The Most Useful Question to Ask if You Expect People to Take Action on a Meeting Agreement, Hint: It’s not, “So… are we agreed?”

Organizations fall into meeting patterns. Leaders often set up and conduct meetings the same way irrespective of the meeting purpose. Getting ready for a status update meeting may not require a lot of forethought. Getting ready for an alignment building meeting on the other hand, requires careful consideration of process, stakeholders and decision-making roles. If you want an agreement, you’ll need to think through how to conclude the meeting in a way that increases the chances people will turn meeting agreements into action.

There are actually two challenges related to a group reaching agreement during a meeting. The first and most obvious challenge has to do with building consensus when people have different perspectives and needs. The second and subtler challenge has to do with interpreting what people mean when they indicate agreement by verbalizing, nodding or not raising an objection. The question referenced in the title of this blog post helps with the second challenge.

Imagine that you have reached the end of a meeting you are leading. You’ve managed to facilitate a productive discussion that has led to alignment on a solution to a problem. You want to confirm that the group has reached an agreement that will result in concerted action. What will you say or ask?

You might be tempted to ask, “Are we agreed?” It seems like a simple way to confirm the group’s conclusion. The most common answer to a meeting leader who asks a group, “Are we agreed?” is silence. Extroverted members of the group may nod or say, “yes,” but you are very unlikely to hear from everyone. For starters, unless the answer is, “no,” no individual can actually answer the question, “Are we agreed?” No individual knows whether or not “we” are in agreement.

Because silence typically greets the question, “Are we agreed?” many teams and organizations have adopted the informal practice of equating silence with agreement; if no one raises an objection, we must be in agreement. Interpreting silence as agreement has always been risky. It can work for some teams and in some cultures. It’s a particularly risky strategy in a virtual meeting setting.

It turns out that the “silence procedure” or “tacit acceptance” procedure has a long history and plays an accepted role in matters of international diplomacy. There is even a Latin phrase for the formal practice of equating silence with agreement: Qui tacet consentire videtur, he who is silent is taken to agree. Both NATO and the European Union use Qui tacet consentire videtur for gaining member acceptance of joint statements and procedural documents.

Asking the group, “Does anyone disagree?” represents an improvement over “Are we agreed?” At least, individual meeting participants can answer the question, “Does anyone disagree?” Interaction Associates uses the term, “Negative Poll” to describe a question framed as an invitation to speak up if you don’t yet agree. Whether or not an individual who disagrees will accept the invitation of a negative poll has a lot to do with the trust and rapport the leader has created.

Whether you use the positive or negative framing of the question, you still have a problem. Let’s say you manage to hear from every person in the meeting. Furthermore you now know that everyone agrees with the proposal or plan under consideration. Here’s what you still don’t know: What does each meeting participant mean when they say, “I agree?”

“Yes, I agree” versus “No, I don’t agree” seems like an unambiguous, black-and-white distinction. When everyone is in the “Yes” column, we should be able to declare victory on the meeting. Consider however, the shades-of-grey intentions that may accompany someone’s assent. A person could indicate that he or she “agrees” and be entertaining any one of the following thoughts:

  • I’ll go along with the majority. I think we are making a mistake, but it’s not that important to me. I hope they’ll remember my warnings when we start running into obstacles and resistance.
  • I think there are better approaches, but this seems workable. I’ll cooperate when we start acting on this agreement, but I won’t volunteer to lead anything.
  • We reached the right conclusion and I’m eager to begin lining up resources and getting people excited. Let’s start assigning next steps.

When you think about it, leaders don’t really need to know whether people are in agreement with a proposal or a plan of action. Leaders need to know whether or not they can count on people taking action or changing behaviors consistent with the conclusion the group reached in the meeting. It’s nice to know you agree, it’s essential to know what action I can count on that will turn the agreement into progress.

Stop asking groups of people whether or not they agree. Start asking each member of the group: “Given the conclusion we’ve reached today, what do you plan to do?” 

 

For a more comprehensive treatment of how to discern what people mean when indicating agreement, have a look at the Interaction Associate’s article, “How Much Yes Do You Need?”

Organizational Quicksand, Part 2: Getting Unstuck

Last week’s blog post introduced differences in the way organizations turn thinking into action. I organized the distinctions by contrasting two attributes of an organization’s culture: The organization’s tolerance for ambiguity and the organization’s preferred influence style. In this post, I want to flesh out the distinctions a bit more and then consider how becoming attentive to your preferred mode of turning thinking into action can help you get unstuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “operate” mode. Operate mode moves to action quickly and discussions often feel like competitive sales pitches. Operate mode eschews process and structure. Rule following is seen as time consuming. Operate mode has a bias for trusting the judgment of a passionate, forceful leader who will bend the future to his or her will. Operate mode sees little value in taking the time to build consensus through processes that tap into the organization’s collective wisdom. When in operate mode, introducing nuanced distinctions among options will be judged as unproductive “navel gazing.”

Operate mode serves an organization well when it produces something customer’s value. As long as there is a market for an operate mode organization’s products and services, moving fast and selling hard works. When the value proposition changes because customers’ needs have evolved, operate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a low tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “regulate” mode. Regulate mode is methodical and consistent. Discussions in regulate mode feel formal and predictable. Regulate mode places a high premium on years of experience in the company. If a process or methodology doesn’t dictate how best to handle a situation, the organization will follow a leader who has dealt with the situation in the past. In regulate mode, people want information before they act. In regulate mode, influence takes the form of presentations with a lot of detail about what is happening and how it will happen. New ideas don’t get surfaced casually when in regulate mode. One needs to prepare carefully before suggesting something new, provide evidence that the idea is workable and a business case that demonstrates the idea is worthwhile.

Regulate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition includes risk mitigation. As long as a regulate mode business is seen as a trustworthy option, customers will pay a premium for its products and services. When innovations provide customers with faster or cheaper yet equally good alternatives, regulate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by a high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by persuasion, I call “debate” mode. In debate mode, skill, expertise and intellect are highly valued. Discussions in debate mode feel stimulating to those who want a rigorous exploration of a topic. Taking action in debate mode feels less important than considering every angle. Authority in debate mode is correlated with expertise. Debate mode embraces ambiguity because it allows every situation to be analyzed and litigated anew.

Debate mode serves an organization well when the customer value proposition is based on superior product quality or service excellence. As long as minor adjustments or extensions to existing products and services continue to be seen as valuable, there will be customers for debate mode businesses. When new market needs require agile responses, debate mode can get an organization stuck.

The mode of turning thinking into action characterized by high tolerance for ambiguity and a preference for influence by alignment, I call “relate” mode. In relate mode, collaboration is highly valued. Discussions are characterized by a desire for shared understanding; leaders seek alternative points of view and include people with diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Opportunities to act emerge when something looks interesting. In relate mode, people put their trust in their colleagues’ ability to marshal resources to get the job done. Because relate mode requires empathy and curiosity, relate mode organizations have long standing affiliations with customers, clients and other strategic partners along their supply chain.

Relate mode serves an organization well when customer loyalty is paramount. As long as customers and business partners value their relationship with the organization, the relate mode business will be presented with new opportunities. When customers and business partners retire, change jobs or otherwise reorient their priorities, relate mode can get an organization stuck.

When your thinking to action mode becomes a trap

Like many overused skills, your organization’s default thinking to action mode can turn counterproductive when you fail to notice that the usual response to challenging situations fails to make things better. For example, if you prefer to work in operate mode and your customers have become disenchanted with your offer, thinking up new ways to persuade your customer to make a purchase signifies being caught in a thinking to action trap.

The Unstuck Minds Compass™ is comprised of four strategies for changing the way you think with others about persistent problem or daunting opportunities. The strategies introduce questions about your situation that you may neglect to ask if you have been trapped by your preferred mode.

  1. Contextual inquiry helps a stuck team zoom out by introducing questions about what is changing in the environment.
  2. Critical inquiry helps a stuck team zoom in by introducing questions about interrelationships within an organizational system.
  3. Collaborative inquiry helps a stuck team by directing their attention to informal social networks and the thoughts and feelings of diverse stakeholders.
  4. Creative inquiry helps a stuck team by questioning assumptions and focusing attention on insights about unmet needs.

Each strategy provides a helping hand when you notice that the usual mode of turning thinking into action has started to feel like being mired in quicksand.

For organizations stuck in operate mode, collaborative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing missing perspectives. To get unstuck, operate mode leaders will have to learn how to be influenced by what they hear when talking with stakeholders and they will need to develop the capacity to remain open to additional input even if it means postponing action.

For organizations stuck in regulate mode, creative inquiry comes to the rescue by providing novel options. To get unstuck, regulate mode leaders will have to get comfortable letting go of the need to see a business case for every idea someone wants to raise. Regulate mode teams will need to spend time openly questioning the assumptions behind existing routines and methods.

For organizations stuck in debate mode, contextual inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to prioritize the big picture over getting all the details right. To get unstuck, debate mode stakeholders will have to learn how to question whether settling a point of contention or getting additional input will make a meaningful difference in terms of choosing a course of action.

For organizations stuck in relate mode, critical inquiry comes to the rescue by providing a way to set standards for objectively evaluating opportunities. To get unstuck, relate mode teams will have to learn how to say, “no” even when something looks interesting. To get unstuck, relate mode leaders need to analyze options to determine what makes the most sense for the future and then invest in executing on the strategy better than anyone else.

Love Encounters Suffering: Questions for being with

The shocking deaths by suicide this week (two celebrities among the estimated 860 deaths by suicide every week in the U.S.) bring to mind Martin Buber’s powerful distinction between “experiencing” the world (the mode of I-it) and “encountering” the world (the mode of I-Thou). In the “I-it” mode, we are separate from what we experience, we operate in the realm of analyzing and judging. As a result, we inadvertently establish boundaries that separate ourselves from others. From an “I-it” frame of reference, we unconsciously presume that there is always a ‘thinker’ independent from the ‘thought of.’

 In the mode of “I-Thou,” we encounter the world by entering into relationship. We recognize the illusion of separateness; the word “other” loses its meaning. I, and that which I encounter, each become transformed through participation and relationship.

 The purpose of Unstuck Minds is to help people ask better questions so things can change. What I am learning this week, is the strength of my bias for asking questions that parse and separate. One can recognize and avoid thinking traps through questions that create useful distinctions. One can also recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking questions that remove the distinctions, which isolate and divide us.

 My daughter Bekah has spent several years learning, writing and speaking out about social anxiety, depression and suicide. I’ve invited Bekah to share her thoughts and questions. Questions that help us listen in the I-Thou mode. Ways of listening that help us understand the alchemy when love encounters suffering.

Seeing people around us suffering brings a response of uncertainty. Often, we choose to stay silent to avoid saying the wrong thing or making matters worse, but asking simple questions can foster meaningful connection in our relationships and within our communities. The power of asking questions and listening is often under-appreciated, but it is what I believe will create real change in our world.

Everyone you encounter is different, every situation is different and every story is different, but I would like to share the power of some general questions one can use to send the message of love and care.

  • How are you *really* doing? We ask people every day how they are doing, but unfortunately it has become a longer way to just say “hello.” Taking this question back to its original meaning to stop and allow someone to honestly answer is powerful.
  • What can I do to best support you? Another open ended question. This question gives insight to whether or not your goals are aligned with the person you are talking to. It is also a way for people to communicate their needs with you.
  • Have you ever felt this way? (With the follow up, what has seemed to help you in the past when things feel this way? This question gives empowerment and focuses on strength allowing someone to be reminded of all of the pain they have gotten through in the past while giving them the power to think of their own ideas.
  • You haven’t been yourself lately (give specific observations, you’ve been quieter than usual, you haven’t been eating as much, you’ve been sleeping a lot, etc.) How are you? Giving someone those observations shows that you see them, you’re paying attention and you care. Again, asking them how they are opens the door for an honest conversation.
  • Sometimes when people are feeling this way they have thoughts of ending their life. Are you having thoughts of suicide? This question can be daunting to ask, but it is so powerful. It allows you to understand their current crisis further while also sharing the message that you are comfortable talking about suicide. Asking this question does not put the idea in someone’s head and it can be life saving.

Reaching out to someone can be terrifying, but the most important thing is to show that you care and are willing to sit in that pain with them and listen. Follow their lead and allow them to drive the car. Our job is to simply be in the car with them helping to guide the way because we all need a passenger in our car sometimes.

For more information about how to help or to find support check out The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Bekah Cone is a Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience major at the University of Michigan and a counselor with the Crisis Text Line. She is currently on sabbatical from her Second City Improv Troupe, A Bunch of Ringos.

The Most Important Skill for Leaders Heading into an Uncertain Future

I’ve just returned from a week in Frankfurt Germany. While there, I co-facilitated a strategic leadership workshop for a group of executives at a global technology company with my friend and colleague Nick Noyes. Nick is a partner and co-founder of Insight Experience, the company that designed the business simulation we use in the program.

Nick and I work together a few times a year and I can always count on learning something new when he’s leading the participants through a debrief of the simulation results. In recent years, Nick has been passing along a concept he learned from the business school professor and consultant, Roch Parayre called, “robust capabilities.” For Parayre, a robust capability describes an organizational capability that can be used in a variety of situations. Irrespective of how things change, a robust capability will be useful.

You could argue that learning to play the piano and read music is a robust capability that prepares you for a variety of musical pursuits. Learning to play the banjo limits your options (Is it just me or does anyone else hear their mother saying, “I told you so!”)

Parayre has devoted much of his scholarship and practice to the art and science of strategic decision-making. He is particularly interested in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Parayre argues that many of the decision-making tools used by today’s business leaders work best when conditions outside of an organization’s control remain relatively stable. For example, using net present value calculations to help make capital investment decisions assumes that the values we assign to alternatives won’t be affected by disruptive technologies, government regulations or unexpected competition.

In a world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change we should be suspicious of what we accept as immutable knowledge and expertise. Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” To be a learner is to be skilled at asking questions.

I would argue that the skill of asking better questions is the most robust capability to be developed for leaders hoping to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future.

Let’s say an organization’s leaders are faced with a decision about which human resource information system to purchase. Consider the difference between the questions we have been trained to ask and questions that might help us reduce the risk of missing something important:

Questions from leaders who assume the future will resemble the present

·    What will be the impacts of each system on productivity?

·    Which system includes better implementation support and more responsive service when things go wrong?

·    What are the costs and timelines associated with the change management required to implement the system?

What leaders trained to ask better questions also want to know

·    Which processes should we stop doing before automation makes them harder to discontinue?

·    How will automating our HR systems impact existing social networks? In other words, what benefits of inefficiency will we be losing?

·    How might we design a low-risk experiment to help us better anticipate the impacts of committing to a full systems implementation?

The saying goes at Interaction Associates that when feeling trapped by the uncertainty of a strategic moment, “It’s not knowing what to do that counts. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” When feeling stuck for an answer because things have changed, the ability to formulate a better question will serve you better than revising the way you answer the wrong question.