Towards and Away From at “Tech X”: A Business Application of the LAB Profile

by Ralph Costantini

Overview

This article describes how the Toward / Away From model of the LAB Profile was applied as part of an overall intervention in a difficult business context.

Professionals across two locations of a technology products company were having difficulty cooperating effectively for several years. One location was 100% R&D and the other location contained mostly Business Managers.

For the past 2 years, a scarcity model was in force as evidenced by staff reductions of more than 30%, severely limited travel policies and no bonuses. Also, insufficient cultural due diligence after a string of merger acquisitions heightened a location-based “we / they” mentality.

In my experience, current US cultural biases are that: toward is good (power of positive thinking) and away from is bad . (So much for us NLP folks being wizards at language!) For this reason, I re-labeled Toward as “Goal Oriented” and Away From as “Problem Oriented”.

An initial presentation was given to the Leadership of this organization. I knew the message was landing when one leader of the business unit started laughing nervously and said, ” Am I supposed to see myself here?

The following is a written summary of that presentation. I believe the adopotion of this model had a very positive impact on the working relationships in this organization. I’ve shamelessly stolen from the work of my LAB Profile instructor, Shelly Rose Charvet (author of Words That Change Minds ). Also, this material has been modified slightly to preserve the anonymity of the organization. In this article, we’ll call the subject company TechX.

“Goal / Problem Orientation”

Model Overview

There is a model of cultural dynamics that I believe applies very well to the situation here at TechX. This model is based on the finding that people tend to favor different motivational and behavioral patterns in a certain context. These patterns have been modeled and studied in the work context. So, I’m going to describe the model, apply it to our situation and then suggest some possible actions.

“Goal / Problem Orientation” Model Description

In this model, one dimension of people’s motivational patterns in a given context is characterized as “Mostly Goal-Oriented”, “Mostly Problem-Oriented” or about “Equally Goal and Problem Oriented”. The distribution of these patterns has been studied in the context of business and is roughly as follows.

Distribution in the Context of Work – Source: Rodger Bailey


Problem-Oriented 40% Equally G&P 20% Goal-Oriented 40%

It is useful to think about this model as a continuum rather than three buckets with hard boundaries and to think in terms of where people tend to “hang out” rather than folks are categorically one way or the other. We all set goals and we all solve problems. However, some folks are more energized by goals and others by solving problems.

This Goal / Problem Orientation model is described in more detail below in terms of it’s pattern endpoints.

Goal-Oriented Pattern

People with a strong goal oriented-pattern in the context of work are:

Energized by and focused on their goals and visions

Tend to be good at managing priorities

Motivated to achieve, attain, get, have

Often they have trouble either recognizing what should be avoided or identifying problems.

Sometimes, they are perceived as na├»ve by others (especially people with a problem oriented pattern) because they don’t tend to take potential obstacles into account

Language:

Talks about goals and what they want;

Uses / responds to words: achieve, attain, obtain, include, have, get, etc.

People with this pattern will be able to hear a “problem input” much more easily if you say: “To achieve the goal, here are the actions required.”

Problem-Oriented Pattern

People with a strong problem-oriented pattern in the context of work are:

Energized by a juicy problem or a threat (e.g. the competition)

Tend to be good at pinpointing obstacles, solving problems and trouble shooting

Motivated to prevent, avoid, solve problems

Often have trouble maintaining focus on goals because they are easily distracted by and compelled to respond to problems or negative situations.

Sometimes, they can be perceived by others (especially those with a strong goal oriented pattern) as being naysayers, cynical or jaded.

Language:

Talks about problems and situations / things to avoid

Uses / responds to words: solve, prevent, avoid, eliminate, get rid of, etc.

People with this pattern will be able to more easily hear a “goal input” if you say: “Here is the problem we are trying to solve.”

Application of the Model to The TechX Situation

One relevant observation about this model is that professions appear to have cultures which tend to be inherently more goal or problem oriented. E.g.

Business leaders are often very goal-oriented focused on business vision, financial results, etc.

The Western Medical model is problem oriented; focused on curing problems (disease). Engineering cultures tend to be problem- oriented. They solve problems!

So, suppose we generalize a bit and assume that Business Managers are goal oriented and that R&D is problem oriented. (Note: we are talking about cultural proclivities here not specific individuals).

Goal oriented and Problem oriented folks in a given context have complimentary skills and abilities….And both are needed to do a project well. However, they often have trouble communicating and appreciating each other’s value.

In the extreme, the goal-oriented folks think the problem-oriented folks are naysayers and are hesitant or (worse) unwilling to get on board. The problem oriented folks think the goal oriented folks are not taking the obstacles into account or (worse) don’t even want to hear about them. In addition, the language that motivates one group is not a motivator for the other and vice-versa.
For me, this seems to fit the “TechX” situation quite well.

How does this fit for you?

All of the above is exacerbated when people don’t have sufficient face-time to build relationships. And it is further exacerbated when it is unclear what kind of conversation they are in. Is the purpose of the conversation to generate possibilities? Establish goals? Identify & solve problems?

Incredibly, Walt Disney had an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of this situation, the value each group brings and had an explicit strategy to deal with it . Disney had three distinct rooms that he used to clarify the nature of the conversation and ensure the skills of these groups were leveraged toward project success. Specifically he had: the Dream Room; a realization room and a problem room (problems and pitfalls were explicitly dealt with here). (Note: I don’t remember the exact labels for these but you get the idea). His strategy was: to have one conversation at a time; to provide a place for each set of skills to get applied to his project and to have an approach that everyone understood took all these viewpoints and skills into account. He was quite successful!
Possible Actions

The “TechX” situation has apparently existed for some time. This model seems to fit some of our observations. As useful as it is, I’m sure it’s not the whole answer, but a part of a much larger mosaic. Given that understanding, the following are some initial actions that this model informs.

Education

One action we could take is to explain this model to our staff in both locations. We could focus on the value that each pattern brings and have an explicit dialogue about how to bridge our gaps. As an organization, we need to appreciate and leverage both styles. As part of this, we could train our staff to listen more generously and how to speak in terms that will be more easily heard by others with an opposite proclivity.

Another activity that might help is to get some training and clarify expectations about meetings. It is my observation that the goals of many meetings are unstated and unclear. Knowing exactly what the purpose of the meeting is can help keep people focused on goals or on solving problems. Disney found it was more productive to tackle these one at a time.

Team Building

I also recommend some cross-location team building. In many instances, people are working with each other that have never met face to face. This would include Business Managers and R&D people at multiple levels in the organization. Top-notch facilitators with strong organizational development track records are required for success here.

Benefits of using the Goal / Problem Model

The model provides a common framework and language for understanding and talking about disconnects between the different orientations.

It can help people appreciate the value each perspective brings.

It can help people communicate more effectively. Specifically, it can help people deliver their messages in a way that can more easily be heard and they can more readily hear the messages of others.

Awareness can help each individual become more flexible and focus on the conversation at hand:

Is the conversation about establishing goals or solving problems?

Is identifying / solving all the problems we can find appropriate in the context of the situation?

Ralph Costantini has been building, leading and coaching high-performing teams of innovative technical professionals at Bell Labs (and it’s spin-off companies) for more than 18 years. He holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering, a Master of Science in Electro-Physics and the Practitioner and Master Practitioner Certifications in Neurolinguistic Programming.