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Leading a Group Through Difficulty to True Problem-Solving

In this era where information is at our fingertips and seemingly flowing at the speed of light, it has become common for governments and businesses to approach decision-making with the same speed. Our push towards the use of data and artificial intelligence pushes us even further in the direction of making decisions quickly. We forget that we have to overcome the cognitive bias that is all too common with humans. We fall into the zone of familiar opinions. The resulting agreement or decision fails to become sustainable.

Have you ever reached an agreement with a group only to have it fall apart later?

In Forbe’s article “The Four Most Effective Ways Leaders Solve Problems,” Greg Llopis notes the shortcuts we often take to avoid tension and conflict. He says, “Problems keep mounting so fast that we find ourselves taking short-cuts to temporarily alleviate the tension points – so we can move onto the next problem.” When we shortcut the process of resolving disagreements to create shared understanding, we end up with solutions that set up win-lose scenarios. Opportunities for one group can breed resentment for another group.  And further compromise leads to even more win-lose scenarios.

How do you get out of the downward spiral of win-lose scenarios?

First, we must recognize when we are at risk for future failure. Simple decisions made by a small team of experts with deep knowledge of the subject can usually be made quickly. However, as the complexity of the issue increases and the perspectives of key stakeholders widens, it becomes imperative that we slow down and put more effort into crafting a sustainable agreement.

In Sam Kaner’s classic guide on team facilitation, he defines a sustainable agreement as “…a solution that can be effectively implemented and supported by key stakeholders.” He also says that forcing groups to choose between set options prevents us from “…finding an inclusive solution – one that encompasses everyone’s perspectives.”

If you have had to deal with a group decision involving a complex problem with a diverse group or team, then you understand that reaching a sustainable agreement is not an easy task. These 10 problems commonly emerge as obstacles:

  1. Failing to have a clear process or strategy with written objectives.
  2. Influencers using their authority and a unilateral approach to overwhelm the team.
  3. Group participants who are allowed to dominate the discussions with their opinions.
  4. Group participants who remain silent until after the meeting.
  5. Opinions go unchallenged and are allowed to stand as “fact” in the absence of supporting evidence.
  6. Failure to use a structured problem-solving process so that prevailing opinions become the default decision.
  7. More vocal group participants “speak for” others without their consent.
  8. Allowing open ridicule or belittling of other’s opinions, values, or beliefs.
  9. Allowing tangents and unfocused discussions to sidetrack the agenda.
  10. Allowing group participants to engage in personal conflict during meetings.

As mentioned in my previous post where I discussed the “groan zone,” you must have a structured process and clear objectives to avoid most of these traps.  And as mentioned in my last post, you must structure your meetings to gain the engagement of everyone – regardless of their rank, personality, or style. If you followed the process I outlined, you will likely end up with a wide and diverse set of perspectives. But failure to allow your group to “groan” will lead to the win-lose scenarios that ultimately fail to meet the needs of key stakeholders.

Effectiveness versus expedience

In order to craft a sustainable agreement, you will need to value effectiveness over expedience. If you are leading the team, I recommend that you use some of the strategies that I listed in my posts “3 Ways Leaders Can Create a Seriously Engaged Team” and “How to Promote Collaboration with Your Team.”

Leading your group through the groan zone will require you to focus on one objective: creating a shared understanding. Shared understanding is reached when:

  • Group participants have a clear understanding of the problem
  • Everyone has shared their opinion/perspective
  • Everyone can explain the reasoning behind the decision that was made

Meeting these three criteria does not automatically mean that you have reached a sustainable agreement.  However, you are more likely to have reached one if you see all of these emerge among the majority of the group.

How do you navigate the team to a sustainable agreement?

I have developed what I call the SQUID method. It is an easy way to remember the five major components of guiding a team in crafting a sustainable agreement.

Say It/See It. Structure meeting activities that will encourage everyone to talk and will also help the group record their thinking. Breakout discussions and report outs can get everyone engaged in talking about the issue. And any activity that will make information visible can help the group literally see the problem from various perspectives.  I call it creating “artifacts.” Artifacts are anything prepared or created inside of the meeting that can be seen by viewed by the entire group. This includes presentations, spreadsheets, flipcharts, and sticky notes.

Questions. Encouraging group members to ask more questions helps engage everyone’s thinking. Asking questions can promote curiosity. And curiosity will promote people to interrogate their own thinking as well as draw other group participants into sharing their perspectives. If you are leading the group discussion, creating a list of “seed” questions to ask will provide a great example for group participants.

Understanding. Remember that the overall goal is to create a shared understanding among group participants. The goal is to move each person’s understanding of the problem, objective, and potential solutions closer together. Having people share their perspectives is not the same as people understanding each other’s perspectives. It is not about agreeing. It is more about, “I see where you are coming from.”

Interest. Increasing each member’s interest in solving the problem is a key way to get engagement. People will not put forth the effort to think deeply about a problem that does not resonate deeply with them. Each member must have a high level of interest in solving the problem. Each group participant should know “what the problem means to me.” Make sure you are introducing the problem with relevant messaging that clearly ties the pain to “WIIFM” (what’s in it for me?).

Data. No problem can be thoroughly understood without supporting data. My career as a chemist taught me, “Always bring data.” Using the data to inform group decisions will help you steer clear of the bias that typically emerges when issues are discussed. Getting out of the zone of opinion and into the zone of “facts” pushes the team to think more objectively. Arm yourself with data, case studies, and a list of subject matter experts willing to talk to the group.

If you are successful in getting the group through the “groan zone,” then you are ready to craft a sustainable agreement. You will see group participants who are focused, eager, and confident of the overall direction and supportive of the final decision. Your group participants now become champions of the agreement and influencers to key stakeholders.

How can SQUID help you with your current or future initiatives?

Rebecca Mott is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a self-proclaimed change agent and continuous improvement leader with over 20 years of utility industry experience leading technical teams to solve problems. She currently coaches leaders and teams to apply Lean Six Sigma methodologies and engage by focusing on the power of “we.”

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