We live in a big and complex world faced with big and complex problems; climate change, population growth, environmental degradation and inequality. In these mega-challenges, as well as the apparently simpler task of running a city or creating a new product, it is hard to get your mind around all the issues and all the implications. Unintended consequences haunt every choice we make. We are told that tackling a complex problem in its entirety is like “nailing jelly to the wall”.
The practical approach is to break the problem down into smaller pieces. We are constantly reminded “when eating an elephant, take one bite at a time”, or “you solve big problems by solving small problems”. A quick search turns up over 12 million documents on the importance of breaking down problems into bite-sized pieces, and various tools and approaches to stripping a problem down.
“when eating an elephant, take one bite at a time”
This is all good advice. It is how humans deal with big hairy problems. Instead of being paralysed by complexity, we break down the problem and zoom in to a piece of the jigsaw which is manageable. It may be the biggest barrier to progress, the easiest place to make progress, or simply the part of the problem we are most competent to tackle. Instead of agonising, we act.
If you zoom in, you have to zoom out
So far so good. The problem comes when we forget to zoom out again. As the problem gets broken down, people get assigned tasks, responsibilities, deadlines and budgets. This freezes the initial analysis. The assumptions that were made and the data that were collected are not challenged. New information is not incorporated. People become blinkered, teams become siloed, and the reality that we are dealing with a dynamic world gets forgotten.
Things get really bad when the environment is changing rapidly, and the problem-solving is progressing slowly. I have seen plenty of new products delivered on time and to specification into a market which no longer exists. I have also seen large organisations completely fail to cope when they discover that the real problem they are trying to solve cuts across the structures they created originally. If I need to use my budget and resources to help solve a problem that is somebody else’s responsibility, I may be hard to persuade. Particularly if I don’t have enough resources to deliver the things I have been told I am responsible for.
We need to be constantly zooming our focus between the strategic level and the tactical. When we are down in the weeds wrestling with a specific part of the problem, we need to regularly look up and around to remind ourselves of the overall challenge we are working on, check that the context hasn’t changed, and that the piece of the jigsaw we are currently working on still fits in with all the other pieces. Working at the strategic level, we need to keep an eye on all the component pieces to make sure that they still contribute to the overall picture, are still connected to each other, and have not morphed into stand-alone and self-justifying projects.
The Sunrise Diagram
Of course, it is difficult to keep track of all the parts of a complex project or strategy programme. We need some sort of boundary object to allow information to flow easily between the various players.
I don’t know the origin of this visualisation; it was introduced to me as the Sunrise Diagram. The top right of the diagram is the vision; the goal we are aiming for. The rays represent the key things we have to do to achieve our goal. The ‘strategic thrusts’. These are the big things we must focus on, so there shouldn’t be too many. Five is a reasonable number, but a little less or a little more is okay. What a colleague of mine used to call “a slack handful”. If you reach ten, it is almost certainly more than an individual, a team or an organisation can cope with.
Each strategic thrust then breaks down into a series of subprojects, actions or activities that are required to deliver against the strategic thrust and contribute towards the overall goal. There are lots of things you can do with the basic diagram to share information. You can sort them into short, medium and long-term activities. You can colour code them by the team, department or function responsible for delivery. You can connect them with lines to show dependencies and time sequences. You can traffic light code them to show the ones that are on target, those running slow but with a recovery plan, and those where there is a critical problem.
Keeping track of complexity
“A zoom function you can control is vital for delivering your strategy”
With a complex project or challenge, this diagram helps everybody to zoom in and out as needed. Everyone is constantly made aware of the contribution of the specific task they are working on at this moment to the overall goal. It is easier to see the need to adjust timings and resources, and easier to explain and justify the changes to everyone.
In one company I worked in this approach allowed a five-year transformation programme with nearly 700 specific actions and subprojects to be kept aligned and successfully delivered. The executive team was able to monitor the whole programme on a monthly basis because they could see what was changing and where the blockages were.
Any complex challenge must be broken down into practical deliverable components, and you have to zoom in to focus on specific tasks. But you also have to zoom out to look at the whole picture. To check that the components still fit together, and to make sure that any changes in the environment are being accounted for.
A zoom function you can control is vital for delivering your strategy.