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Use the Difficulty: Owning the Obstacle

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 22, 2023

There is a military axiom that “no plan survives implementation.” This lesson applies to all endeavors in public administration, regardless of discipline. No plan can encompass all possible outcomes, which means difficulties shall arise. The lesson for public administrators is not to try to pursue plans so comprehensive they cannot falter, but instead to recognize that difficulties shall inevitably emerge. Instead of surrendering or retreating in such circumstances, they should instead own the obstacle, using the difficulty to propel them forward.

In a televised interview, famed actor Micheal Caine shared a life lesson he applied both in acting and in life. Early in his career, acting in a play, he was unable to enter the stage on cue because a door was blocked by a chair thrown earlier by another actor. Discussing it, the producer advised him whenever something unexpected occurred he should use the difficulty. He should do what must be done with any “chair” which obstructed him. If it were a drama, smash it to pieces. If it were a comedy, trip over it. The lesson is to build on and use what you have, and Caine said this lesson had long served him well.

Too often, public sector employees become so enamored of plans that they are incapable of adapting. Some of this might be tied to individual characteristics or organizational culture. Some individuals are uncomfortable in rapidly changing situations, disconcerted by both accelerated change or gray areas. In some organizations, formal and informal pressures exist which inhibit anyone working outside the plan, regardless of the circumstances. Frequently, this is because individuals, organizations or organizational leaders, are not well-versed in planning processes, making it difficult for them to craft or revise plans quickly. They do not understand all the parts, so they find it difficult to rearrange or replace them as needed.

During World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower rotated officers through planning roles as a component of their professional development. He sought to develop organizational and logistical skills, which he felt were invaluable. He once said, “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” The goal was to help officers to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances—to use the difficulties encountered to their own advantage. In this way, even if they lost a skirmish or a battle, they could win the war because they were now familiar with those aspects of planning which clarify goals, then bring people, resources and authorities together to achieve success in dynamic environments. Ideally, instead of fighting the difficulty, they became capable of using the difficulty as an impetus to restage the plan or modify the environment.

Restage the Plan: If an unexpected difficulty arises which inhibits progress, a restage might be necessary. In a restage, the plan is modified to account for the new circumstances. This might require some level of “backstepping,” seemingly moving in reverse, then “side-stepping,” taking a differing path forward, much as Caine said to smash or trip over the chair. To do this, it will be necessary for those engaged to identify the difficulty, own it then use it to create a plan with a greater probability of success.

Modifying the Environment: Circumstances might arise which suggest the issue is not so much the plan as the environment. Illustrative of this, difficulties arise when seeking to create a new service without providing sufficient training, acquiring appropriate resources, developing sufficient support or without removing artifact policies and procedures which inhibit success. If this is the case, use the difficulty as an argument to change outdated policies, reframe hearts and minds, empower employees and provide sufficient resources so that success is achievable.

In either case, the focus throughout remains on achieving success. There is no attempt to blame others or to shift responsibility. Instead, the focus is on accepting the circumstances, then using the difficulty as the impetus to find a better way. Difficulties do not, by themselves, cause failure. Failure comes from resisting or ignoring the difficulty instead of embracing it as a catalyst for change.  

With all this said, there are times when it might be difficult, if not impossible, to use the difficulty in some settings. This is particularly true when the difficulty is tied to toxic leadership or dysfunctional organizational cultures. Changing the environment might be possible, but it will be a long and arduous process. No employee should sacrifice their well-being and life-balance without some probability of achieving success. If the circumstances seem insurmountable, they might instead use the difficulty to support a decision to move on to better prospects or a healthier workplace environment. Do not become trapped by a “chair” someone has thrown in your way. To use Michael Caine’s analogy, use the difficulty to find another path (restage), widen the doorway (modify the environment) or find a role which better suits you.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He served in local government for over 30 years, and has been teaching and consulting at the graduate level since 2004. He served two terms as President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected]

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