A Field Guide to Untying Knots

Office workers of the world unite!  Just for a few minutes so we can get our act together!

Flat organizations and ad hocracy have, on the balance, helped organizations adjust to the ever-increasing speed of business.  However, they’ve also created more knots, or situations in which people with misaligned goals or approaches bring a project to a halt.

Some examples from my experience include:

  • A content tagging project that bogged down because the account manager and I didn’t interpret the second-hand instructions the same way
  • A social media production calendar that got messy because the creative team and the account team had different understandings of the approval process
  • An industry research project that went awry because the client changed the scope and the agency team never came to a consensus whether to push back or to attempt to complete the changed assignment

It hardly matters what business you work in; sure enough you will find yourself in a meeting in which the attendees all look at each other and say “well…now what?”

Here’s what.

I’ve got four basic tools that I use to untie process knots and get things moving again.

Get Everyone.

Let’s start with the hardest.  Get everyone.  EVERYONE.  That is, make sure you’ve got all the stakeholders together, preferably in the same room.  Yes, we’re all busy.  Yes, we’re all triple-booked.  However, a focused knot-untying session shouldn’t take a half-hour.  One hour, tops.  Given how much pain down the road a good session can head off, people should happily slot this in.

Of course, work being what it is these days, the stakeholders may not work in the same country, much less the same office.  Situations like these work fine with dedicated video conference platforms (the meeting room-sized ones), but will also work adequately with PC-based tools such as Skype.

Protip: promise M&Ms.  By the third meeting, your stakeholders will have a Pavlovian response.


Did I mention the room should have an easel pad or a whiteboard?  Well, it should.

You don’t need Bob Ross-quality art skills.  You don’t need to produce graphics for an Edward Tufte course.  You just need to be able to get ideas onto paper.  You might need only list the issues the team is facing.  Or you might simply need to outline all the steps that everyone needs to take in the right order.

Visualizing the problem has two benefits for the group:

  1. Everyone is literally on the same page.  Or whiteboard.
  2. It requires articulating ideas.  Trivial as it may seem, simply saying something out loud forces the speaker to hear herself talk.  Y’know the millennial joke “Oh, I hear it now?”  That.

It may take some practice to make the most of visualization.  However, start with simple cues like arrows to describe a linear process or a calendar to indicate total time.  If all else fails, just start putting stuff on paper and put it into order.  Any order.  Take it from there.


Lots of knots stem from simple misunderstandings.  The visualization ideas I listed above start to get at them.  Use your own meeting skills to get at other misunderstandings.  Make sure that every participant in the meeting understands all the terms on the paper.  Don’t assume they’ll speak up; engage every stakeholder to determine if they understand.

By way of a meta-example, I once ran a meeting at Bloomberg to help marketing managers coordinate their initiatives around regulations rolling out across three major markets: the US (Dodd Frank Act), UK (EMIR) and Singapore (SFR).  The project had reached a knot on its own, so I tried to untie it.

As part of the visualization process, I created a grid with columns for each of the the regulations.  For Dodd Frank, I wrote “D-F.”

The meeting all but ground to a halt.  “What the hell is ‘D dash F?'”

“Um, Dodd Frank?”

“Oh,” someone said,  “DFA.”  It seemed obvious to me, but my abbreviation didn’t jibe with the common one, so I corrected it to keep everyone focused.  I’ve seen plenty of teams get out of step because two people or groups used different terms for the same thing.

Find common ground.

So far, my tips have addressed simple or not-so-simple misunderstandings.  Visualization and clarification don’t usually cause any trouble when everyone has the same basic goals in mind.  However, what happens when they don’t?

This is where you really earn your M&Ms.

Sometimes, different stakeholders have different goals that simply don’t align.  Situations like these require retying after untying.  I can’t say that I have a script that gets everyone to hold hands and sing “We Are Family.”  However, I have a few ideas to offer:

  • Get the stakeholders to articulate their goals.  As with the visualization exercise above, simply speaking them out loud forces the speakers to think about them.  Moreover, stakeholders may not know each others’ goals.  Get it all out in the open.
  • Call out similarities and differences in goals.  You can’t resolve problems unless you can acknowledge them and, at the same time, emphasize points of agreement.
  • Use overall business and/or corporate goals as an arbiter in case of conflicts.  Which stakeholder’s goal aligns closest to the firm’s overall goals?
  • Be nice.  As a mediator/moderator, acting nice will encourage the stakeholders to do the same.

Agree on findings and move on

Finally, it makes sense to ensure that everyone got the same thing out of the meeting.  Where possible, outline next steps for untying the knot and assign stakeholders to complete them.  Otherwise, you’re going to need another one of these meetings sooner than you’d like.

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