Just like people, organizations get stuck. It usually happens around a topic or an initiative or a product or processes.

A collection of employees work on something tirelessly as if they are making forward motion but nothing seems to be going right. Everyone is well intended but you just can’t seem to collectively get out of your own way.

You know how it feels when you are stuck: at first you don’t realize you are stuck but nothing is going the right way. You cannot put your finger on the problem. Then you start to realize you are stuck but you don’t know where or why or how you are stuck.  Since you don’t know what to do about it you often deny that there is a problem or that it belongs to you.  You just keep trying to push forward. Then you try to solve unrelated things hoping fixing them will make you feel better, and finally, when it gets really bad you are forced to confront it head on.

Harvard Business School’s Tim Butler has articulated this cycle more eloquently in his book Getting Unstuck. If, according to him, individuals need to first recognize their psychological impasse and then change their thinking and perspective to get unstuck, what would have to happen for a collection of individuals in a work setting to get unstuck together?

Ideally, one person has to be brave enough and respected enough to call a spade a spade, “hey, we are stuck over here!” She has to bring the team to the recognition that they are at an impasse – a psychological impasse, a strategic impasse, a financial impasse, a technical impasse, or maybe a compounded impasse. Then she has to sell this concept to her peers and superiors and figure out how to get the larger group and initiative unstuck, while working under deadlines and important financial goals, preserving her job, and maintaining her life outside of work.

“Me! Me! Me! I want to be the one to tell the team that we are not getting anywhere and do all that extra work. Let me put my neck on the line to try to do move this behemoth to a better place. Really. Let me.”

Wow. That’s a lot. Who signs up for that besides the CEO and a few of his/her peers? No one . . .

Ceatro Group has found that getting a company unstuck works differently than an individual getting unstuck. Instead of recognizing the impasse and then changing their way of thinking to work through the stages of getting unstuck, organizations usually need to change their way of thinking to even see the depth of the impasse. Then they have to do the work to figure out how to solve it. Since organizations have a hard time recognizing they are stuck we have also learned that getting unstuck is almost always an unintentional outcome of another effort.

No one hires Ceatro Group to “get them unstuck.”  Instead, like almost all consultancies, they hire us to work on something that has a specific outcome and a specific return on investment. And when they are stuck and don’t know it, they hire us to solve for something they think is blocking their way – define a strategy, redesign a service, design a product, research customer behaviors, find out why our sales team is losing deals.  These issues are always valid and worth solving for and are indeed blocking their way (and we are happy to be their partner) but they are rarely the real issue.

We often refer to our work as “devil’s advocacy” or “business therapy.” Sure, it’s consulting but our style and our philosophy require our clients to hear new things, to questions old things, and to re-articulate their position in such a way that they have to think differently.  8 out 10 times this approach exposes the unknown impasse, if they are willing to hear it (or it may not become apparent to them later, until they are willing to hear it). As an outside player we can usually see when clients aren’t being as honest with themselves as they need to be or aren’t considering enough facts or are seeking the easier path, not the best path. It is our job to make sure our clients get the best advice and do the best thinking possible when we are there and sometimes that means we have to push a little harder on touchy areas (we do warn our clients at the beginning that there will be points in the project at which they will be annoyed with us).

Recently we received emails from two different clients in the same week that reminded us how important getting unstuck is to employees and organizations:

  • One from an international non-profit that hired us to design and facilitate a series of board of directors’ meetings and off sites to align the board on the actions necessary to achieve their goals over the next 24 months.
    • They felt like every time they held a board meeting in the previous year they came out of it without any alignment and didn’t achieve much between meetings. We asked them if they were sure it wasn’t a strategy problem (the strategy wasn’t agreed to or didn’t meet a market need) or a commitment issue (everyone wasn’t on the same team or as dedicated as they needed to be). No, they said, it was nothing like that; it was just a matter of not having a good operational plan.
    • We ran the program and, to be honest, the sessions were painful for all of us. The board members didn’t appear to like each other. Half of the board disagreed with the organization’s mission and strategy and the other half didn’t have the time to execute the strategy they had designed. We readjusted our approach to include strategy, commitment, and operations and pushed through, and so did the client, until we got them to the outcome they wanted: re-articulation of the strategy, commitment, and agreement on a plan for the next 24 months.
    • We continued to work with them in an ad hoc way over the next 4 months to make sure their plan was underway before we considered it completed. They were off to a good start but we weren’t convinced they believed in what they had created or what they were executing –  it still seemed very tenuous.  We mentioned our concerns to the senior members of the board and checked in a few more times.
    • And then, surprise, surprise: this organization announced that it had decided to merge with its, for lack of a better word for non-profits, competition. Big move! At first we felt a bit like we failed them because that was the last outcome they said they wanted and it surely wasn’t in the 24 month plan. And then we got this email:
    • “[The merger] was an outgrowth of discussions that started following your strategic planning program . . . you are rightly entitled to say that Ceatro was a “catalyst for change” and we thank you for all you did to bring our thinking into sharper focus.”
  • The other email was from an executive at a software company that hired is to do a few research and consulting projects culminating in a long-awaited product strategy redesign, needs little introduction in the context of this blog:  
    • ” Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m just realizing how important the work we did together is – I can’t thank you enough for getting us unstuck.”

We will take these unintended outcomes as wins. It might not have been the exact deliverable the client ordered but it will return something they couldn’t see as an option when they were stuck: forward motion and a greater gain for their employees and their business.

Do you have to hire a consultant to get your organization unstuck? No, of course not. You never have to hire a consultant. However,  a third party, like a consultant or a facilitator or a therapist, will likely get a better outcome in a situation like this because they are able to push your executives and your employees harder and are able to dedicate more concentrated time to the effort. A great way to start the process of getting your organization unstuck that doesn’t require the perspective and heft of a third party is to infuse the organization with new information and new insight to let it see its approaches and thinking in a new light.