Why "affectionate dysfunction"​ in organisations is something to be cherished.

The consulting industry makes a living telling people their business is broken. You don’t walk into someone’s house and tell them their family is dysfunctional. Do you?


A family, a town, a football team and organisations are all versions of human-created social systems. Social systems are the way they are because the most influential people in the system (i.e. family, team, town and business) want it that way.


In an organisational system, everything is perfectly designed to achieve the business outcomes they currently get. Internally, there is a firm belief things are just "fine". Organisations are usually happy in their present reality because it’s the reality someone wants. Seen these in your travels? They exist because someone allows them to exist:


  • Silos controlled by powerful people protecting turf

  • Leaders not demonstrating the behaviours they are seeking in others

  • Excessive interference instead of support from the back office

  • Way too many meetings

  • And on and on ...


External consultants, such as those who are experts in strategy execution, organisation design, business improvement and digital transformation, look at that list and clump it together as one thing: “dysfunction”. It's the consultant's belief that dysfunction is getting in the way of business progress.


As a consultant for more than 20 years, it was always my job to point out the gaps between the social view and the real world. A lot of people say my "super-strength" is gathering data (in a way similar to TV detectives like Columbo, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes) to put a jigsaw puzzle together. I ask friendly, deep and probing questions. I like to undertake a complete and thorough analysis of a situation. Mostly, I was finding and bringing to light information that someone didn’t want to be known.


So my active forensic-focused mind also became my greatest weakness. I could join the dots, see what others couldn’t see and paint a compelling picture of current reality. When the puzzle finally came together, I had figured out there was a compelling and useful reason and desire to change.


That's where it often ended. A lot of influential people did not see it that way. The status quo was much more palatable, and besides, “we are not broken. Or at least not that broken. Thanks for your time, Bruce. We’ll take it from here.”


Is it any wonder my detailed and well-constructed consulting reports with elaborate diagrams and long lists of actions and recommendations sit on shelves all around the world gathering dust?


The truth is no-one wants to be publicly told their business is dysfunctional. Least of all from someone outside the organisation. It’s like criticising someone’s child.


On the inside, it can be an unpopular CLM (career limiting move) to disclose such gaps even if acting in the best interests of the company. For me, those feedback meetings were sometimes plain awful.


To unpack and understand my consulting reality, I had to give this phenomenon a name. So I called it “affectionate dysfunction”. Many a time I found leaders who are happy with their lot in life despite an external view that their organisation could do better. For them, sometimes the cure was worse than the disease. The problems were too big for them to fix. They may be nearing retirement, so why change now?


By naming it, I could accept it, not judge it and ultimately cherish “affectionate dysfunction”.


People are where they are for a reason, and sometimes those reasons are not obvious and the back-story can be quite remarkable. It's really hard as a consultant to know everything about a situation or person. Only the people in there know that.


So, I stopped providing expert recommendations to people who really didn’t care for them. This set me off on an exploration to figure out how organisations in a state of "affectionate dysfunction" can move forward.


The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. Mark Twain

Then I found leadership coaching (or perhaps it found me). 


What I learned through coaching leaders was I could help someone:


  • join their own dots,

  • see what they couldn’t see for themselves and

  • paint their own compelling picture of current reality.


This was all through using my same aforementioned super-strengths of asking great questions and connecting disparate information. I found coaching a more effective way for people to discover their own reality gaps. Here's a way a leader can re-define their problem differently so they can solve it for themselves. Needless to say, a leader has to be open to coaching all the same.


I am now the guy asking a couple of "Colombo" style questions with kindness and compassion to help someone else be better.


And life's now far more interesting and fulfilling!


Thanks for reading to here and I hope life's great, Bruce


About Bruce Mullan

I am a Leadership Coach nurturing leadership excellence in health, aged care and NDIS. I integrate leadership strengths, agile disciplines and a coaching mindset to help leaders successfully navigate the growing complexity of our external world.

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