the Industrial Age, the hiring process was simple: A job opening required a body to fill it and if the person had enough skill, they were hired, no questions asked. Today, the hiring process has almost changed in nature to that of being a pain relief process (the person is really being hired to help relieve one or more serious pain points).
But once hired and no matter how well their interviews may have gone, they inevitably become part of what appears to be two camps of workers in a company with virtually no middle ground: those who help contribute to the pain points and those who help relieve the pain points. And workers can easily switch camps depending upon the context. So the challenge is in getting workers to move to or remain in the pain reliever group no matter what the pain points are, in other words, to have them be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
First of all, it’s important to define what type of pain is being referred to here. In reality, it is the perception of pain that counts, since an episode that is perceived as painful may not be a problem at all and vice versa. So a person ends up, with rare exceptions, either contributing to or helping relieve the perceived pain (commission). And the rare exceptions would be those cases where a person is truly neutral, since not doing anything (omission) still contributes to the pain if a person could do something about it but doesn’t. One could even model such committed or omitted efforts in order to provide more insight into the matter (more on that later).
So the question is: How can a company help get its workers in the reactive pain contributor group to switch over to the proactive pain reliever group? The fact that it is the perceived pain that is at issue gives us a clue as to how this can be done.
Let’s take the example of the kind of meeting where the same issue gets discussed time and time again without ever getting to a resolution. The same players rehash their take on the matter and may even have legitimate cause but the problem is still not resolved. The cycle repeats itself even if fresh ideas are presented because the issue is stuck at an impasse. Any new idea either gets knocked down before it’s tried, or support is agreed to but not backed up enough for the idea to come to fruition. Note now how the level of pain perception will have influenced the behavior of the two groups. The pain contributor group does not perceive the pain as significant enough to risk trying new ideas to resolve the pain, but the pain reliever group thinks otherwise. So it ends up that the pain reliever group wants to move forward with trying new ideas but the pain contributor group doesn’t – thus the impasse. In turn, the associated information flow will work like electricity – the more the resistance, the less the energy flow.
Now there is an important distinction here, namely, that the pain reliever group may not necessarily feel the pain more than the pain contributor group but simply perceives it as greater. For instance, an outside consultant may objectively see a problem, recommend a much needed solution, but not have experienced any pain from that company’s problem. On the other hand, certain company employees may have experienced the pain a lot but don’t perceive it as being intense enough to warrant implementing the solution recommended by the consultant.
This brings us to another key factor in the pain reliever vs. pain contributor dichotomy – and one that is closely related to the concept of perceived pain – namely, the emotion of anxiety. But this factor also has a direct relationship with the actual pain being felt and not just how much pain was perceived. Ironically, anxiety plays a dual role here, one as a causative factor of the pain, and the other as a trigger to resist the attempt to relieve the very same pain. This dual effect can be very strong to the point of causing the impasse that is often seen in the above-described type of meeting because it can create a vicious circle.
To illustrate, a longstanding issue that would be often discussed in meeting after meeting may continually fuel anxiety, while at the same time fresh approaches and alternative ideas for the issue at hand may be met with even more anxiety (e.g. concern over cost, risk, logistics, etc.) and thus leading to an impasse. On the other hand, such anxiety can also be powerfully motivating to those in the pain reliever group to not only bring new ideas to the table but also to bring them to fruition if given the opportunity.
So the challenge for companies is to help all their employees come on board with the same courageous attitude shown by those in the pain reliever group, thus making themselves members of that group if they haven’t already. This is where the methodologies associated with the Information Age (e.g. true vs. pretend agile behavior) have a distinct advantage over those more specifically suited for the Industrial Age in days gone by.
For instance, a coincidental, two-minute casual chat over a matter at the water cooler among a few people may resolve an issue better than a planned, one-hour meeting attended by 10 people. The former approach may start the information flow in the direction of pain relief (agile), but the latter approach may cause the information flow to go circular, ending up in paperwork that really doesn’t go anywhere (for the pain). Why?
Information is like electricity (read, electron flow) or matter (e.g. fluid mechanics) in that it is affected by the resistance to it. But information can have a much wider swath of pathway permutations than, say, the flow of widgets in a widget factory’s assembly line. So any attempt to restrict the flow of information (in the belief that it will then be better managed) can easily lead to the “silo” effect where one hand of the company doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. Thus when the attempt is made to rigidly structure the search for a solution (e.g. via scheduled, 10-person, one-hour meetings), this can “jam the circuitry” as it were, due to there being too many permutations of information pathways to consider when attempting to connect such silos. So information has to be allowed to flow freely enough in order that the right path to a viable solution be found for the problem. The pain relief then comes naturally. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
But companies that drown themselves in Industrial Age metrics cannot keep up with such permutations because whenever information is thus allowed to flow freely, the subsequent failure rate that is needed for success becomes too unmanageable to track if using an Industrial Age approach. This also explains why very large companies have much greater difficulty to be responsive to their markets than, say, start-up firms. Again, there are times when information flow does need to be restricted (e.g. for security reasons) but for finding solutions to relieve pain, information must be allowed to flow freely enough so that the solutions can be reached. And while a certain level of structure may be needed (e.g. certain meetings do need structure), this will be dependent upon the context. So we can say that the degree of freedom needed for the information flow will be dependent upon its context. Indeed, effective information flow works – to coin a well-known phrase – “on a need-to-know basis.”
Coming full circle here, if a company decides to go ahead and provide the needed support for its information to flow freely enough, how does this help bring the company’s workers over to the pain reliever group? Well, consider the anxiety factor. Anxiety over risk is reduced because risk of failure is proactively expected. Anxiety over cost is reduced because the cost of such failure is built into the very fabric of the company’s culture. Anxiety over logistics is reduced because the coordination needed is enhanced by the freed up information flow. Anxiety over [place issue here] is reduced because…etc…etc. Thus, reducing anxiety naturally allows the workers to be more open to new ideas without fear of retribution from failure, again because failure is expected. And for the other factor (of perceived pain), allowing information to flow freely will nurture a proactive environment where perception is heightened, including the perception of any pain. Thus, resources are better marshaled for addressing issues.
Further on this, when we take a closer look at the nature of information flow, we find that induction is much more valuable in the Information Age than it was in the Industrial Age since things are much more unpredictable now. And just as a stone sculptor doesn’t really sculpt their work of art (the sculpture) but rather removes the irrelevant stone around it, removing irrelevant information is a key tool to inductive reasoning. Thus when the information is allowed to flow freely, hunches can be pursued more efficiently (by removing the irrelevant data) in order to get to the facts faster. People intuitively do this all the time when using web search engines.
So when it is not known what to look for (e.g. the cause of a pain point is unknown or is difficult to pinpoint), filtering out the irrelevant pieces brings the focus directly on the true unknown. Then when new ideas are allowed to be tried, it will become even clearer what other irrelevant pieces need to be removed as the focus moves sharper and sharper toward the end goal of addressing the pain.
This process is nothing new and is well known, of course, but what is significant here is its importance in getting workers to move to and stay in the pain reliever group. It has to be recognized that this methodology of “sculpting” one’s way to a solution requires that information flow be allowed to continually run at the appropriate level of freedom, and the faster the flow, the better (e.g. failing fast). On that note, we could almost say that information flow is becoming the lifeblood of companies now. And by extension, perhaps an intriguing, meaningful metric exists out there where the degree of a company’s long-term success can be directly correlated with the degree of support that the company gives to the freedom needed for its information flow.
Whenever pain is removed in corporate processes, humans respond more readily to action, thus reducing inertia. Any improvement in impasses in a company is a plus and works directly against entrenched bureaucracy. The bottom line is continually affected because human resources become more freed up for activity.
The perception of “risk, risk, and more risk” will probably be the biggest challenge to manage, especially if pain points are not perceived as intolerable (“elephant in the room” syndrome). Also, the fact that the unknown and unproven points of a proposed solution cannot be initially measured may cause a race against the clock to have such points proven as soon as possible if the proposal is given the go ahead. The problem here is that the clock should not dictate the information flow (the information’s context should), just as one does not stop the flow of water based on time (any stopping is done based on context). But to help address that common tendency of looking at the clock, enhancing the speed of the information flow will help (e.g. failing fast on new ideas tried).
Pick a non-pressing but longstanding, unresolved problem that is clearly at an impasse, especially one that has involved many repetitive meetings. Pick the most easily recognized member of the pain reliever group for that problem, most likely the one who has been the most eager to try out proposed solutions. Then at the next relevant meeting, have that person select what they consider their best idea and one that they believe will work (which may be either a brand new idea or one that was already previously proposed, whichever one is best). Then have someone (who can be relatively objective) document thoroughly (yes, Industrial Age style) the reactions to the proposed idea, starting from the moment the idea is proposed at that relevant meeting. Allow a sufficient passage of time for meaningful observation (e.g. a time period that includes several meetings where the same idea gets proposed). You will then have a literary map of the information flow that occurred for that problem/proposed solution relationship.
Next, dissect that map to model out the behavior of the pain reliever and pain contributor groups, focusing only on the information flow itself. To do this, assign anonymous references rather than using people’s names when referring to the groups’ members so as not to make it personal. Use generic terms to describe the behavior rather than specifics such as direct quotes of speech, again so as not to make it personal. For instance, rather than note [first person’s name] said “the [proposed solution] will never work in a million years” and [second person’s name] agreed, adding “even in a billion years,” note instead that two people said the proposed solution would never work and connect those two reactions to the pain contributor sphere.
Once the entire picture is constructed for the information flow, take the same data and remap it, moving everyone that was in the pain contributor group over to the pain reliever group. In this new map, albeit imaginary and ideal, modify the applicable reactions in order to reflect having everyone appear in the pain reliever group by changing the direction of such reactions (e.g. from negative to positive) while maintaining the same degree of the reactions’ intensity. For instance, in the example above, you would move the two naysayers over to the pain reliever group and then modify the notation on what they said to now note that two people said the proposed solution will definitely work. You are now harnessing (on paper at least) the same level of displayed zeal but in the opposite direction.
Now compare the two maps, and the more contrast there is, the more at issue will be the pain reliever/pain contributor gap. Although closing that gap will be the next challenge, you will have at least a baseline to work from, namely, a clear model of that gap.