Have you ever had a people or productivity problem you’ve tried to resolve by swapping out the individuals involved, only to find it re-occurs once you have new players in place?
Chances are there is something else going on. That’s where the Waterline model can be extremely useful in both solving the current situation and preventing future ones.
This approach enables leaders and their teams to get beneath the surface when a people or productivity arises and then address the root cause. It’s a simple model, a good diagnostic tool and it gives everyone a common set of language that they can use to get ahead of issues instead of just solving them as they arise.
It’s Based on Research — A Lot of It
In the 1970’s, a group of management scientists set about to determine what created “people problems” in organizations. When they asked companies to send them examples of real-life people problems, they received over 5,000. They (and no doubt their hard-working research assistants) delved into each to determine its underlying cause and, once identified, categorized the cause into one of four buckets:
Bucket #1: Structural, which involves:
• Vision and clarity around expected results
• Roles and responsibilities
• Overall leadership, vision and culture
• HR structures such as feedback mechanisms, hiring, on-boarding, training
Bucket #2: Group (within a team)
• Decision-making policies by the team
• Internal communications among the team
• Accountability systems and levels among the team
• Trust and Safety felt by team members towards the team
Bucket #3: Interpersonal (between two people)
• Communication styles
• Misunderstandings and conflict
• Cultural differences
Bucket #4: Intrapersonal (within an individual)
• Skill sets and technical competencies the person brings to the job
• Stress levels they are currently experiencing
• Values and beliefs held by the individual
The Waterline Model
They called their resulting diagnostic framework the Waterline Model and illustrated it with a wavy surface on top of a body of water. Their four causal buckets were ranked in levels from shallow (Structural Bucket) to deep (Intrapersonal Bucket), as shown below:
Over 90% of what were initially thought to be “people” issues, once diagnosed, were really caused by something missing from, or insufficiently addressed, in Bucket #1: Structural or Bucket #2: Group.
So What Does This Mean for You and Your Organization?
Most organizational and team issues are due to a lack of clarity around roles and responsibility, poorly defined decision-making processes, lack of trust and accountability and insufficient or poor processes and systems.
This issues, however, tend to show as conflict between two people or with an individual who is simply showing a “bad attitude.”
So, if you think you have a “people” problem and you then try to fix it by just swapping out the problem individuals without attending to potential underlying structural deficiencies, you might well find the same issues popping back up again with their replacements.
When things go off track, get underneath the surface by taking more of a systems approach. Keep swimming (i.e. spending your time) in the top two levels of your organizational pool to get the best long-term results.
Note: I’ve developed a diagnostic worksheet based on the Waterline Model that you and your team can use to diagnose and solve your current people or productivity issues.
Because these structural issues tend to present themselves in the form of conflict and poor productivity, you will never get out of the conflict “muck”, so to speak, until you devote enough time building (and tending to) a strong structural foundation for your organization.
Structural work includes:
1. Processes and policies
2. Overall leadership, communication and clarity around expected results and decision-making
3. Company culture, hiring, on-boarding and feedback mechanisms
You’ll notice, of course, that the above are long-term, on-going campaigns. These generally aren’t “one-and-done” tasks that can be accomplished in an hour or even a day.
This means that to be an effective leader, you have to spend the majority of your time on processes and systems and less time on tasks. It also means that when things go off-track, you and your team members will need to shift away from the blame-game of pointing fingers to continual exploration and learning to get back, and stay, on the right track.
As a leader, what’s the best use of your time? Playing “whack-a-mole” with people problems or getting ahead of the drama curve with good systems, clarity and communication? This is one area where it’s good to stay shallow.
Are you or your team currently wrestling with a people or productivity issue? Share the Waterline Model with them and then download this Waterline Diagnostic worksheet to get to the bottom of it and come up with a plan to address it.