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November 7, 2023

The Three Mechanisms to Move from the Danger Zone to the Winning Zone

By Gene Kim ,Dr. Steven J. Spear

This post is excerpted from Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear.

In our last post, we discussed the three layers of work in which collaborative problem-solving occurs, where people focus their attention and express their experience, training, and creativity. Layer 3 is the social circuitry: the overlay of processes, procedures, norms, and routines, the means by which individual efforts are expressed and integrated through collaboration toward a common purpose.

Leaders manage the social circuitry (Layer 3) that determines whether their organizations get dismal or great outcomes. How this circuitry is designed and operated dictates the conditions in which people can solve difficult problems, continually generate great and new ideas, and put them into impactful practice.

Danger Zone vs. Winning Zone

Certain conditions make it more difficult to solve problems or generate new and useful ideas. We call that the danger zone. Other conditions make getting good answers easier. We call that the winning zone. The danger zone and winning zone differ across five dimensions:

DimensionsDanger ZoneWinning Zone
Nature of problems.Complex problems with many highly intertwined factors. Simplified problems that are well bounded, have fewer factors, and can be addressed by smaller teams.
Hazards and risks.Dangerous and risky.Less hazardous and less costly failures.
Speed of environment in which we’re trying to solve problems.Fast moving and not controllable.Slower moving with the opportunity to control pace and introduce pauses.
Opportunities to learn by experience or experimentation.Experiences are singular or “one-off” so feedback may be missing and learning loops may not exist.Experiences can be repeated to gain experiential and experimental learning, and knowledge can be captured for recurring use.
Clarity about where and when to focus our problem-solving efforts.It is not obvious that problems are even occurring, so they get neither contained nor resolved.It is obvious when problems are occurring, so attention is given to containing and solving them; and it’s obvious whether the problems have been contained and resolved or not. 

In the danger zone, problems are complex, with many factors affecting the system at once, and their relationships are highly intertwined. Hazards are many and severe, risks of failure are high, and costs of failure can be catastrophic. Systems in the danger zone are difficult to control, and there are limited, if any, opportunities to repeat experiences, so feedback-based learning is difficult if not outright impossible. 

In contrast, leaders enable much more advantageous conditions in the winning zone. Problems have been reframed so they are simpler to address. The hazards and risks have been reduced so failures are less costly, especially during design, development, testing, and practice. Problem-solving has been shifted into slower-moving situations, where the pace of experiences can be better controlled. Opportunities to learn by experience or experimentation are increased to allow more iteration. And finally, there is much more clarity about where and when to focus problem-solving efforts, because it is obvious when problems are occurring, so attention is given to containing and solving them. 

When we leave ourselves and our colleagues in the danger zone, it becomes extremely difficult to develop and design products and services and to develop and operate systems through which we collaborate and by which we coordinate. In fact, in such conditions, given the complexity and pace of the environment, it’s often difficult to even recognize that significant problems are occurring and that they must be addressed to avert disaster.

In contrast, when we change our experiences so they happen in the winning zone, generating good answers to difficult problems is much easier, because people are better able to put their capabilities to best use. We can move ourselves from the danger zone to the winning zone using the three mechanisms of slowification, simplification, and amplification. 

The Three Mechanisms to Wire a Winning Organization

Let’s take a closer look at defining each of these mechanisms:

  • Slowification makes it easier to solve problems by pulling problem-solving out of the fast-paced and often unforgiving realm of performance (i.e., operations or execution). Instead, solve problems this in the more controllable, forgiving, lower-cost, less-demanding, and repeatable realms of planning and practice. This shifting of Layer 3 problem-solving into planning and practice allows people to engage in deliberative, reflective, experientially, and experimentally-informed reasoning rather than having to constantly react with whatever habits, routines, and legacy approaches have already been ingrained.
  • Simplification makes the problems themselves easier to solve by reshaping them. Large problems are deliberately broken down into smaller, simpler ones through a combination of three techniques: incrementalization, modularization, and linearization. By doing so, we partition complex problems with many interacting factors into many smaller problems. These problems have fewer interacting factors, making them easier to solve. Furthermore, Layer 1 (technical object) problem-solving can be done in parallel, with less need for Layer 3 coordination, increasing independence of action.
  • Amplification makes it obvious there are problems, and makes it clear whether those problems have been seen and solved. Mechanisms are built into Layer 3 (social circuitry) to amplify that little things are amiss, drawing attention to them early and often. This focuses attention on containing and resolving small and local glitches before they have a chance to become large and systemically disruptive. 

Ideally, an organization will have the latitude to do all three: slow things down to make problem-solving easier; partition big problems into smaller ones that are simpler to solve, and amplify problems so they’re addressed sooner and more often. Even if we cannot do all three, doing two or even one still brings us closer to the winning zone, making it easier for us to take situations about which we know too little and can do too little and convert them into situations in which we know enough and can do enough. 

Using the Three Mechanisms to Move from the Danger Zone to the Winning Zone

The figure below shows the danger zone in the upper right-hand corner and the winning zone in the lower left-hand corner. Slowification, which makes problem-solving easier to do, moves us from right to left. Simplification, which reformulates problems so they are easier to solve, moves us from the top to the bottom. Note the small signal symbol in the upper right-hand corner, which denotes a lack of amplification, while the larger signal symbol in the lower left-hand corner denotes high amplification.

What we have found is that in winning organizations, leaders are deliberate about ensuring that Layer 3 (social circuitry) is supportive of people’s efforts in solving Layer 1 (technical object) and Layer 2 (tools) problems. Their role is less supervisory, in the characterized fashion of directive leadership or command and control (e.g., “I say; you do” “compliance without question”). Rather, it is more supportive, continuously monitoring the conditions in which people are working and then adapting and adjusting so those conditions are most conducive to success. 

This might remind some of the concepts of servant leadership or front-line empowerment, but this is more than that. It is an emphasis on leaders actively engineering the social circuitry of their organization, so when people for whom they are responsible badge in, buzz in, and otherwise arrive to do work, they walk into situations that are constructed to be the most conducive for success.

Read more in the new book Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification by Gene Kim and Steven J. Spear.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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Dr. Steven J. Spear

Dr. Steven J. Spear (DBA MS MS) is principal for HVE LLC, the award-winning author of The High-Velocity Edge, and patent holder for the See to Solve Real Time Alert System. A Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, Dr. Spear’s work focuses on accelerating learning dynamics within organizations so that they know better and faster what to do and how to do it. This has been informed and tested in practice in multiple industries including heavy industry, high tech design, biopharm R&D, healthcare delivery and other social services, US Army rapid equipping, and US Navy readiness.

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