See-read-act: exploring a conceptual framework for understanding executive problem recognition
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The purpose of this study was to explore the conceptual framework – See, Read, Act – as a process for explaining the problem-recognition process used by leaders of organizations. There is considerable research concerning leadership, leadership development, and problem solving – especially problem solving within the context of a formal organization. However, there is little research on whether organizational leaders solve problems using the same processes learned as they move up through the organization, and there is strong evidence suggesting that traditional problem solving processes do not align well with executive roles. Additionally, there is little research on how problems are recognized, especially those problems that emerge at the edge of the organization, or complex social problems. This research used a case-study/phenomenological approach to explore how the leaders of one large property development company recognized, understood, and acted on (See, Read, Act) problems affecting their organization. The study approach was grounded in Systems Theory and used the four major foci of systems theory – context, valid information, relationships, and shared meaning – to shape the description of the case organization, and the analysis of the data. Data was collected from the case organization through interviews, public and private documents, and observation. The author’s intent is that this study adds value to the leadership development body of knowledge and contributes to a better understanding of leadership and how leaders recognize problems. To that end the research focused on three research questions: 1. What strategies do the CEO, the executive staff, and other stakeholders of the organization employ in recognizing potential problems (threats, opportunities, or influencers) to their organization? 2. Are there distinct patterns or hierarchies of problem-recognition strategies based on situations used by the organization’s executive staff? 3. What type of decision making do the CEO, the executive staff, and other stakeholders use when recognizing and solving complex social problems? The results of the data analysis of the first question produced a matrix for identifying specific strategies used by the study participants for identifying potential problems. The matrix utilized the four main foci of systems theory – context, valid information, relationships, and shared meaning – and the first two aspects of the SeeRead-Act model. The problem-recognition matrix provides an explanation for each specific combination of systems theory focus and either See or Read. The analysis of the data also provided a better understanding of each of the systems theory foci. The four foci are closely related to each other, and changes in focus affected the other foci. Context is more completely defined by understanding that individual agents can influence the context through challenging or questioning the existing context. Agent challenges can come from comparing current context to previous experiences in other context, or comparing current context to past context within the same organization. For information to be valid, it must be shared with agents who are able to apply the information to the current context of the organization. Information that is compartmentalized (i.e., not shared) is not validated and is also not used in problem recognition or for problem solution. The challenge of compartmentalization is also problematic for relationships. When relationships are constrained through an organization’s hierarchy, information flow/sharing is also constrained and problem recognition is limited to intact work groups. The See-Read-Act model was also defined better through the analysis process. The data indicates that part of the process for recognizing problems is based on being able to first identify or See a potential problem, understand or Read the problem, have the opportunity to See the problem again from a different perspective, Read the problem again from the new perspective, and then continue moving back and forth through See-Read until a shared dissonance is achieved. The second research question asked whether there are distinct patterns or hierarchies of problem-recognition strategies based on situations used by the organization’s executive staff. The analysis of the data suggests that there is not a specific hierarchy, but there do seem to be preferred strategies for recognizing problems. An examination of participants’ descriptions of when they recognized a problem suggested that they have a preferred systems theory focus that they use for identifying problems. Those participants who used multiple foci for recognizing problems were clearer in their description of the potential problem. The third research question asked what type of decision making the CEO, the executive staff, and other stakeholders use when recognizing and solving complex social problems, and when they engage in decision making. An analysis of the data did not find a clear answer to this question. The participants for this study did not discuss any problems as being social problems. From their perspective the problems they were dealing with where all “obviously” organizational problems and a part of the organization. When an organization is examined through a systems theory perspective, any problem faced by the organization is in some way directly linked to the organization. From a systems theory perspective, the edge of the system is always fuzzy and moving. A problem that initially appears outside of the organization but is seen by the organization will soon become a part of the organization, when the organization elects to address it. This study produced several important results; however, the most important is the concept of dissonance and the relationship of systems theory and strange attractors to problem recognition. The idea that agent dissonance provides the initial energy for a potential problem becoming defined as an opportunity or a threat to the organization, and the idea that that same dissonance can become the catalyst for generating strange attractors, are new concepts in systems theory. The results of this experimental study are preliminary; however, they lay the groundwork for more detailed studies of problem recognition, leader decisionmaking, and systems theory. These results are also important in helping to point out the lack of substantial research available on the executive behavior of problem recognition, especially as seen through the lenses of systems theory.