Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? As each one feels his way around an elephant, he describes something entirely different. One says the elephant is like a tree trunk. Another says it’s like a snake. And yet another describes it as a solid wall of leather. Sound familiar?
Modern teams are very much like this, in that each person has a unique perspective. Different roles and experiences mean that each person on the team sees the problem in a slightly different way. For example, when deciding what new product to launch, someone from Sales is likely to have a different set of information to bring to that decision than someone in Manufacturing. When teams can bring multiple perspectives to the table, they can evaluate what’s best with the big picture in mind, and ultimately make more robust decisions.
Unfortunately, in many groups, one side or perspective will often dominate, while others remain unexplored. Sometimes this happens because of personalities, as some team members are more reserved while others speak up more quickly. Other times this is driven by differences in status, where younger, newer or lower ranking staff members defer to those in a higher pay grade. And still other times, the imbalance can be the result of the company’s culture or history, which may have a bias toward some functions over others. For example, a company that experienced success from its low-cost and efficient operations may favor the manufacturing perspective over marketing, while an innovative start up may give more weight to Research & Development over Human Resources. Whatever the reason, when only a few voices dominate the conversation, there is a risk that important information will be missed.
There are a few things that leaders can do to make sure that multiple perspectives are taken into account during decision making:
- Explicitly create a two-part discussion, separating out an open exploration of the issue from deciding. During the open exploration, the goal is to get all of the relevant information on the table, and to explore multiple possibilities without any pressure to narrow down to a decision. Once the team has uncovered the most important information on the issue, then shift into decision making.
- Find new ways to make room in the conversation for everyone to be heard. Ask each person to keep their input relatively short so that others can build on it. The group can develop a way for members to signal one another that they are done, and ready to have their idea built on by asking, “Anyone else?”*
- Identify the different “sides” or options relating to a decision, and ask the group to work through them one at a time, identifying the benefits of each option in turn. This can be a way to keep the group from a “yes-but tug-of-war” between two sides.*
- Ask people to share not only their opinion or suggestion, but also their reasoning – Why do they think that? What are their criteria? This helps unpack the various opinions in the room, and can prevent team members from blindly riding the popular wave in agreement.
I’d love to hear what you discover as you try out these ideas with your teams. Were perspectives wildly varying, surprisingly similar, or somewhere in between? How did you use the tips above to ensure all voices were heard? What other tips do you have for bringing all of the voices into the room?
*Those of you familiar with Systems-Centered Training will recognize these tips as a version of Functional Subgrouping. Click for more on Functional Subgrouping.