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Executive search trends: Fillingaps® method

On Scarcity in the Age of Abundance

By Denise Eler


Think fast: what is currently the scarcest resource?

The most popular answer: time.

The same time that was available during the Middle Ages is available today. The same 24 hours that Netflix and Magazine Luiza have, your company also has. So what makes some companies’ (and some people’s) time seem to last longer?

A popular answer: good time management.

Well, I have been working for 20 years with Organizations from very different sectors, from multinationals to start ups, cooperatives and NGOs, Government and Academia, and I can say that “time management” courses are on the top list of the HR departments. Just Google “time management” and you’ll find many lists on how to become excellent at “time management”: start early, don’t procrastinate, schedule tasks, define deadlines, prioritize, delegate tasks, focus, learn to say no, and… avoid stress (really?).

Denise Eler is one of the country’s leading exeprts in Sensemaking and Design Thinking.

There’s nothing wrong with following this advice, but the fact is, you might do all these things and yet they won’t make the slightest difference for your output. Yes, at the end of the day, the only thing that really matters: what value did your work generate for the business? It doesn’t matter if you and your team delivered something in record time (and without stress). Only 3 things matter:

  1.     Solve the right problem
  2.     Solve the problem right
  3.     Continuously deliver value

For each one of these premises, we can derive a question:

“Solve the right problem” gives us: What (really) is the “problem”?

“Continuously deliver value” gives us: What is value, in this case? (It is assumed that ” who” should give value is known; since the value is not in things, but is a perception about them.)

Ironically, answering these three questions “consumes” time.  Reflecting is time consuming, but it reduces the risks of worthless delivery. And worthless deliveries undermine people’s self-esteem. After all, why are we always in such a hurry?

This is precisely the scenario that I have encountered and that justifies the statistics that say that only 13% of employees are engaged in their jobs. Isn’t this ironic? We know that soon, probably sooner than we would like, all repetitive tasks will be performed by machines. And yet, almost 90% of people surveyed are working on auto-pilot. They’re just “checking in”. The leaders and those being led.

Without time (and willingness) to think, there is no innovation because the strained mind delivers only known answers. It seems that the more we run against time, the more time escapes us, because companies that don’t innovate are short-lived.  And so, we mistake “haste” with “agility”, “responsiveness” with “evolution”, and “reactivity” with “reflection”.

All this makes me think that the great scarcity in Organizations is not time, but meaning. It is no accident that suddenly having a “purpose” has become imperative in business. A company’s purpose serves to guide the joint efforts of employees, to generate motivation and a sense of belonging. But having a purpose is not enough.

It’s in the daily routines that I’ve noticed both leaders and employees immersed in meaningless activities: meetings where an email would suffice, livestreams that could have been a tweet, presentations that don’t enable decision making, reports that don’t expand the understanding of anything, graphs that take too long to interpret, and zombie projects that no longer have business relevance but insist on consuming brains.

How can we change this? We need to question the real meaning behind each of these activities. Stop being collectors/producers of information to become enablers of intelligence. In the next 3 articles, I invite you to learn about Sensemaking techniques – the process of giving meaning to decision making.

SENSEBREAKING: unbroken eggs don’t make omelets

Regardless of what is written on your badge, your diploma, or your Linkedin profile, you are a salesperson. Sorry to say this up front. It’s not something I expect you to accept so quickly but I’m on a character limit.

And because this is an irrefutable question, I’ll get straight to the point: have you been a weak, average or high performance salesperson? In any problem-solving process, you need to be a HIGH PERFORMANCE salesperson, because NEW IDEAS (the creative answers to recurrent or unprecedented problems) won’t sell themselves.

In the above content, we talked about the lack of meaning in the daily activities of organizations and that this occurs when we fail to see a connection between what we do and the value it generates for the company and for society. Many times, the value doesn’t even exist because we are striving to solve the wrong problem, even if for the right reason.

 I will share the first part of a Problem Solving process that I developed over 20 years of consulting and teaching – it is called Fillingaps® and it has only 3 steps. I created this method because I was tired of seeing excellent answers not generating results due to lack of prior understanding (Step 1) and translation strategies (Step 3). 


Step 1: SENSEBREAKING – Break Unnecessary Connections
Step 2: SENSEMAKING – Create new connections
Step 3: SENSEGIVING – Translate the new proposal

What is new about this method? All three steps are guided by the creation of meaning.

Note that the method is supported by two premises:

There is no point in finding the answer to the problem if:

1. The problem does not bother the supposedly interested parties (stakeholders).

2. The response to the problem does not make sense to the stakeholders.

Before bringing a group together to generate solution ideas, you need to make sure that the problem exists and is understood in the same way by all parties. Usually my clients are great at defining the symptoms generated by the problem, and are good at describing what the reality would be like if the problem did not exist. These answers don’t give me much help in solving the problem, but they do give me valuable information about how these people think and how their mental networks are constructed. Deconstructing these networks is the focus of Sensebreaking.

What the Sensebreaking process looks like

Learning is about creating new connections. We do this by combining the resources of imagination and memory. Neuroscience explains the role of emotion in fixing long-term memories. If an event provokes a stronger emotion, the brain creates a kind of marker for what happened in order to save processing power the next time the event occurs. Thus, the second time, reflection is replaced by reaction. This process is important for our survival, but shortcuts don’t consider the long-term consequences. In a nutshell, acting on impulse can harm us in the future.

As we relegate repetitive activities to machines, we increasingly need the company to behave like an intelligent organism – a learning being. How many times have you heard that you need to “learn to unlearn”?

To unlearn is to disconnect things. Without this process, the new cannot take place.

If a company needs to solve a problem, it is because there is a perception that something could be different. The search for a new answer is legitimate. However, without a process to deconstruct perceptions, concepts and beliefs any new proposal will face many obstacles in order to happen. I can affirm, by observation, that innovation does not happen more often for lack of creativity, but for excess of vanity (attachment to the past).

A Sensebreaking session challenges the stakeholders to question their level of understanding of the problem and to find possible erroneous cause-and-effect relationships in their views. It is common for the group to have a premature and logically unsound solution idea. Here are a few questions that catalyze the reflective process:

Why is so-and-so a problem?  Is it a new problem or a recurring problem? What would it be like if the problem did not exist? What do we expect to happen after the problem is solved? Will the solution generate new problems?  What are our uncertainties about the problem?  What are the restrictions for the generation of ideas? What is the value for each stakeholder? What assumptions should guide the conception of ideas? What would evidence of success look like?

The result of Sensebreaking is a detailed description of the problem and, most importantly, an alignment of expectations for the next step – the creation of answers. John Dewey, said that a well-defined problem, is a partially solved problem. True. In the next issue we will learn about SENSEMAKING – the creation of the new, and SENSEGIVING – how to sell the new.

SENSEMAKING: who makes sense, makes a difference

So you need to solve a problem in a structured manner to get better results, right? “Problem Solving” never leaves the lists of the top 10 most critical professional skills for the VUCA / BANI world, so it’s worth investing your time learning the FILLINGAPS® method. Today we will explore the second stage of the process, where we engage in the creation of meaning. For those of you who have just arrived, please read the first two articles in this series beforehand.

In the first stage – SENSEBREAKING – we created the conditions so that the NEW would be a group necessity, not just that of the person who proposed the need for change. Leonard Cohen said that “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Often, the problem exists, but it is not perceived by everyone, nor is it understood in the same way. The main result of the first stage is the collective recognition (the gap) that the problem really exists and an understanding of it’s level of complexity.

Step 2 – SENSEMAKING (per se) – begins with a more precise definition of the problem – it is a synthesis of what has been learned so far. Once the problem is understood, we must create new answers to the questions.

What the Sensemaking process looks like

Some have translated sensemaking as interpretation, but I agree with Karl Weick, a reference on this subject: “Sensemaking has less to do with discovery and more to do with invention.” What does this mean? The process of creating meaning often assumes that meaning needs to be proposed, not just uncovered. If during the “problem finding phase” we must read between the lines and find connections between the elements after deconstructing the narratives (sensebreaking), during the “solving phase” we need to create new answers to the challenge. We need to INVENT answers that connect the current reality to the desired reality.

It’s important to remember that complex challenges don’t have unique answers.

The best answer will always depend on the context, it will always be temporary. That is why we work with a large volume of possible answers. At this stage, volume is important for the same reason I explained in the previous article: our mind gives automatic answers at first and it needs to be challenged to contribute creative ideas. When we ask for 20 possible answers instead of three, the mind has to work. Another way to increase the volume and diversity of responses is to form a heterogeneous group of people, with different skills and experiences which enrich the session with unexpected perspectives. Increasing the diversity of the team also minimizes the fallacy of centrality, whereby we tend to doubt what we don’t know. If the group is homogeneous, the probability of a different answer being rejected is very high. How ironic, isn’t it? We want the new, but we only trust what is familiar. Getting out of the bubble requires awareness that it exists and taking action to escape it.

After generating ideas, the group needs to develop criteria to select the best bets.

The bets that make sense will be those that fulfill the requirements raised in step 1. Example: Will this proposal deliver the expected value? Is it feasible? Do we have all the resources to return it? What kinds of secondary problems might this solution generate? What premises support this idea?

A systemic analysis of each proposal is fundamental for a careful selection of those that will continue in the running. It is worth inviting people who did not participate in the generation of ideas to question the proposals. People who have nothing to gain or lose from the group’s delivery. Depending on the time and degree of uncertainty, an idea may go on to prototyping, become an experiment, be abandoned, or be transformed into another idea. But it is important to understand that no idea is born perfect.

I really like President of Pixar Ed Catmull’s words:

“The cost of that becomes clear when you think of how a movie starts out. It’s a baby. It’s like the fetus of a movie star; we all start out ugly. Every one of Pixar’s stories starts out that way. A new thing is hard to define; it’s not attractive, and it requires protection.”

The most important thing is to understand that at each stage we are reducing the chances of delivering things that will not make sense for the organization, for the market, and for ourselves. The tried and tested ideas that survive will enter the development phase.

In the next and final article in this series, we will deal with the final challenge. Now that we have answers that make sense to us, how do we ensure that they will be meaningful to others who have not participated in the Sensemaking process?

SENSEGIVING: how to sell the new within an organization

This is the last article of the Sensemaking series where I present each step of the method for dealing with complex challenges in the context of Organizational Change.

First, we create the conditions for the challenge to get maximum input (and support) from the group (Sensebreaking). Then we explore possible answers to the challenge and hedge our bets. Then we end with an MVP, an experiment, a proof of concept. This is where many people celebrate too early while innovation sinks. The iceberg has a name: translation. How to ensure that the response generated by the group is valued by those who did not participate in the process and need to be convinced of the value of the delivery?

You have probably been there before. Months involved in an innovation process that dies on the high seas. I have seen it happen so many times that I took a specialization course in neuroscience to understand the brain’s mechanisms of rejection of the NEW. Without going into technical terms, I will share some insights that guide my proposal of SENSEGIVING – how to translate the new to those who did not participate in its creation.

The brain is obsessed with power efficiency. When it comes across a piece of information it tries to “recognize” it in its past entries so as not to “waste” energy on it. It’s a shortcut. This is why we tend to be amenable to familiar things and reject novelty. Even if curiosity fosters an attachment to novelty, a decision to embrace the new is another level of commitment. Replacing something we know with something new means accepting risks. Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty. It prefers unhappiness to uncertainty – as others have already remarked. It is, yet again, the law of least effort.

It turns out that by now, the group that participated in the process of creating the answer to the initial challenge is familiar with the delivery. Don’t you see the danger? We have two groups at different stages. We need empathy with those who did not participate in the creative process. We need a strategy to reduce resistance to the “foreign body” before it is “rejected by the body”.

So how does one “sell” something new? How does one influence HOW other people in the organization will receive the result?

To create a strategy, consider 4 premises:

  1. Familiarity reduces anxiety.
  2. However… we tend not to pay attention to that which is already familiar.
  3. Emotion signals to the brain that something is important.
  4. Reason leads to conclusions, but emotion participates in the decision.

Don’t you realize that we will never have a single answer? Sensemaking and Sensegiving are always contextual. But we know that one of the most efficient ways to combine all 4 premises is through a narrative. A narrative that connects what “they already know” and surprises them with what “they don’t know”. Depending on the corporate culture and the strategic level of delivery, this narrative can be sensorially immersive or even presented in slides. Creativity must subvert the limitations of the media.

Remember that people resist the new for two reasons: fear of losing something or laziness to understand something. Try the magic questions: can anyone feel threatened by the new? Are we speaking their language?

Finally, start winning hearts and minds before the big day by studying “priming” techniques – creating conditions favorable to the acceptance of the proposal.

As you have seen, the new needs a helping hand in order to happen. The whole Fillingaps process is designed to give you confidence in the robustness of the proposal, but here is where you must enrich it with creativity to make yourselves understood. A common mistake is to bet on clarity (“is that clear?”) and forget persuasion (“will they act in the direction we want them to?”).

I would like to know your opinion about all this.

Denise Eler is one of the country’s leading experts in Sensemaking and Design Thinking. 




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