Each type of work involves a shift from Now (the present situation) to New (what is needed instead).
These are my distinctions, which have evolved over the course of almost three decades. It doesn’t really matter what labels and associated meanings people adopt as long as everyone is using the same ones in the same way. If you can devise a better set of distinctions, I’ll abandon mine and use yours instead.
In the table below, the examples are drawn from my casebook. The clients, from top to bottom, were ICI Melinex, Dogs Trust, McCain Foods, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways), Environment Agency, and Shell GameChanger.
|Type of work||Now||Example||New|
|Problem solving||Things are not as they should be||We need to restore harmony between our marketing and sales people, who are currently at loggerheads||Things are as they should be|
|Surmounting||There is a need, desire or opportunity to surmount a tough challenge or accomplish an almost-impossible feat||We need to respond to the very real threat of new dog-to-human viral diseases entering England from mainland Europe||The challenge has been surmounted or the feat has been accomplished|
|Creating||There is a need, desire or opportunity to create something that will generate value||We need to conceive, develop and launch a product with the potential for volume sales||The new creation exists and is generating value|
|Changing||A different state of affairs is desired||We need change the way we provide the travelling public with rail tickets||The desired state of affairs has been achieved|
|Developing||Value generation capability is not at the required level||We need to teach some of our people to organise and facilitate Open Space meetings||Value generation capability is at the required level|
|Utilising||Value generation capability is not being fully utilised||We need to find a good use for the contaminated water that accompanies oil as it emerges from the sub-surface||Value generation capability is being fully utilised|
The six types in more detail
The work: Restoring the system to full working order, or rectifying that which is undesirable.
A problem arises when there is a difference between how things are and how they should be. Something has gone wrong and it needs to be rectified.
A problem is solved in the moment. Either the system is in full working order, or it isn’t. An almost-solved problem is an unsolved problem.
In an enterprise, the state of affairs described as a problem is generally one in which the enterprise’s value generation capability is threatened or impaired.
Much problem solving work is best described as now-to-old. But a return to how things were is not good enough. The aim must be to create a new reality in which the problem cannot exist and cannot reestablish itself. Indeed, in many cases it’s not possible to go back to how things were. The world has moved on.
The copyright on the Edgware Road image is owned by Phillip Perry and is licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Circle line image is taken from Wikipedia and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.If you’re familiar with the London Underground, imagine a journey on the Circle line. You depart from Edgware Road, travel clockwise via Kings Cross, Aldgate, Victoria and Paddington, and return to Edgware Road. But its not the same Edgware Road station you departed from. Different people are standing on the platforms and the station clock is showing a different time.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus.
There’s a state of affairs that’s even better than one in which the problem cannot exist and cannot reassert itself. It’s one that in which value generation capability is expanded for all parties. I use the term problem transformation to refer to the means by which this state of affairs can be created. Problem transformation is analogous to conflict transformation. Whereas conflict resolution simply brings about a situation all parties can live with, conflict transformation leads to a relationship in which new sources of value generation become possible.
Finally, just to clarify: solving consumers’ problems through the introduction of new products and services is innovation work, not problem solving work.
Fritz argues for a distinction between problem-solving and creating. Problem-solving is taking actions to have something go away: the problem. While problem-solving has its place, as a persistent approach, it limits accomplishment. The elimination of a problem does not mean that the desired result can be created. As distinguished, solving a problem does not by design lead to a creation. Creating is taking action to bring into being that which does not yet exist: the desired outcome.
Source: Robert Fritz — Wikipedia.
View more selected quotes about problems
“A rather direct implication of Maturana’s view [structural determinism] is that all problems are in language. Until ‘languaged,’ a problem does not exist. Maturana states that ‘Everything said is said by an observer.’ Since problems are things said, they must always be said by someone, to someone (even if the second someone is oneself). It follows that only the person speaking of a problem can have that problem.”
Source: The world according to Humberto Maturana (pdf), by Jay Steven Efran, Temple University, and Michael D. Lukens.
The work: Surmounting a tough challenge or accomplishing an almost-impossible feat.
This is an extreme example of the kind of challenge I’m talking about here:
Whereas problem solving, creating, changing, developing and utilising work generally takes the form of a project, surmounting a tough challenge often calls for a time-bound — “before this decade is out” — mission composed of sub-missions and contributing projects.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
John F. Kennedy, U.S. President, 12 September 1962.
As with problem solving, a challenge is surmounted in the moment. Either the astronauts have landed on the moon, or they haven’t.
If you hear any of the following phrases, surmounting is probably the type of now-to-new work that is called for:
“This is a wicked problem.”
“We need a moonshot.”
“Bring in the A-Team.”
“It’s an insurmountable opportunity.”
When the challenge has been surmounted, the the stage is set for for further now-to-new work.
Read about OpenSpacePlus, a collaborative, mission-based response to a tough challenge
The work: Conceiving and bringing into being something tangible (a product or other artefact) or intangible (such as a service or a piece of music) that produces experienced value when the user interacts with it.
This section was previously named Innovation. I renamed it because a composer, chef or website developer would probably not think of their work as innovation.
The work: Replacing the current state of affairs with a desired state of affairs.
Change work is encapsulated in the phrase ‘out with the old, in with the new’. The status quo is abandoned and something better takes its place.
I have a strong suspicion that any piece of work framed as change can be attributed to one of the other categories, and that this one is redundant.
For example, if a seventh category should ever need to be included, the ensuing work could be described as change. Now = six categories; New = seven categories. Whatever happens between Now and New is the change. Yes, a change is involved, but so what? And we now have seven categories — so what? The answer to the second “so what?” is that we now have a more useful model. The value generation potential of the model has been increased, which puts the work firmly in the development category.
Whenever change is called for, the question that must be asked is “why?” What is the ultimate purpose of the change work? Change in order to what? What value is to be created, and for which beneficiaries?
The work: Expanding value generation capability.
An enterprise’s value generation capability consists mainly of its people, equipment, technology, systems, processes and practices. Some would argue that culture should be included here, but my current view is that culture is an abstraction — one that people try to enhance by manipulating other abstractions such as values and behaviours.
The organisation development function exists to maintain and expand the people element of the enterprise’s value generation capability and ensure that this is deployed effectively for the benefit of customers or users and other beneficiaries.
Note that process improvement is development work, product development is innovation work, and business development is potential utilisation work.
The work: Making full use of existing value generation capability.
Utilise means “to make practical or worthwhile use of”.
This kind of work is directed towards unlocking the value generation potential of:
- The enterprise as a whole
- Business units
- Functions such as finance and marketing
- The value generators — tangible offerings such as products, or intangible ones such as services — produced by the enterprise
Utilisation work is undertaken primarily by the organisation development and learning and development functions (items 1 – 5) and the sales and marketing functions (item 6).