Many years ago, when I got to the point in my work life when I found myself sitting in meetings with a General Manager, I began to notice that once the General Manager had indicated his opinion of a problem, almost everyone on the team reflexively, and I am sure unconsciously, shifted their opinions to be in the same orbit as the General Manager. The scope of the discussion seemingly as on auto pilot shrank to encompass just the General Manager’s scope of thinking.
This phenomenon should not have surprised me. The usual power dynamics in an organization would predict that this would happen. After all the boss is the boss. And, even though this particular General Manager was really interested in having a wide ranging debate, even encouraged contrary opinions, as soon as he stated his opinion of the problem, which was frequently near the beginning of the meeting, the normal reflexes of organizational life kicked into gear.
Having noted this behavior I began to try out a different approach with my own team. When we got together to discuss a problem I very carefully gave a description of the problem, then asked others to expand or correct on the description of the problem.
Build on the Group to Define and Solve Problems
Once we had that done, I asked, “Well, what do you all think we should do?” My job now was to moderate the team discussion with special attention to drawing out the more reticent members. Sometimes, I would open the discussion by asking one of the quieter people their opinion to preempt the noisier folks from setting the starting point.
Of course, being a smart guy with no shortage of ego I always had a complete plan in my mind about how we should address the issue at hand. What I discovered was that the team discussion frequently revealed that (a) my description of the problem was inadequate or simply wrong, and/or (b) my solution was also frequently off base or completely silly. The talents ofthe team really did produce better results.
In my role as meeting moderator, I would sum up the decision we had come to and lead the discussion of how to implement it. This lead to a further discovery. This process by nature created a team bond with the solution. After all they, not me, had come up with the solution. They owned it. This made implementation a far easier and more reliable process.
So, keep your mouth shut.
By the way, this process works equally well in those one on one meetings in the hallway or over the phone. Let your people think for themselves, interact vigorously, but don’t close down the discussion before it even gets going by opening your mouth.
Some readers may think that all of this is not new. That is ceretainly true. There are lots of resources, especially in the world of lean enterprise and six sigma, about how to work effectively with a team. Nevertheless, the first step for every manager is still, “Keep your mouth shut.”((1))
- the source of the Zip It! image is unknown to me – widely used on the Web – appears to have a copyright symbol – be glad to pay for use if the owner contacts me [↩]