Less Conversation, More Perspective

Author: Cherie Wilkins

This week my husband is spending his evening hours reading a book he was assigned as a part of a special management development program that his company placed him in. I recognized the book title from a recent client organization. They had also developed a workshop based on the book and it was one of the few offerings that they had in their management development program. It was also mandatory for every manager. Even the head of HR had to go to the workshop. One of my clients was in attendance with the HR manager. He reported that HR manager was not impressed. Neither was my client.

I asked my husband what he thought of the book. He said there were a few useful nuggets in there. When I probed further, he told me that the nuggets were guidance on how to have problem solving conversations with colleagues, when they get defensive, when they don’t agree there is a problem, when you don’t agree on a solution. The guidance was all about behaviors to practice or to avoid. It’s the tactical approach to facilitation at work.

I thought about what I and my colleagues do when we need to facilitate these kinds of meetings with clients. Trust me, we have experienced many a room full of clients who don’t agree on the problem, the solution and are all in their best defensive postures. We have a track record of getting our client teams to very successful outcomes – agreement on the problem, the solution and the implementation plan for the solution. And yes, we are all pretty good at facilitating, but our facilitation tactics are not the essential key to our success in these meetings.

The real key to our success is that we are able to bring these clients a new perspective on what is going on. We use our tools and models to show them their organization (and how it is really working) in a way that they have never experienced it before. We model the situation. Then the conversation becomes about the model, the insights gained on how things are working and could or should be working, and the logic of one solution vs. another as demonstrated/tested against the model.  Amazing things happen when the focus is turned away from individuals and towards an objective object such as a process map, a function relationship map, a model of the market and business environment. Defensiveness drops or goes away, engagement goes up, dots are connected and new possibilities for solutions appear.  The most significant insight that all of our clients get is that there is a system of variables at play in any performance issue, and it takes a systemic solution to address the issue. There is no one person who is to blame for the problem, nor one person who can solve it, no matter their behaviors. 

This points to one of the shortcomings of training programs that focus solely or primarily on behavioral tactics; they sometimes fail to address how to create the context for objective discussion in the first place.  My husband, who has access to a free consultant whether he wants one or not, understands how to use models to create a shared, objective, impartial understanding of the situation at hand, which becomes a framework for objective discussion. He’s able to find “useful nuggets” in a list of tactics, because he’s got a framework in which he can apply them.  For others, however, the tactics are of marginal utility; it’s a case of putting the horse before the cart.

This is why our first focus when working with a team is not to give them behavioral strategies, but instead to equip them with a shared model (or set of models) of the organization that helps them understand the variables that impact performance.  In organizations where we have been able to give managers such models, we have seen much better problem diagnoses and better decision making. Furthermore, they have been able to model and predict outcomes of actions before they take them. These models are often part of what we call a “management playbook”.  They are specific to that organization (not a generic model). The other parts of the playbook include management roles and responsibilities, metrics to be monitored and corrective actions to take.  That’s what we would put in any management development program.  

With a shared understanding in place, supported by such a playbook, difficult conversations become easier, and managers are more likely to work across organizational lines in the first place as opposed to retreating to defensive positions.  Behavioral tactics become something to be employed in rare cases, rather than as a first line of defense.