an impossible task

Siets Bakker

Five pairs of eyes staring at you, brimming with expectation. Waiting for you to save the situation. The five teams from the HR department have been so disconnected from each other in their work in recent years, that they could no longer find a solution together. Each pair of eyes represented one of these teams. A wave of hope, frustration and exhaustion rolling towards you. Without making a sound, you sigh. An impossible task.  

Not even that fancy consultant

Every consultant recognises this stare. Has faced these desperately questioning eyes. Every pair of eyes belonging to adults who enjoy nothing more than doing their job, but have also managed to collectively keep a problem going for years. And then they look at you as if you’re the saviour. Turn out not to be, then you’re the excuse for keeping the problem going: “Nobody can do anything about it, not even that fancy consultant”.   

Adding systemic knowledge

The systemic approach offers rich insights that help dealing with unattainable – and thus apparently impossible – assignments. These tools can be found at three levels: that of the consultant, the assignment and the organisation, and can be applied practically by asking questions.

The consultant

What is typical of the assignments on your path, that doesn’t directly have anything to do with your knowledge and experience? For me, these are assignments where people feel stuck. They’ve tried everything, but can’t move forward. 

The type of assignment that comes to you generally speaking fits with the life experience you’ve accumulated. If you were faced with unsolvable problems in your youth (because they were not yours), then perhaps you deal easily with unattainable assignments in your adult life. You instinctively recognise them as ‘home’. 

The systemic approach offers a context in which an actual solution is available, by explicitly exploring what belongs where. 

The assignment

When you take on an assignment, you feel responsible for a successful execution. But sometimes it’s not the intention at all for the problem to actually be solved. Solving the problem would bring far too many other issues to light. A question I always ask in the acquisition phase is, “would it be tolerable if this problem was solved?” The assignment serves something much bigger and more significant. 

The organisation

An assignment never stands alone, it’s always part of a bigger whole, the organisation for example. As consultant, or contractor, you tend to define the assignment. Determine boundaries, milestones, objectives and make a plan. You then take the lead within the organisation in its execution. But with an unattainable assignment, it helps to turn things around: what if the organisation leads you? What exactly are you then invited to do and what are promising interventions? 

Impossible. Or perhaps not? 

The assignment of the five HR teams wasn’t unattainable after all, let alone impossible. The systemic approach provided tools to solve the invisible problems, instead of the visible ones. Guided by the following questions, the employees found the key to movement: 

  • Who believes that change is possible?
  • What does it not have to be about, so that the focus is on the cooperation?
  • Where can the first movement come from? 

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