We recently led a series of breakout sessions at an annual conference. The conference was put on by a fast-growing bakery franchise. In attendance were bakery owners and corporate support staff. During the breakout sessions we taught the bakery owners how to use the SCAN Framework (Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs) to tackle challenging problems.
Most people using SCAN have an intuitive grasp of the structures, the context, and the needs influencing their situation. Assumptions are harder to access. Shared beliefs and mindsets form our operating systems, but like a computer’s operating system, most of us don’t know what it’s doing or how it works until something goes wrong or it’s time for a big change.
The company’s bakeries are known for their unique, high-quality, hand-crafted cakes. They think about the purpose of their business as bringing joy. They promote their cakes as the centerpiece of celebrations. They have a cult-like following of people who rave about experiencing their first bite of cake.
To help the bakery owners become more aware of their assumptions, I asked them to react to a terrible idea. I suggested that they box up their most popular recipes in cake-mix form and put them on grocery store shelves next to the Betty Crocker cake mixes. Lucky for me, I prepared them to be offended by the idea. When I asked them to explain what makes the idea terrible, we started to hear more about their assumptions:
People count on us for a consistent, fresh-baked product.
Our guests love the variety of choices we offer.
Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake. You can’t do it at home.
Visiting our bakeries is a joyful experience and essential to our brand.
The purpose of the exercise is not to abandon assumptions. The purpose is to become more aware of our assumptions. When you’re aware of your assumptions, you can have more productive discussions about controversial ideas. Controversial ideas are provocative precisely because they challenge our assumptions. Adopting a provocative idea often means letting go of something predictable and comforting.
In our experience, organizations don’t suffer from a lack good ideas. In organizational settings, good ideas face two common obstacles. First, the best ideas may never get in front of the people with the authority to enact them. Secondly, new ideas rarely survive their first encounter with the status quo. Assumptions and mindsets protect the status quo.
Becoming aware of shared organizational assumptions will help you anticipate the change-management implications of adopting a provocative idea. For example, to support the growth of the bakery company, there will inevitably be pressure to streamline operations. At some point, an idea to increase efficiency will bump up against the assumption: Only high-quality ingredients prepared by hand and using our methods will produce the cake.
How to use a Terrible Idea to Uncover Hidden Assumptions
Let’s say you feel stuck. The ideas you have look great on paper and you’ve been given the green light to implement them. And yet, you repeatedly experience setbacks as you try to turn your ideas into meaningful change.
Set aside the good ideas and bring together a team.
invite them to brainstorm terrible ideas. Ideas that are guaranteed to produce a visceral, negative reaction from your stakeholders. By the way, your team will find it liberating and fun to produce a list of dangerous ideas.
Rank the ideas to find the best of the worst. When prioritizing the list of ideas, the most useful, terrible ideas will be the ones that are plausible, but feel unsettling. For example, imagine recommending to the senior team of Disney’s Theme Parks that they open a Disney casino in Las Vegas. Useful terrible ideas will take the organization in a new direction, not just offer a bad change to an existing way of doing business. For example, suggesting that McDonald’s become a wireless network operator is a more useful terrible idea than suggesting that McDonald’s serve their food on fine China.
Finally, facilitate a discussion about why the most terrible ideas evoke an emotional reaction.
Once you clarify the hidden assumptions that seem to create a gravitational field that holds things in place, you’ll have a better understanding of why your new ideas won’t take. You may also uncover some ancient assumptions that are somehow still in play, but no longer feel relevant.
Team leaders want meetings to end with agreements that lead to concerted action. Much of the advice on team meetings is about how to create alignment. The assumption being, if we agree in the meeting then we’ll act on our agreements after the meeting.
What Really Happens
We know from experience that the vigorous head nods at the end of a discussion don’t always produce the outcomes we appeared to want. In fact, we’re often so relieved to see the head nods, we don’t bother to confirm what people are really thinking when they seem to agree. Here are few possible interpretations of a nodding head:
This is a good plan. I’m ready to make it happen.
I can live with this idea, but don’t expect me to make it a priority.
This will never work, but I’m not going to derail the meeting.
If we all nod, the meeting will end.
What can a team leader do to increase the odds that apparent agreement will turn into productive activity?
The CADA Framework describes four distinct team conversations once a proposed course of action has been presented or developed. In each conversation, the team adopts a specific attitude.
The team agrees to set aside its reactions and judgments about the proposal. The team asks questions about the basis for the proposal and the implications of acting on the proposal. For example:
What information sources were used to shape the proposal?
Who will be impacted by adopting the proposal? How might they react?
How will we know it’s working?
The team makes distinctions between facts and opinions about the proposal. The team asks questions about the risks and benefits of the proposal. For example:
What are the pros and cons of the proposal?
What options were rejected? Why were they rejected?
Given the risks, are we better off doing nothing? If we move forward, how will determine the most appropriate implementation timing?
The team reaches a conclusion based on their role in making the final decision. The team asks questions about their level of commitment. For example:
Who else will need to weigh in before we can act on this decision? What are their thoughts?
How will we talk about the decision to stakeholders?
What do each of us need to feel better about any aspect of the proposal we have doubts about?
The team comes to trust that we will each make good on our commitments. The team asks questions about dealing with next steps and obstacles. For example:
What will we do next to move things along?
What barriers to successful implementation do we anticipate and how will we deal with them?
How will we share with each other information about what’s working and what we’ve learned?
The key to using the CADA Framework successfully is ensuring that everyone is in the same conversation at the same time. For example, don’t allow people to get analytical when giving the team time and space to be curious.
We feel relieved when we align on something. Sometimes we feel worn out by the effort required to find consensus. When possible, you may want to follow up an alignment meeting with a separate CADA session when people are fresh, and they have been able to reflect on their conclusions before discussing implementation.
Data and information are essential to solving problems well. Data and information are abundant these days. So why do we feel less able to figure things out and less confident about knowing what to do?
Too Much of a Good Thing
Part of the problem is that we have too much of a good thing. At all times and in all places, Information and data are effortlessly accessible. We are conditioned to prioritize incoming alerts and breaking news. We are awash in information, most of it unsatisfying. It’s hard to quench your thirst if you’re trying to drink from a firehose.
First, a working definition to help us differentiate data from information. Think of data as the unorganized facts and figures we detect with our various tools and measuring devices. Information is what you get when someone processes, structures, organizes, or otherwise interprets the data. 75248 is a number, it is data. When 75248 is recognized as a Zip Code, the data becomes information.
A Better Solution
One solution to the too-much-of-a-good-thing problem is to collect less data. A better solution is to learn how to transform abundant data into insightful information. Insights help you solve problems, but insights are hidden. Insightful information is better than obvious information in the same way that an x-ray image of a painful shoulder is better than a visual examination of a painful shoulder.
Better, more insightful information helps in four ways
It helps you avoid solving the wrong problem
It reduces the risk of missing something important
It generates unconventional options
It ensures that previously excluded perspectives are seen, heard, and valued
Solving problems is about changing situations. If you want to change a dissatisfying situation, you can think of your challenge as a tug-of-war between the forces holding things in place and the forces motivating change. Kurt Lewin first developed this way of thinking about problem-solving in the 1940s; he called it, “Force-field analysis.”
SCAN for Insights
At Unstuck Minds, we think of our SCAN model as a simplified version of Lewin’s force-field analysis. SCAN stands for Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs. Structures can be thought of as the ways we currently do things. Context can be thought of as what’s going on in the external environment. Assumptions can be thought of as our unquestioned beliefs. Needs can be thought of as the desires, concerns, and perspectives of people we should include.
To make it easier to identify the Lewin’s force-field elements, SCAN is made up of two dimensions that focus on restraining forces and two dimensions that focus on driving forces. Structures and Assumptions on the left side of the model tend to keep things stable and preserve the status quo. Context and Needs, on the right side of the model tend to introduce destabilizing changes.
How to Uncover Insights
Let’s say you’re an executive who has formed a team to tackle a thorny organizational problem. You fear that after the team has spent a lot of time researching and organizing their findings, you’ll be left with voluminous information, very few insights, and no clear point-of-view or recommended path forward.
Instead of waiting to see what the team comes up with, request that they organize their presentation based on the SCAN framework:
Structures: What are we currently doing that will make it hard for us to implement an improvement?
Context: What is changing in the environment that requires a response or provides an opportunity?
Assumptions: What unquestioned beliefs about our situation are worth challenging?
Needs: Who should we include in our thinking and planning; what matters to them and what do they think?
Now What?: What insights and options emerged from your work and where should we focus our resources and efforts?
It seems counterintuitive to seek more information as a solution to the problem of information overload. But learning to form insights helps us manage the data and control the aperture of our attention. With practice, SCAN helps us see past the uninvited information to the hidden insights and options unavailable to the overwhelmed mind.
When you’re stuck, you need insights and options. Insights help you see your situation in new ways. Options help you restore confidence and momentum.
The Metal Detector versus the Vacuum Cleaner
We never get complete data about the world around us. Even though our senses constantly interact with information about the world, we can only pay attention to a fraction of the available data. At this moment, clothing, a chair, the floor, perhaps a device you’re holding all create sensations. Until this sentence redirected your attention, it’s unlikely you noticed the sensory data available to your skin.
We imagine that we move through the world like a vacuum cleaner picking up all the information in our path. In reality, we operate more like a metal detector. We are programmed to notice some things, and we sweep past a lot of other things that just don’t register. Some of the things we don’t notice might become the source of the insights and options we need.
Remember that moment in the original Matrix movie when Keanu Reeves sees the Matrix? Reeve’s character Neo learns to perceive his world as cascading ribbons of glowing binary code. The true complexities of the matrix are revealed. Neo gets transcendently kissed, pummels Agent Smith with one hand behind his back, and rocks a pair of iconic sunglasses. Using the SCAN tool is less dramatic. On the plus side, you don’t have to be ‘The One’ to take advantage of disregarded or overlooked information.
SCAN stands for: Structures, Context, Assumptions, and Needs
Structures are the systems, processes, norms, and routines that define the environment in which we operate. Meeting norms and incentive systems are examples of structures.
Context describes the environmental factors outside the boundaries of our daily activities and responsibilities. New technologies and governmental regulations are examples of context.
Assumptions are the underlying beliefs of the individuals who want to make a change. Unspoken beliefs that our solution must be cost-neutral or that we can’t alter the manufacturing process are examples of assumptions.
Needs represent the underlying desires and motivations of people who might play an influential role in changing things for the better. A desire on the part of new-hires to have more autonomy at work or a growing preference among customers to do business with socially responsible organizations are examples of needs.
In the image below you see the four elements of SCAN represented as quadrants along two dimensions. Structures and Context provide information about the environment in which we operate. Assumptions and Needs provide information about the mindsets and motivations of people connected to our situation.
The horizontal dimension differentiates between elements that we can influence and elements that we can’t influence but may potentially influence us. We have the ability to change our structures and our assumptions. On the other hand, changes in our context and the needs of others happen without our intervention.
For example, our context now includes greater political and media attention on issues of racial justice. Heightened needs for fairness and equity have become a priority. The external influence of context and needs are bumping up against longstanding organizational assumptions about who deserves power and authority. Many organizations are beginning to reimagine their hiring, performance management, and promotions structures.
SCAN can help you avoid being blindsided by external forces that disrupt the status quo. When leaders and their teams routinely SCAN for insights and options, they notice opportunities sooner and become more adaptable to change.
The other important thing to notice about the horizontal axis is that the things we can influence (Structures and Assumptions) are precisely the things that maintain stability. It’s more comfortable to preserve the status quo and operate according to our habits and routines. Stability makes it easier to scale up. Stability makes it easier to orient and train new-hires. When we maintain assumptions and structures, we can make improvements through efficiency and productivity. But, as the world continues to become more complex, uncertain, and turbulent, stability creates dysfunction by keeping things the same when what’s needed is change.
The things we can’t influence (Context and Needs) are precisely the things that create opportunity. Options and possibilities emerge from changes in society, technology, regulations, scientific discoveries, and generational priorities. We can look to what’s changing in society and the marketplace for a new way forward. At the same time, the pursuit of opportunities creates instability that can feel risky or threatening.
Let’s have a look at how the SCAN tool might help us think differently about a common challenge facing today’s organizational leaders.
Using SCAN to Improve Online Team Meetings
Keep in mind that conducting a SCAN does not give you an answer. Revealing hidden complexities is about widening the search area to increase the odds of discovering insights and options.
Suppose like a lot of leaders these days, you’re struggling to keep your distributed team engaged during virtual team meetings. You’ve made a few attempts at switching up the meeting processes, but things haven’t improved. You can tell that people are bored or distracted. You suspect that they are multi-tasking, or perhaps sending private, unhelpful chat comments to one another.
Insights and options will continue to be elusive unless you’re willing to think through the hidden complexities. It’s likely that some unexamined habits carried over from the weekly face-to-face update meetings need to change (Structure). There are probably new software applications and ways of working being introduced that you haven’t explored (Context). Perhaps some deeply held beliefs about meetings need to be challenged (Assumptions). Finally, investigating with empathy what really matters to people might help you figure out whether or not team meetings serve those who attend (Needs). The image below captures questions worth discussing with the team related to each dimension of SCAN.
Like many young adults with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, my first job after graduation was in a restaurant. It wasn’t the profession my mother had in mind for me, but I enjoyed restaurant work. When I eventually became the General Manager of a restaurant, I never felt bored or unchallenged. There’s something very satisfying about ending each day with a sense of accomplishment. Hungry, sometimes cranky people came in, we fed them, helped them relax, gave them time and space to enjoy the company of their friends and family, and then they went home.
Repeat that process for a bunch of people and everyone is happy. Of course, when a lot of hungry people show up at roughly the same time, restaurant management boils down to two activities, preventing disasters and recovering from disasters. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember seeing plate spinners on variety TV shows. Check out this YouTube clip of Erich Brenn’s performance on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re inspired by what you see, restaurant management might be a good career choice.
In a restaurant the lunch rush and the dinner rush are times of focused activity, thinking on your feet, urgent problem-solving, and frequent interactions. In the afternoon between lunch and dinner, the rhythm of work abruptly shifts. Between meal periods the manager plans, completes paperwork, and meets with staff or suppliers. I always found the time between the rush of the meal periods to be disorienting. I was addicted to the constant demands on my time that came from meeting other people’s needs. When I sat at my desk after lunch and before dinner, my needs (as opposed to the demands of others) dictated how I spent time. I’d be processing invoices, but I’d keep looking up to see if someone wanted me. I’d get up from my desk and pace around the restaurant hoping to be distracted by something that needed my urgent attention. I had more control over my time, but secretly I didn’t want it.
There are two problems with posing the question, “How do I
get more control of my time?” First, it’s not your time, so you can’t control
it. Secondly, you might not really want to control it.
It’s not “your” time
As I’ve noted before, we often get caught in thinking traps by the way we frame our questions. I refer to questions that limit, misdirect or place blame as “quicksand questions.” The harder we try to work the question, the more stuck we become. One issue with the question, “how do I get control of my time?” is that it assumes I have the ability to manage how I spend my time. It assumes that I can somehow make choices about my time without considering how other people I interact with manage their time. In reality, everyone who needs to interact is a free agent in a system of interrelationships. When I make a choice about how to manage my time, it impacts the choices other people have about managing their time, and vice versa. I can’t control my time any more than I can control my commute in rush hour traffic.
You might not want to control your time
You think you want to control your time, but just like when I was a restaurant manager, you may find that you miss the familiar pattern of reacting to demands. Having blocks of unstructured time can be scary. We’re suckers for the devices that we habitually check. We have a love/hate relationship with the tsunami of images, video and text incessantly pushed to us. When the flow of distractions gets interrupted unexpectedly, even for a minute, we don’t feel relieved, we panic or feel immediately bored. The more options we have for filling our time, the less capable we are of turning free time into productive time.
A better question and one daring solution
If thinking about “getting control” of your time doesn’t generate new and useful solutions, how else might you reframe the dilemma of feeling overwhelmed by the demands on your time? First, I would ask myself, “who places the most predictable and frequent claims on my time?” (If you have infants or young children at home or you are another form of caregiver, you are answering a higher calling. Unfortunately, the next suggestion won’t help you). Secondly, I would meet with those who want my time so that we could jointly answer the question, “what agreements can we put in place about how and when we reach out to each other to meet routine needs?”
Let me give you an example of an agreement you might make with your team and your manager. Consider a protocol around sending and receiving emails and meeting invitations. For knowledge workers, communicating and interacting fill our days. Try setting a permanent, automatic out-of-office message on your email application that reads:
Thank you for contacting me. I check my email in the morning between 7 and 8 and in the afternoon between 4 and 5. If you have an urgent matter that requires my attention please call me or stop by my office. If you’re inviting me to a meeting, please include the purpose and desired outcomes of the meeting in the invitation so that I can productively contribute when I attend.
Now, imagine what you might be doing between 8am and 4pm
other than responding to emails and attending poorly planned meetings. Still
want control of your time?
The story goes that my parents met with my sixth grade science teacher during a school open house and when they asked him how I was doing in class, he told them, “Well, you know what we say about Jay; often wrong, but never in doubt.” I will never know for sure what happened during the open house because my mother always opted for the version of any event that made for the better story.
During a dinner party shortly after the visit with the science teacher, she shared the comment with Dora and Bernie Jacobs, friends of my parents that I had known my whole life. After hearing the story, Bernie dubbed me with the nickname, “Often.” Forty-odd years after that parent-teacher conference, I told the story to Nancy Southern, the chair of my dissertation committee. She seemed to enjoy the punch line a little too much. “Still?” I remember thinking to myself, “I’m still an insufferable know-it-all?”
After trying out several colleges and even more majors, I stumbled upon philosophy. I felt strangely secure amidst the constant state of philosophical uncertainty. Come to think of it, maybe I was so committed to never being wrong that I eagerly embraced a discipline in which nobody was ever right. I loved being part of a community of people who argued in order to make ideas more beautiful and unassailable. I became a contradiction in terms, a devout doubter. I concluded that what others saw in me as a lack of doubt, I saw as unwillingness to accept ideas at face value.
I loved studying philosophy, but I dreaded coming home on breaks and talking to adults who wanted to ask me about school.
Jacobs: What are you studying in school?
Jacobs: What are going to do with that?
I would usually come up with some jokey deflection to mask my true feelings about being asked, “What are you going to do with that?” “I’ll open a philosophy shop,” I would say. Or, “I’ll go into foodservice like everybody else with a liberal arts degree.” By the way, I did actually go into foodservice although I feel like the phrase, “I went into foodservice” overstates the situation. I got a job washing dishes; twenty years later I headed a corporate training and development department for a chain of casual theme restaurants. I guess you could say that foodservice got into me.
Dora Jacobs, with her perfectly reasonable yet irritating question about what I would do with a degree in philosophy is in good company. For years, the quickest way to undermine my credibility with colleagues and clients was to mention my undergraduate degree. I offer in evidence Episode 5 of Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series, “Newsroom.” In one scene, the Director of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by the archetypically avuncular Sam Waterston is having a conversation in his office with an old naval intelligence buddy named Shep. Shep asks after Charlie’s daughter:
She’s in Amherst.
What’s she majoring in?
do you do with a philosophy degree?
It takes all the energy I have not to ask that question at Thanksgiving
Et tu, Aaron Sorkin?
It has taken me years to recognize that I avoided answering the question, because I felt insulted by the presumption that learning is a means to an end. Learning, like humanity vis-à-vis Kant’s Categorical Imperative, is for me an end in itself. (Hah! Take that Dora Jacobs).
Training in philosophy is like training to be a miner. Students of philosophy learn to recognize rich veins of inquiry and use the tools of the trade to open them up and assess their worth. We spend most of our time in the dark and below the surface. The sane ones come up to the surface and return to friends and family between shifts. The lost ones confuse the mine for reality. If you think I’m being overly critical of a noble academic discipline, consider that both Socrates and Wittgenstein likened philosophers to flies. The former thought of philosophers as gadflies to the state, the latter claimed that the aim of philosophy is to “show the fly the way out of the bottle.”
Because I had supported myself with foodservice work in college, I was able to parlay my sorting skills (thoughts and silverware) into a job as a restaurant manager. For me, the way out of the bottle was busyness. When hungry customers are lining up at the door, when servers and cooks are squabbling in the kitchen, and when bartenders are running out of clean glassware, the manager has no time to ponder the ethics of serving meat or whether alcohol influences the nature of truth. Eventually, somebody with authority decided that I was hardworking and thoughtful and rewarded me with a promotion to the corporate office. I now had my first office job. A job that involved running around less and thinking more. I was being lured back into the bottle.
Early in my corporate career, I received a performance review warning me that I was developing a reputation for being “quodlibetic.” Seriously, my boss included the word, “quodlibetic” in my performance appraisal. According to the Merriam Webster on-line dictionary, the word, “quodlibetic” means consisting or of the nature of a quodlibet: purely academic; also: characterized by or fond of academic discussion. I imagine my old boss wearing out a thesaurus to find a way to gently criticize me for derailing conversations with impractical questions and quibbling over inconsistencies in the way my co-workers expressed their ideas. I understood the feedback, but secretly I took it as a compliment.
Several years and a few promotions later I found myself working in an even larger corporate office for an even larger foodservice company. As a team leader, I was invited to attend a leadership development workshop led by an upbeat and inspiring woman named Linda Dunkel. Linda led us through a transformative three-day workshop called Facilitative Leadership®, a workshop designed by a Boston-based consulting and training company called, Interaction Associates. The moment Linda referenced Aristotle’s Rhetoric during a lesson on how to share an inspiring vision, I should have known that I would end up working for Interaction Associates.
Which brings me to the plot twist and the reason for this post. After nearly twenty years as a consultant with Interaction Associates, and more than thirty years after getting my undergraduate degree, it turns out that the world sorely needs philosophers. Specifically, the world needs leaders and citizens with thinking skills designed for conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. In fact, I would argue that the global ascendency of nationalism represents an inability to adapt when one’s worldview is challenged. If nothing else, training in philosophy prepares you to question world-views, including your own. It may be comforting to hold on to assumptions that no longer serve us, especially assumptions that shape our identity. Unfortunately, comfort holds us back; comfort settles for the status quo. The faster things change, the more tempting it becomes to blame change rather than blame our capacity to adapt. Without the ability to pause temporarily for philosophically detached reflection, we end up with rising levels of anxiety and divisiveness.
In the Fifteenth Century, it was reasonable to think that our Sun circles a flat Earth because that was how it seemed. The answers and knowledge of the Fifteenth Century comforted our ancestors, but also kept them stuck in their ways. Leaps of progress are not born of answers; transformative progress results from changing the questions. As questions improve, answers lose their footing, which clears the way for better questions. Before Newton, “Why does the apple fall to the ground?” was the best form of the question. After Newton, the question became, “Why do objects like the Earth and an apple attract one another?” After Einstein, the question became, “How does the Earth’s warping of space-time and the apple’s warping of space-time explain the two objects getting closer to one another?” As we continue to explore and learn about the universe at very large and very small scales, new insights and hypotheses arise that continue to shape the way we pose the question. Some theoretical physicists studying “dark matter” and “dark energy,” conclude that the phenomenon we describe as “gravity” is an illusion in the same way that the phenomenon we experience as “temperature” becomes meaningless at the microscopic level.
Until schools stop shoveling test answers into the heads of our children in the name of learning, we will have to reacquaint adults with the curiosity that came naturally to them as kids. When we become skilled at asking better questions, better questions will feel less scary and more practical. As a starting point, consider inviting a philosophy major to your next meeting.
Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.
My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.
Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.
Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.
A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).
Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.
While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.
“That staff meeting was the best part of my day,” said no one ever.
People in organizations endure staff meetings and status update meetings everyday. Of all the dreaded rituals of organizational life, update meetings seem to be the most impervious to change. Staff meetings, task-force meetings, and information sharing meetings according to one study of meetings in America, make up 88% of all meetings. Over 33% of the time spent in meetings is considered, “unproductive” by participants.
We’re not suffering from a lack of effective meeting practices. The founder of the consulting firm where I work, Interaction Associates literally wrote the book on how to make meetings work in 1976.
We’ve known for years how to fix bad meetings, yet we don’t.
I have a theory that partially explains why we allow ourselves to be tortured by bad update meetings and I have a simple suggestion, in the form of a question, for making them better.
Team leaders and functional leaders who generally convene the update meetings are getting their needs met at the expense of all the other participants. If you lead a group and need to know what is happening so that you can anticipate problems, allocate resources or reassure others that you are in control, the most efficient way to get your needs met is to convene the group. The problem is that while the leader gets his or her needs met, everyone else at the meeting gets bored.
If everyone attending a meeting could get their needs met, not just the leader, meetings would be better. When it’s your turn to present at an update meeting, start by asking the group, “what are you listening for?” You don’t pitch in baseball without first checking to see what the catcher wants. Similarly, presenters should never pitch ideas without knowing what their audiences want. Don’t guess, ask.
Suppose you are responsible for working with a technology vendor on a project involving a software change that will impact accounting procedures. You have been allotted fifteen minutes on the agenda to update the team. Before giving your update, you say, “Before I begin, what information do you need from me?” Here are some possible responses:
Leader: I need to know if we’re on track with milestones and whether or not you anticipate any budget overruns.
Team member A: I need to know when to schedule training classes for the accounting department.
Team member B: I don’t need to know anything about this part of the project. If you need support, I’d like to know how I can help.
Team member C: I’m curious about your impressions of the vendor. I need a team of developers for a different project
Knowing what people are listening for allows you to tailor your update to the needs of the team. If the meeting is face-to-face, write down what people are listening for on a flip chart or whiteboard and respond to the items one by one. If the meeting is virtual, use the meeting platform’s shared screen to capture the list. Of course you may have important information to share that others won’t know to ask about. You can always add something to list. Most update meetings have nine or fewer participants. If you have a larger group, you may need to have people submit their information needs ahead of the meeting.
Once the idea of presenters responding to what people want to know becomes routine, you won’t even have to ask the question. When transitioning from one topic to the next, participants in the meeting will let the presenter know what they need. The group will understand the expectation that they share responsibility with the presenter for ensuring that only useful information gets exchanged. As a side benefit, people won’t be able to multi-task because they have a role to play even when it’s not their turn to present.
If you want to drive greater accountability, not just greater engagement, you can pair the question, “what are you listening for?” with the question, “what will you do?” at the conclusion of the topic. Before you present, you will know what information people need. After you present everyone will know the action steps people will take with the information you have provided.