Solutions for Family Business Problems:
Five Questions to Ask
by Jane Hilburt-Davis
The ability to think and act systemically is critical when
working in and with family businesses. Systems theories have
originated in several disciplines including mathematics, anthropology,
physics, and social psychology, among others. Failure to understand
and apply systems concepts is a real competitive disadvantage
for family businesses and the professionals who serve them.
- prevents confusing the symptom with the problem
- provides a crucial link for integrating the family relationship
and business strategies
- builds on what is healthy in both the family and the business
- uses "high leverage" points for positive lasting
- suggests dynamic and creative ways to deal with obstacles.
By asking the following questions when faced with a problem
in the family and/or business arena, you can begin to think
in systems terms. If you cannot answer these questions, you
risk working with incomplete data and making the problem even
(1) What is the real problem?
Very often what people describe as the problem is only the
symptom. Worded another way: presented problems are rarely
the real issue. And, if you focus on the symptom without uncovering
the real problem, you are wasting your time and are bound
to fail. A doctor does not only treat the rash, but conducts
a series of tests to find out what is causing it. That is
exactly what you must do with a presenting problem in the
family business system.
To get beyond treatment of the symptom, take a series of
steps to uncover the real problem. These steps include hearing
all sides of the story, getting family members to talk together
in a safe, structured and neutral setting, and keeping all
options open. The focus for treatment is the underlying structure,
the patterns of communication, and conflict management. The
goal is to strengthen the system to help it solve its own
problems, and improve the bottom line.
(2) How long has this problem existed?
Problems manifest themselves in three ways: (a) same old
stuff; (b) something brand new; and (3) same old stuff in
a new package. If the symptom has persisted for a long time,
it reflects a deeper problem embedded in the system. It cannot
be dealt with until the underlying patterns and structures
that produce it are carefully considered and addressed. If
the symptom is new, with a short history, deal with it first.
In short, thinking systemically requires an appreciation of
behavior patterns over time and across generations.
(3) Is the problem related to some "unfinished business"?
All living systems, including individuals, families, and
businesses, go through life cycles and crises. Each stage
in the life cycle of a business and of a family requires certain
tasks; each crisis requires increased communication and effective
action plans for the family and the business to grow and move
forward. The term used by systems consultants is homeostasis
when referring to a system's ability to stay balanced, while
also being able to respond to an ever-changing environment.
All too often problems are the result of avoiding the communication
and tasks that are necessary to move to the next stage. Each
change in a system produces disruptions in patterns. If emotional
processes aren't managed during such disruptions, the negative
effects may be felt over time and over many generations.
(4) Where is the most energy for change?
Energy in systems terms implies possibilities for change.
Two things to discuss: How does the energy present itself
and what does it look like? It can come in many forms-anger,
excitement, frustration, enthusiasm, pain, or a combination.
Where is the energy located? It can be in a person of authority,
formal or informal, in a subordinate, in an alliance among
members of the family business system. Your chances for success
are obviously greater if the energy for change is with a person
in a position of formal authority. Often, however, with succession
issues, the motivation for change is in the succeeding generation,
which is highly motivated and without much formal authority.
Understanding how the whole system works and appreciating
the concept of leverage can help you or your client use tools
to create changes that are positive for the family and the
business and get a "buy in" from both
and the business and get a "buy in" from both generations.
(5) Does the problem serve a function? If so, what is it?
Problems often play important roles in systems. A classic
example is "scapegoating" or "dumping"
problems onto a person or group of people. Usually, if one
person or group is frequently blamed, the first question to
ask is does he/she deserve this. If the answer is "yes",
then the work is with that person. If the answer is "no",
then the work is with the system. Then ask: what would happen
if the scapegoat were fired or cut off from the family? Would
the problems remain? There are many reasons for scapegoating
but the most common in family business systems are unresolved
conflicts, work avoidance, and denial of important business
decisions to be made. In short, the question becomes "who
can we blame" rather than "how can we fix this?"
Problems are powerful forces in systems and can play a useful,
if sometimes destructive, role. Do your homework. Be prepared
for the fallout if the problem is removed without repairing
the underlying structure.
In sum, problems often don't get the respect they deserve.
They usually play important roles in families and in the work
place and are windows into solutions. Ask these critical questions,
before you rush in to fix things.
<< Back to Resources