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your company is HUMAN: installment 7 – by Duke Maines

A series that addresses the natural challenges and opportunities of being a human being inside the context of organizations

No company is perfect—after all, a company is just a collection of human beings who organize themselves in some fashion to deliver a desired (or often undesired) outcome.  And, just maybe, your company isn’t as bad as you think.  Instead, it might be that the humans who work there fall prey to unconscious tendencies that inhibit professional success and personal growth.  But what if you could do something about it?

From our last installment (#6)

We provided some insight behind what companies and leaders need to do as they consider how to operate in a hybrid environment coming off the back of the pandemic.  Seriously, some good ideas here that are worth taking a look at again:

If you missed this installment (6), click here to read: installment 6

Installment 7

There was such rich content in our installment 6, we found it compelling to build on an idea that emerged from that post: collective problem-solving and decision-making.

The challenge of garnering full alignment and commitment to any decision long preceded the pandemic.  It just gets tougher in a dispersed environment.  As individuals, we have people who are smart, critical thinkers who can solve problems; after all, this is why we hire them. Collectively, however, these strengths rarely get leveraged.  In order to harness the power of collective thinking in solving problems and making decisions, a better meeting ritual must be initiated and sustained.  One that ensures that the diversity on the team is leveraged through inclusiveness so even the ‘quietest voice in the room’ can be heard.

Because human beings are TOGETHER, solving problems and making decisions to which all must align and deliver—they fall prey to all kinds of unspoken dynamics that inhibit a successful outcome.

The first of these is our natural bias going into the conversation. Even the most rational of humans are rarely objective, entering conversations with a perspective that is based on something other than working through the problem itself.  For example, our past experience in doing things will ALWAYS blind us to the possibility of doing it even better in the future.  With so little time on our hands and the pressure to impress, our brains are hard-wired to use short-cuts to make decisions instead of appreciating the new situation on its own merits.

I am reminded how my colleagues at InBev fell prey to this when making their first attempts to implement zero-based budgeting during the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch (to form ABI). When asked to make cuts, the A-B folks made an effort but fell considerably short forcing the new firm to have to unilaterally make cuts. This failure set up a situation where instead of congratulating the A-B incumbents for their initial efforts and then inspiring them to go deeper based on learning from the first round, the newly formed ABI was cast as the villain .  This approach created a somewhat adversarial situation where the A-B folks felt coerced and didn’t feel like they were on the same journey together.

The problem is exasperated in groups as each ‘player’ in the room looks to make an impact by offering sage advice on how the team can collectively move forward.  So, what can be done?  As part of the meeting ritual written in the last installment, have people declare their bias going into the conversation up front.  Someone collects these from everyone in the room and writes them down.  That way we know the ‘starting position’ of everyone.  Then, almost ceremoniously, the leader or a facilitator says “will everyone be willing to move from their position should our examination of the problem / opportunity yield a better idea?  Everyone of course nods in agreement though the facilitator (and all team members really) should keep an eye on those who attempt to defend their original position too early.

A second challenge of thinking collectively is the unspoken political game being played by EVERYONE during the conversation.  Nearly half any human’s mental energy at work is expended here, causing astronomical amounts of lost productivity.  You know the game—someone attempting to emerge as the star of the team is overly vocal and engaging in ‘smart talk’ without really considering other’s views;  a misunderstanding causing interpersonal conflict between two people creates the wrong kind of conflict as the team debates an issue; the ‘devil’s advocate’ who acts as such due to their own insecurities challenging everything, often unnecessarily; and the person that attempts to add value by taking notes / scribing on the flip chart just to visibly demonstrate their value (but often not partaking in the debate needed that can lead to a better decision).   There are so many more games being played, often unconsciously.  When observing unproductive behavior such as what is describe here, it must be called out.

Third, humans who engage in collective problem-solving rarely work the problem, digging into its root cause or considering the implications of various facts.  Instead, a good idea surfaces that just feels right (and may very well be the correct solution) and people subsequently get excited and support that decision without really knowing why.  This happens especially when someone credible—perhaps the leader—offers the idea so not only does the idea sound and feel right, it MUST be right because of who said it. This leads to a sort of of GROUPTHINK and can be quite dangerous: read up on the real issue behind the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenge many years’ ago. Instead, a common methodology for considering opportunities and/or solving problems needs to be utilized that people follow in the session, allowing people to track along with the conversation and engage productively as part of it. 

Fourth, when people actually do get to the stage of brainstorming ideas after identifying a root issue for which to solve, often groups move from one idea to another without duly considering any of them. In all the excitement to generate our own ideas, we forget to listen to others and truly think about its merits. Ideas should be written down on a flip chart or Mural wall and ultimately the ones that fit certain criteria should be acknowledged and built upon, perhaps leading to an even stronger solution. 

The challenge of inclusiveness is the fifth major issue.  Some people just don’t get a chance to be heard—for a variety of reasons.  It could be they are just not that vocal, preferring instead to listen and, in those moments when they want to speak, the spirited vocal ones just keep on talking.  Or they are not part of the privileged majority (male, white, etc.) and don’t have strong enough associations within the network that drives organizational decision-making so speaking up, especially when dissenting from the majority view, becomes a psychological challenge AND potentially, a massive career risk. Any meeting ritual must account for ensuring people get a chance to speak, are heard and ideas acknowledged and built on so as to ensure the best decision emerges from the debate.

Next: Once a decision is made in a meeting, people are not as aligned as you think.  In fact, more often than not they have a different view altogether—or, at a minimum, have a different view of what success looks like based upon the decision.  A former boss of mine once said that “once the decision appears to be made, the discussion is just getting started.”  Absent of any further dialogue will lead to fractured execution and finger pointing as “silent assassins” do their dirty work, again—and I know I say this a lot—often unconsciously and without malice. Check in with various people who appear to be aligned to the decision to find out why they are indeed supporting it.  Ask what success looks like to them, making their thoughts explicit to others.  Seek out dissenting views, especially if there have been none to this point.  Ask ‘what are two reasons why this idea (that we are about to align on) sucks?’  Pick a person to take that point of view, even if they do support it, and fight as if they didn’t.  A good decision emerges only with a real debate.  Use challenger cards (red/green) to have everyone declare their view on the decision at the end.

Lastly, there are just too many meetings in a typical workday/week.  They all sort of run together and often people cannot separate the truly important ones from the others. Some meetings require high stakes decisions and genuine alignment, and these absolutely need to be productive or there will be tons of wasted effort as people reconvene to keep discussing the decision they have already made. Some meetings require a greater sense of awareness and accountability, leading to responsibility for all to act in the manner in which they commit.  To separate out these meetings, LABEL the meeting an unusual name and be sure people are aware of its implications.  Some of our clients use the term ‘Decision & Action’ Meetings; another called their critical meetings ‘Frozen Hot Dog Moments,’ and yes, there is a great story behind that. The more unusual the name the better.

The meeting ritual

Design and implement the meeting ritual for your team and/or organization, perhaps borrowing from some of the ideas above. As human beings, we WILL fall prey to these collective thinking and alignment challenges unless this is done. 

Here is a summary of what to do:

  1. Label your high stakes, big decision meetings
  2. Ensure people come prepared with a point-of-view, declare this at the beginning of the session
  3. Use pre-reads so the meeting is really about the discussion/debate and NOT re-presenting the ideas
  4. Leverage a common tool to avoid people jumping too quickly to solutions (we use the FIR model)—“slow down to speed up.”
  5. Take note of whose point-of-view has been shared and give people the space to step into the conversation if they haven’t yet already
  6. Acknowledge and build upon ideas as you go instead of jumping from one to another
  7. Call out unproductive behavior
  8. Declare your thoughts at end by using challenger cards to weigh in

And don’t forget our tips for a hybrid meeting from the last installment.