Every senior leadership team’s job is to set strategy and drive execution. A lot of things can get in the way. For starters, we assume all members of the team are basically aligned around the strategy because at one point we agreed. We assume that when disagreements arise we have the ability to work through them. When that doesn’t happen, things grind to a halt. We get discouraged. We seem to get along. Why can’t we do this? The fact is there’s more to execution than getting along. We need a process to drive strategic execution.
What Discourages Teams in Driving Execution
Recently, we worked with a team that was in conflict and said they wanted to discuss how to overcome it. We identified an issue that was important to the team, and took them through six steps for making decisions. At the start, almost everyone on the team had reported some level of emotion, ranging from frustrating to hopelessness to resignation. We demonstrated our process for making decisions with them together in real time. This enabled them to stop “admiring the problem” of their “conflict” and pour their energy into getting something done together. The method enabled them to surprise themselves – they made a decision on a major issue in just a couple of hours.
Stop Focusing on Where You Disagree
There’s more to strategic execution than working through our disputes. Wrangling through to a solution isn’t a matter of arm wrestling. Focusing on where we are dissimilar encourages pettiness and bickering. It cements disparate positions and hardens attitudes. In frustration, people then start to propose ideas that meet their interests, disguised as total solutions. The antidote to this may surprise you. A team needs to employ a process that builds on areas of agreement, not disagreement.
Building on agreement may seem crazy at first. How do you get to a decision without acknowledging that we see some of the situation differently? It works is because people are often surprised by how much they agree, and this triggers groups to start looking for the win, win, win. They move away from their declared positions and naturally move into acting as enterprise leaders. At the very least, they acknowledge the duality of their roles as representatives of a business or function as well as stewards of the enterprise.
Six Practices for Working Toward Agreement
Our research and work with teams has shown these six steps greatly enhance the team’s ability to execute strategically. We’ve developed our viewpoint based on our research in communicative leadership and work with senior leaders and teams over several decades.
Practice 1: Clarify the problem
Start by getting absolute clarity about a problem before you to solve for anything. One secret is to identify a broad issue and then narrow the topic to a specific instance. Choose an issue that is important, and possibly urgent, critical to strategic execution. Don’t shy away from the big issues. Then, discuss what is, and is not, in scope before you move to the next step.
Practice 2: Confirm Positions
Individuals or smaller groups with similar interests or needs confirm what they observe, see and believe. They capture this point of view and clarify where they stand and why. In round robin format, each shares their point of view with the rest of the group. Clarifying questions are encouraged, to be sure we all understand one another.
Practice 3: Explore Needs and Interests
This is the time to take note of the views, not only where they diverge, but where they are similar. Constructive back-and-forth discussion certainly can help. Many groups and individuals will discover their needs and interests are more similar than different. It begins the process of crossing those chasms and thinking about what would make for a good solution that meets most needs.
Practice 4: Establish Decision Criteria
This is another counterintuitive step in the process. The team establishes the criteria for the decision. They do this before they brainstorm or put a single solution on paper. Resist the temptation to start listing solutions until you have done this. What do we mean to decision criteria? An example might be feasibility and cost, or ease of implementation and impact. Establishing criteria before you generate ideas is important, or people will fall into proposing ideas that work mostly for them.
Practice 5: Generate Options
Once the criteria are established by the team, team members tend to start throwing out solutions that meet the criteria. This streamlines the conversation as people edit their own ideas and consider the needs of others. It reduces the time spent brainstorming while still allowing for creativity, in a spirit of collaboration. The ultimate goal is to get a list of viable options we can evaluate based on agreed upon decision criteria.
Practice 6: Build Agreement
Through a process of elimination ask the question ‘if we do this can we live with it?’ Continue to mix options until individuals in the group believe the solution is a good one they can live with. Building agreement does not require 100% consensus but rather agreement that we can support the approach.
Too many groups blame their challenges on personal disputes when a process of decision making could break the logjam and drive strategic execution. It is very easy for teams to grow discouraged or give up on being able to resolve issues. That’s why it is so important to use a well-formulated decision process and develop the habit of using it to make decisions. To learn more about how to help your team drive strategic execution, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out our related special report The Future of HR Analytics.
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